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Overcoming Barriers to Physical Activity

13 Jul

I recently attended  a webinar hosted by the National Institutes for Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) called “Physical Activity: Making Sense of Current Research, Persistent Myths, and Common Barriers,” presented by  a professor from Brown University.  Ok that was a mouthful, but I must give credit where credit is due. Anyway, the webinar gave some great insight to common barriers and effective methods for overcoming them when it comes to physical activity AND its nemesis: sedentary time.  Some of these tips are relevant whether you are someone who rarely goes to the gym, or someone who runs everyday but finds them self sitting a lot and sedentary in between (ahem – myself).  I wanted to share them with my less scientific and more enjoyable spin.

If you are curious about how much exercise you should be getting, a common number for an adult is 30-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity 7 days per week. This guide from CDC gives some examples of what those combinations might look like. And a table at the end of the post shows what the heck exemplifies moderate and vigorous.

Tips for reducing sedentary time (called the SITT formula)

Research suggests that sedentary time (prolonged sitting) is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death of U.S. adults). And now, sedentary behavior is being linked to type 2 diabetes, muscular weakness, and other negative outcomes. Regular physical activity doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage if you’re being sedentary the rest of the time (ahem – desk jobbers, self included). Here are some tips on how to combat inactivity/sedentary time.

1. Sedentary behavior frequency: try to reduce the number of times you find yourself inactive for a duration of an hour or more

Plan active time when usually sedentary: walk in place while watching tv or try a stand up desk at work

2. Interruptions: Taking breaks in sedentary time

Get up and do strengthening exercises during TV commercials; push-ups, planks, curls with a dumbbell.

Set a reminder on phone to get up and move every 30 or 60 minutes; at work do squats, planks, or a lap around the office

3. Time: duration of sitting.

Set time limits on sedentary behaviors – only 1 hour of TV in the evening or 1/2 hour of Internet time

4. Type: mode of sedentary behavior

Reduce TV watching and sitting on the couch

Stand up or walk while talking on the phone

Try walking meetings at work or taking the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator whenever possible.

Common Exercise Barriers and how to address them 

1. Lack of motivation

This tends to be one of the BIGGEST barriers, so it gets the most attention. There are five ways to address motivation and they can be pretty darn effective. Once you have motivation on lock, the other common barriers might not be an issue!

1) Determine WHY exercise is important. Write out a list of values and put it on the refrigerator

2) Work on managing unhelpful thoughts. This is about optimism. If you have a moment of self-doubt or negativity, acknowledge it and envision yourself pulling that thought out of your head, balling it up, and throwing it in the trash.

3) Sign a behavioral contract with yourself. Literally write out what you promise to do, then identify a reward if you keep your end of the contract (like a serious bowl of ice cream on Fridays), AND what you have to give up if you don’t keep your end of the deal (like donating to your LEAST favorite charity).

4) Find an exercise you enjoy. Its about having fun! If you absolutely hate running, it hurts my heart, but I understand. Try other options depending on your budget. Try a gym membership and a bunch of different classes if you are a group exercise person. Think of what you enjoyed as a kid, loved swimming? Is there a pool nearby? Go outside the box and search until you find it.

5) Add accountability. Unlike a contract with yourself, accountability is about making a promise with other people involved or sharing it publicly!  So that could be signing up for a race or training program with friends, posting about your promise on social media, making plans to go to the same spin class with your colleague every Wednesday…you get the idea.

2. Bad Weather. Plan for an alternative, depending on the time of year. If you are an outdoor person through and through and the idea of a gym makes you cringe, then buy the gear necessary to exercise in the rain or snow. But not lightning, stay away from lightning! Snow storms are super frustrating, but if you can handle a gym there are plenty of alternatives for cardio. There are also creative options like running the stairs in your building or burpees in your garage.

3. Fear of Injury. Talk to your doctor, talk to your physical therapist, talk to your therapist. If there is a concern about injury, whether from a past injury or a lack of confidence, talk to the right people to determine if the activity is safe for you, then consider a coach or a personal trainer who can work with you until you are confident enough to do it on your own.

4. Lack of Energy. A lack of energy could result from a multitude of issues, including the quality of your sleep. But if you can’t increase your hours of sleep/quality there are other tricks to find the energy you need for exercise. First, and you might gasp when you read this but stay with me, try exercising IN THE MORNING! Yes, get up earlier and workout when you wake up. The longer you wait, especially on a work day, the more likely you feel exhausted by the end of the work day and your exercise is the first thing that gets tossed out the window. I have been working out in the morning for 10 years now and I would never trade it.  Off that soap box, another tip is to drink more water throughout the day and try drinking caffeine before you work out. Caffeine can give a nice little boost to not only your alertness but the quality of your workout. Have iced coffee from the day before if you don’t want to brew a pot in the morning.

5. Lack of self-efficacy (the belief that you CAN do it and that it will WORK). I once had a friend in ROTC who told me to always look at my reflection in the store windows when running around Cincinnati.  To be exact he said, “Go ahead, look at your reflection and tell yourself how damn good you look! Be confident and proud because you’re out here getting it.” That was in 2007 and it has stuck with me since. I am not quite as cocky and confident as that friend but SEEING yourself get out there “getting it” can really boost your confidence.

Similar to concern over injury, if you lack confidence in your ability to do an activity correctly, consider a coach or trainer who can help you through the steps until you have enough skill to do it on your own. I specifically think of weightlifting for that one. Another option, is to join a group that participates in the activity, like a running crew. You can often find them on places like You can also find a beginner class. I lack confidence in doing Yoga but between videos and beginner classes I don’t feel like a total moron now, just inflexible and awkward, but that is OKAY!

6. Social Influences. If your friends and/or family don’t exercise regularly or don’t support you, or worse actively question/make fun of you, sticking to an active routine can be difficult. There is the telling them to F**k off approach, secretly hide your exercise from them approach, or the sit down and have a heart to heart about why physical fitness is important and try to get them on board approach. If all of that fails, chin up — You do you Boo. Work out in the morning if you cannot tell your friends no to a happy hour without getting harassed.

I totally acknowledge that for anyone who has kids, that is a whole other set of barriers and I cannot speak from a parental perspective, but I know there are a TON of active moms out there who have strategies and ways to get their exercise in, often including their kids 🙂

Other Helpful Strategies for Regular Physical Activity 

1. Goal Setting

Use the SMART Principle: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time bound

Example: I will walk for 20 minutes each day during my lunch break and record my time in a journal.

Example: I will run three miles without stopping one month from today by increasing my running time by one minute every other day.

2. Self-monitoring

Write down your exercise daily; many people are into Bullet Journals to make the logging fun, or a simple notebook will do. I see people at the gym with their notebooks tracking their lifting every day. There are always notes on your phone too, but there is something so satisfying about writing things down with a pen and paper 🙂

Use a physical activity monitor like a Fitbit or Heart Rate band. These days, even the iPhone’s Health App is pretty good at measuring steps and connecting to other apps to gather information.

3. Add positive exercise cues

Make it easier to remember to workout and seize opportunities for exercise. Keep your sneakers in your car, set an alarm on your phone, or post a schedule of when to exercise in an obvious place.

There are so many ways to exercise other than running, walking, or gym equipment. You might not know how calories burned looks relative to other forms of exercise, or what the heck moderate and vigorous actually mean. Here is a table shared during the webinar. It is based on a 200 pound person though, so you might have to do some math. For example, if a 200 lb person burns 566 calories running a 7:30 mile for 30 minutes, a 125 lb person would burn 353 calories. (200/125 = 1.6 and 566/1.6=353) I love math, so let me know if you have any questions!

Exercise Table

Hopefully you found some helpful nuggets in there! Like Michael Jordan said, “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

-Shaina Cales 


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