01/03/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Get Thee to the Gym!

I was walking passed the window of a furniture store today, and my eye was drawn to a pillow sitting on a modernistic-looking recliner. Although the chair looked very comfortable, according to the message on the pillow, it was not to be sat on. The pillow read: Get to the Gym.

Maybe that is what it will take to start the exercise-averse moving again? Perhaps sofa and chair manufacturers will put alarms in the seat that go off when one's bottom is compressing the surface of the cushion for more than an hour. The alarm will be a signal to get up and move, something by the way, my physical therapist told me to do in order to minimize a recurrence of back pain I had a few years back.

This time of year, as every year, exercise equipment and devices to measure activity are promoted as gifts, although I suspect they are about as welcome to the chronic couch potato as a set of expensive knives are to someone who never cooks. Have you noticed that people seem divided into those who do and those who don't exercise? This division is not necessarily along weight lines, because there are many thin people who would rather have root canal than get on a treadmill and lots of obese folk who exercise consistently. A considerably-overweight woman usually sits next to me on the exercise bike in my gym and outdoes me by miles. And then, when I stagger off to the locker room, she spends another hour lifting weights.

But before I continue, understand that this is not really another plea to join a gym. Indeed, the expense, coupled with the inconvenience of having to go "somewhere" to exercise, and for some, the alien nature of a large room with people sweating and grunting on machines, is off-putting. So if the gym is not where you want to exercise, consider other options: exercise equipment at home, community center exercise classes, facilities devoted to yoga and/or pilates, "meet up" groups who hike, bike or play competitive sports together, and parent-toddler exercise classes. But of course, like an antibiotic for a strep throat, all these options will not work unless you take them.

What will it take to get a non-exerciser to convert to the exercise committed? Waiting until some scary medical event takes place? The perception that climbing stairs or even climbing out of a chair is difficult? Being mistaken for someone much older? Learning that health clubs are a great way to meet people? A gift of a treadmill? Reading about a formerly-obese individual who just completed his first marathon? Certainly the thousands of articles, like this one, usually convince only the convinced.

It may turn out that the non-exerciser becomes dedicated to routine physical activity simply because it feels good to do so. Anyone who does exercise on a regular basis knows the feeling. The increase in energy, both mental and physical, the release of tension, increase in muscle flexibility, the sense of well-being is dramatic. This won't happen immediately and may not occur during the exercise session itself, but rather after it is over. But it does happen, and the corollary is also true. Stop exercising for a while and the energy decreases, stress and tension increase and the brain seems a bit foggy.

But exercise is not a magic pill. It does not bring about these benefits immediately. At first, you may feel only annoyance at having to do something you don't want to do, and pain because your muscles would rather be inert than working hard. Several weeks of routinely exercising may pass before you become aware of its psychological benefits. But benefiting from routine exercise is similar to benefiting from anything that has to be learned and practiced, such as playing the violin or speaking French. The screeching of the bow on the strings or mixing up grammar and mangled pronunciation have to be endured before one has more success and enjoyment than frustration. So it is with gym workouts or yoga class or jogging. But soon (much sooner than playing the violin) your muscles will remember and perform without protest, you will notice that your breathing is no longer labored, and your posture would make your mother proud. Someone will say to you "looking good," and you will finish the exercise feeling good.

Some people avoid exercise because they fear they are no longer good at it. The same goes for taking up the violin after not playing for 25 years. A friend who was the star of her yoga class before three babies and a job made it impossible to attend told me she would never go back, even when she had time. "Then I could do anything as well as or even better than the instructor. But now I am so clumsy and stiff, I am embarrassed to take a class." This friend was honest about her avoidance of yoga; many are not so honest about why they no longer play basketball, swim, run, or lift weights.

Fortunately, the exercise industry continually comes up with new ways to make us move: new classes, new types of equipment, even new sports.

My friend finally went back to the gym and takes Zumba classes and kick boxing. So even if you no longer can swim laps as you did on your high school swim team or outspin everyone in your spin class, you will find some activity compatible with your current muscle and cardiovascular strength.

Just stay out of the recliner, and get thee to exercise!

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

For more on fitness, click here.