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Breaking Down the Barriers to Exercising

We all pretty much know that exercise and physical activity are good for us. We know we should be doing around 30 minutes a day of moderate-intense activity 5 days a week. We know the vast array of benefits, from stress reduction to heart and bone health to boosting the immune system and reduced risk of cancer recurrence, and so on and so on. We get it. There’s tons of evidence.

Sometimes, all those benefits are hard to keep in focus when you are tired or stressed out, or there just isn’t time. Maybe there’s no room in the budget for a gym membership. Maybe you like exercising outside and it’s freezing cold or way too hot to go out. These are all legitimate reasons not to exercise, but they do not have to be the end all. Try seeing them as speed bumps that need negotiating.


Common Barriers

Below, we collected a few common barriers to exercise and offer suggestions for how to overcome them. Read with an open mind.


  1. I can’t motivate myself – Share your exercise goals to friends and family and ask them to support and encourage you. Just voicing your goals will motivate you. Better still, find a friend to exercise with; you can motivate each other and turn your workouts into a social event. Make sure to set clear and realistic goals so that you are more likely to stick with them. And, you guessed it, there’s an app for that! Several motivational apps are available and can be used individually or linked with a friend for added encouragement and refereeing. Some go the extra step and use a little fun monetary incentive (or penalty, depending on how you see it). Check out this article on building motivation and achieving goals to see if one of the suggested apps could be for you [i].
  2. I’m worried about getting hurt – Choose low-risk activities, such as walking or chair-bound exercises, and warm-up and cool-down correctly to avoid muscle strains and other injuries. (Check out our blog posts on walking and chair-based exercise for information and inspiration) [ii].
  3. I’m feeling self-conscious – Exercise doesn’t have to mean working out in a crowded gym. You can try exercising early in the morning to avoid the crowds, or skip the gym altogether and work out at home. There are a wide variety of home-based exercise videos online that offer privacy and are inexpensive (if not free!). If you can afford it, a personal trainer will come to your home or workout with you at a private studio. Walking, swimming, or exercising in a class with others who have similar physical limitations can make you feel less self-conscious.
  4. I’m just not athletic – Choose exercise that requires little or no skill, such as walking, cycling on a stationary bike, chair-based exercises, or aqua-jogging (running in a swimming pool)
  5. I don’t have time – The truth is, we make time for the things that matter to us the most. Try this two-week experiment: every night, write down your next day’s schedule. Study it and see where you can squeeze in a 30-minute walk or home-based exercise each day. Schedule that time slot for exercising and treat it like you would any other appointment or meeting – stick with it. If you do have to “cancel”, make sure to re-schedule the next day. And remember, exercise is cumulative so you can break up your walks into (3) 10-minute or (2) 15-minute stints throughout the day and receive the same benefits. (Added bonus, breaking up your exercise time throughout the day helps to decrease prolonged sedentary time, which has been shown to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) [iii].
  6. Exercise is boring – But video games are fun. If traditional exercise is not for you, try playing activity-based video games, known as “exergames”. Games that simulate bowling, tennis, or boxing, for example, can all be played seated in a chair or wheelchair and are fun ways to burn calories and elevate your heart rate, either alone or playing along with friends. You can also try something new like a dance class.


Find your barrier to exercise and address it head on – you may surprise yourself. Although you should aim for more over less, do not worry about having a perfect track record; it is not all or nothing. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to move.

Be sure to speak with your physician and heath care team before starting any new exercise regimen or making changes to your current routine.


[i] Aschwanden, C. Positive thinking isn’t all powerful.  Penalty for failure may help more in reaching goals. 2015. The Washington Post. Accessed at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/positive-thinking-isnt-all-powerful-penalty-for-failure-may-help-more-in-reaching-goals/2015/02/06/f0897fa2-ab09-11e4-abe8-e1ef60ca26de_story.html
[ii] Chair exercises and limited mobility fitness. Helpguide.org. 2015. Accessed at: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/exercise-fitness/chair-exercises-and-limited-mobility-fitness.htm.
[iii] Owen, N. (2012). Sedentary behavior: understanding and influencing adults’ prolonged sitting time. Preventative Medicine, 55, 535-539. Doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2012.08.024
Liv Lee, MS, RDN

Liv Lee has a Masters degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Teachers College, Columbia University and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

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