If you're like most Americans, you know that exercise is good for you, yet you can't seem to get moving.
Only one in four adults gets the recommended 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. Public health experts say this modest amount of exercise can reduce the risk of numerous diseases--including heart disease, type II diabetes, hypertension and some cancers--as well as enhance mental health and physical functioning.
"I don't have time" is the explanation people generally offer when asked why they don't exercise. But in a society where adults watch an average of four hours of television a day, it's clear that, for most people, "no time" isn't the real reason.
"Lack of time is one of the biggest lies we perpetrate on ourselves," says Steven T. Head, a holistic health educator with Sports Therapy Services in McLean, Va. "We seem to find time for things that are important to us, no matter how busy we are."
Scratch this easy excuse, say Head and other fitness experts, and you're likely to find some deeper issues at the heart of inactivity.
Here are six of the most common, often unacknowledged, reasons why people won't start or stay with an exercise program--plus some solutions to help you break through these barriers.
Intimidation: "For many people, exercise becomes equated with a 'failing grade' socially and for some, even morally," says Peg Jordan, spokeswoman for the Aerobics and Fitness Assn. of America, based in Sherman Oaks. Jordan interviewed 1,880 people about fitness motivation and discovered that more than 80% saw exercise as "too scientific, too complicated . . . so that beginners risked exposing their incompetence and ineptitude."
Impatience: "People want a quick fix," says Susan Kalish, executive director of the American Medical Athletic Assn. in Bethesda, Md. "Even though it took them 30 years to get out of shape, when they don't get fit overnight, they blame their genes."
Exercise Resistance: Painful experiences associated with exercise, ranging from humiliation to sexual abuse, can prompt some people to resist physical activity, says Francie White, a registered dietitian and expert on eating and body-image problems. White, who is based in Santa Ynez, Calif., coined the term "exercise resistance" to describe this emotionally charged condition, which in women is frequently associated with aversion to the attention that can come from having an attractive body.
In men, exercise resistance is often linked to feelings of inadequacy about their athletic performance.
Unrealistic Expectations: "People who exercise in search of the perfect body are doomed to failure," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale University Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "But if they're looking to become healthier, happier, more energetic and better able to function . . . then exercise can deliver."
Denial: "Many people are in denial that health problems could happen to them," says Carol Kleinman, a psychiatrist in Chevy Chase, Md. "Then, when they have a heart attack or physical problem, all of a sudden they have the motivation to reorder their priorities to exercise."
Irrelevance: "With today's technology, it's no longer necessary to move to exist," says Pam Peeke, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Exercise doesn't add to people's income, and many people consider it another chore to add to a time-starved life."
Yet physical movement is essential to health, especially in handling stress, says Peeke, whose book, "Fight Fat After Forty," contends that sedentary living turns our natural "fight or flight" response into an obesity-promoting "stew and chew."
"We must make a deliberate, planned effort to exercise," says Peeke. "This can be a challenge."
The key to becoming a regular exerciser is to stop focusing on outcomes--such as losing a certain number of pounds or developing "six pack" abs, says Jay Kimiecik, a professor of exercise motivation at Miami University in Ohio.
"The root of change comes from within," says Kimiecik, who advises working from the "inside out" to develop positive feelings about physical activity.
"People who exercise regularly will tell you that they do it because they like the good feelings it gives them," he notes. "Exercise can help people get into an optimal psychological state of mind called 'flow' that feels so nice they'll figure out ways to overcome lots of obstacles to feel that way again."
All humans--even those who are inactive--have a built-in desire to move, Kimiecik says.
Although this inherent instinct may have been squashed by embarrassment, intimidation or other internal barriers, it's possible to recapture the joy of movement and the resulting health benefits. Try to:
* Pick an activity you enjoy or have enjoyed in the past (such as walking, dancing, cycling, swimming, gardening or skating) and make a commitment to doing it regularly.