"Just try a little, otherwise how do you know you won't like it?"
"I have tried and I hate it."
"But you haven't tried it for a long time and maybe this time you will like it."
"No, you are not going to get me to change my mind."
This conversation, between a friend and me, was about tasting sushi but it could as well been about going to the gym. There are many people whose antipathy to exercise is as deep as my friend's is to eating sushi. They would rather eat nothing but a vitamin pill and cabbage juice for a week than go into a gym and walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes. Exercise is as remote an activity to them as playing a flute to charm a snake out of a basket. For those of us who depend on a frequent dose of exercise to maintain our energy and mood, their stubborn refusal to consider any form of physical activity seems irrational.
But I became quite empathetic with their emotional aversion to exercise when at the gym I picked up a magazine devoted to rock climbing. The magazine was filled with pictures of climbers clinging to a mountain wall with their fingertips and toes hundreds of feet above the ground. My fear of heights made my palms sweat and heart race just imagining what it must be like to be perched on a rock face with nothing to hold me up. "You would never catch me climbing a mountain with my toes and fingers jammed into nearly invisible cracks in the rocks," I thought. And yet here was a magazine devoted to those who did this regularly. My phobia was their passion.
Obviously, I don't have to overcome my phobia of rock climbing in order to improve my physical and mental well being through exercise. (Indeed, the sport seemed to have more than its fair share of fatalities.) But I realized that many people, including several at my weight-loss clinics who refuse to be cajoled into physical activity, may be responding to their own exercise phobia.
Telling people with an exercise phobia to engage in routine physical activity is about as effective as telling my friend to taste sushi. They won't. My weight-loss clients give reasonable excuses as to why exercising is incompatible with their life, but after I spend hours talking with them about how they could fit some exercise into their routines, they still won't do it. Often their reasons for avoidance are as complex or hard to overcome as their reasons for overeating:
1. Embarrassment. One client refused to walk around her neighborhood because she thought people would laugh at the way she looked. Many people refuse to go into a gym for the same reason.
2. Fear of looking stupid in an exercise class. This is a problem in gyms with dedicated class attendees who seem to know every move or yoga position (and everyone else in the class). For some it feels like starting school a month after everyone else.
3. Inability to figure out how to work exercise machines or even which way to sit on some weight machines. Unless health clubs have trainers to help newcomers, simply starting a treadmill without falling off can feel daunting.
4. Excessive sweating and redness. Routine exercisers take for granted that they will look disgusting after a hard workout, but newcomers may feel everyone is staring at their dripping and flushed faces.
5. Belief they will fail. A newcomer to a gym or even a walking group feels hopelessly inadequate surrounded by people who have been exercising for years. A friend who started cycling as her exercise routine and joined a weekend cycling group was literally left in the dust 30 seconds after the group ride began. "I never saw them again," she told me. "They probably rode 20 miles before I had my shoes in the toe clips."
6. Memories of exercise used as punishment. A client whose father was an amateur soccer coach used to make her and her siblings run laps around the school track if they did something wrong.
7. Being teased, or worse, when failing at a team sport when young. Anyone who has been picked last for a team at school or summer camp may carry this stigma into adulthood.
8. Being labeled clumsy, slow, or uncoordinated when young. The belief that one is simply incapable of doing physical activity is hard to overcome. I know someone who still has trouble identifying her right or left foot when in yoga class and who has felt humiliated when the teacher spends five minutes adjusting her position.
Overcoming these obstacles to exercise often requires dealing with the head as much as the muscles. When there are psychological reasons for exercise avoidance, help must come from someone trained to deal with emotional, and not exercise, issues. As someone who is totally tone deaf, I once was able to go to an adult education class for people who wanted to sing but couldn't. We sounded awful but had fun. Just as important, the exercise phobics need places where they can work out without embarrassment or feel self-conscious or inadequate. One doesn't throw a beginning violinist into the string section of an orchestra.
Health Clubs should have classes for the novice exerciser and special classes for the coordinated-impaired so that people who can't stand on one foot or having trouble doing sit-ups on a large ball do not feel conspicuous. There should be cycling groups that go slowly enough to enjoy the scenery and tennis games where who wins the game is less important than running around trying to hit the ball. Manufacturers of workout clothes should develop styles which allow those who are not a perfect size 4 to look alright in the gym or when walking around the neighborhood. And rock climbing walls should have a section that is only a few inches above the ground -- then I would try it.
Follow Judith J. Wurtman, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stopmed_wt_gain