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Why People Stop Exercising (and How You Can Get Them Restarted)

by Dr. Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM

Ever go to a fitness facility in January and then back in April?  The difference in the number of people working out is tremendously fewer, even just a few months after most of them were all gung-ho about getting into shape in the new year. Why does this happen?

The most common reasons why people start and stop an exercise program are well documented: 1) a perceived lack of time, 2) exercise-related injuries, and 3) exercise is not fun (which often is due to starting at an exercise intensity that is too high for their fitness level). Lack of time (perceived or real) is likely the biggest stumbling block for people trying to adopt a new exercise regimen. People can overcome this barrier by deciding to stop thinking of exercise as a planned activity and instead try to move more throughout the day. You’ll be amazed at how much more active you and others will become and how little time you have to sacrifice to do it. Any movement people do increases the amount of energy that they expend in a day as well.

In fact, for most people, the majority of their calorie use during the day comes from unstructured activities rather than from a formal exercise plan. Just standing up for two hours a day more can expend upwards of 350 calories daily and may be the difference between remaining lean and gaining excess body weight.

To avoid becoming demotivated to exercise, try these strategies:

  • Fit exercise in whenever you can, even if it’s just for 10 minutes at a time.
  • Schedule exercise time into your daily lives (and keep to that schedule).
  • Avoid getting injured by starting out at an appropriate exercise level (not too long or hard) and progressing slowly.
  • Include stretching to help prevent injuries and balance exercises to prevent falls.
  • Pick activities that you actually enjoy doing (like dancing) and do those to stay more engaged and motivated to be active.
  • Keep your body in motion all day long in any way possible.

Barriers have also been shown to greatly reduce exercise participation, and a great number of potential barriers exist, including obesity. The majority of American adults with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes do not engage in regular physical activity, and their rate of participation is significantly below national norms. People with type 1 diabetes also exercise less than others, likely due to issues related to managing their diabetes when active. You may need additional strategies to increase adoption and maintenance of physical activity in that case.

Try some of these strategies to overcome barriers to being active as well:

  • Efforts to promote physical activity should focus on becoming more capable of exercising independently while gaining social support from family, friends, and healthcare and fitness professionals for being active.
  • Starting out with mild or moderate activities (rather than intense training) is helpful to promote the adoption and maintenance of regular exercise participation, especially in deconditioned people with diabetes.
  • In individuals with type 1 diabetes or type 2 who use insulin, it’s important to reduce the risk of hypoglycemia to moderate the fear of such events.
  • A consistent predictor of greater levels of physical activity is higher levels of self-efficacy, which reflect confidence in the ability to exercise.
  • Self-efficacy, enjoyment, lack of perceived barriers, positive beliefs, support from others, and cultural beliefs and practices all affect exercise participation.
  • When planning to increase physical activity participation by overcoming potential obstacles or problems, set realistic and practical exercise and weight goals.
  • Involve friends, family, and other social support systems to promote adoption of behavior change.
  • Some individuals with diabetes may benefit from participating in supervised exercise training, particularly when starting a new program.
  • Take cultural practices and beliefs into account when choosing training programs.
  • Address issues with exercise readiness to tailor exercise interventions in individuals with diabetes and body weight issues.
  • Use motivational interviewing with individuals to help increase their readiness to make positive behavior changes related to physical activity.

As a leading expert on diabetes and exercise, I recently put my extensive knowledge to use in founding a new information web site called Diabetes Motion (www.diabetesmotion.com), the mission of which is to provide practical guidance about blood glucose management to anyone who wants or needs to be active with diabetes as an added variable. Please visit that site and my own (www.shericolberg.com) for more useful information about being active with diabetes.