The Former Couch Potato’s Guide to Embracing Exercise

embracing exercise

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” – Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

I hate to exercise. It’s so hard.

These words were like a mantra, an endless cycle running round and round in my head.

As a couch potato and irregular exerciser, I was in a painful place. One of the hardest things to do is taking those first steps on the way to regular exercise.

Because I continually started and stopped exercising, I was often taking those first steps. Then a few weeks later, I’d notice that I was no longer exercising again and the cycle would repeat itself.

One day, the mantra was interrupted with the thought ‘What if I changed my thinking?’

Maybe I could just accept exercise as ‘something that I did’, a bit like cleaning my teeth.

That was the beginning of the end of my love affair with the couch.

Today exercise really is a part of my life. When someone tells me how much they hate to exercise, I know where they’re coming from. But it IS possible to change and in the process reap the benefits of regular exercise.

I found the following strategies really helped in my transformation from couch potato.

1. Change ANTS into PETS

Huh? Automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) like ‘I hate to exercise’ can really derail our attempts to develop an exercise habit in their tracks. Changing these thoughts into Positive Enabling thoughts (PETS) such as ‘It’s just something that I do’ or ‘I love to exercise’ can make such a difference.

2. Just do it.

Like the slogan says, sometimes I just needed to take action.

3. Start small.

There is magic in just starting for 5 minutes a day. Every day. This changes the wiring in our brain to really cement the exercise habit in. One of the mistakes I used to make when I was trying and failing to establish a regular exercise habit was to start with sessions of 30-60 minutes 3-4 times a week. It was too much, too soon and before long I’d have given up again. The 5-minute sessions were successful because they were short enough that I thought ‘anybody can do this’ and it was easy to do something every day. Then, over time, I slowly increased the length of the sessions.

4. Rewards.

I’d half-heartedly tried my hand at using rewards in the past. Then I tried sticking simple gold stars on a chart. I felt like I was 8 again and it was amazing just what I was prepared to do to earn that gold star! You can be creative with this. It’s your journey – you get to make up your own rules! Sometimes we can be tempted to use food as a reward. This can be a trap for the unwary and sabotage all of your good work as hundreds of extra calories can easily be consumed as a reward for effort.

5. Accountability.

The stick part of the ‘carrot and the stick’. This is just as important as the reward part. For me, an exercise diary worked well. A supportive friend who’ll hold you accountable, an exercise buddy or an online app can all keep you on the straight and narrow.

6. Experiment.

Varying the contents of my exercise sessions helped to prevent boredom. In being willing to try new things, I discovered some activities I now really love that I never would have tried otherwise.

7. Make it enjoyable.

I found adding music to my exercise sessions really made a difference. Exercising with a friend instead of meeting for coffee can also be a fun way to burn off some calories and provide the motivation to exercise regularly.

Have you found negative thoughts to be a problem in keeping you stuck in old habits? What strategies did you use to successfully create a new habit in your life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Photo by kk+

29 thoughts on “The Former Couch Potato’s Guide to Embracing Exercise”

  1. Hi, Claire. A great short video that I watched gave me a great idea when it comes to self-motivation for exercise.

    Ramit Sethi in the video mentioned that he had a bet with his friend and it had something to do with the gym. I don’t remember the exact details, but it had to do with working out consistently.

    This actually worked and he ended up going to the gym, losing x amount of weight, and winning the bet.

    This does a few things to help embrace exercise. You put the word out there to your friends that you have a goal. Who wants to seem like a fool and not a person of their words?

    Also, we love competition. If you can turn exercising consistently into a fun sport, you’ll be more likely to go.

    Just some new ideas. :)

    1. What a great idea, Vincent! It is amazing how we can sometimes ‘trick’ ourselves into action. Then before we know it, exercising regularly is the new normal for us.

      Thanks for sharing this strategy!

      1. Savannah M Sullivan

        This advice is great! I already feel more motivated. I was wondering for the 5 minute workout trick, what if you only do it 4 days a week? Will it still cement in? I have a goal to eventually get to working out for an hour a day Mon-Thurs, and I’m wondering if doing the 5 minute trick on that 4-day schedule would still work?

  2. Hi Claire I really appreciate you sharing how difficult it is to start exercising. The beginning is always the tough time. Those ANTs are very powerful, when they are encouraging us to stay on the coach!! Once we start a new habit the ANTs can sabotage us at every stage, so as you mentioned we really need an accountability strategy to get us through the iffy periods. Enjoyed reading your post. Heres to getting fit.Thank you.

    1. You’re so right Karen about how persistent those ANTs can be! Building in some accountability means that we take action anyway. Fortunately as we cement that exercise habit in, it gets easier :)

      All the best in meeting your fitness goals.

  3. Nice, clearly-written article!
    I guess my problem is being too ambitious in the beginning, before really getting into the “habit” of exercising regularly. “Easy does it” they say, you know.

    Cheers to good exercise habit and health <3

    1. I can really relate to what you’re saying Akemi. I used to think that other people can start slowly but I would be okay jumping straight in. I had to learn this lesson a few times before it really sank in!

      Easy does it is such great advice :)

  4. great info. I have battled my weight all my life.
    I have now incorprated excersice running, walking half hour every otherday. I feel very good about this but after two months and I threw out my scale, there is no diffrence. I relize I have to modify my eating habbits and reduce my wine intake. I do get discouraged.
    I will not give up on the excerise I have come to really enjoy it, and find it greatly helps my mind perfom.
    So any tips to help me get my food under control. I realise I am an emotianl eater. anyway would love to shed 50 lbs
    Any encouragment would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Well done Moira on establishing a regular exercise habit. That is something that will pay off big time for your health in so many ways. You need to be really proud of yourself for that!

      Your awareness around your eating and drinking habits and emotional eating is also a big step. So many of us nurture ourselves through food. A small amount of comfort eating is normal – it is just when it gets to be a big source of calories that it can become a problem.

      In making some changes in establishing healthy eating habits, there are a number of strategies that will be helpful. Start small is an important one. Don’t aim for the perfect diet – just pick one or two changes that you can make easily for a start.

      Keeping a food diary is also quite helpful particularly if you also write down how you are feeling before and after eating and how hungry you are before and after eating.

      The other thing, too is instead of focusing on a big goal like losing 50 pounds, to focus on the healthy changes you are making.

      You’re doing a great job and all the very best wishes as you continue to make those healthy changes!

  5. Hi Claire,
    I always love your advice and these tips fit so well with my style of shifting your thoughts, and making it simple and enjoyable! Can’t wait for your new program :-)

  6. My ANT was, “I don’t feel like it.” That was enough to talk me out of doing anything physical. My ‘A-HA’ moment came one day when the thought popped into my mind – “You’re NEVER going to FEEL like it. Just do it.” And though I still have periods of my exercise waning, it has made it a lot easier to get my butt off the couch.

  7. Finding myself in exactly this place…I love to exercise and feel great when I do it. Honestly. But when I’ve been out of the habit for a while, everything and anything seems to conspire against the will or ability to just get up and do it. I think I just can’t seem to figure out the right time of day…none seem right and therefore, it doesn’t happen. I know I’ll be happy once I get moving, but no matter what time I decide to do it, another thing drags me in a different direction. Frustrating.

    1. It CAN be really frustrating Lisa when you haven’t been exercising for a while to get back into it. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that you know you’ll be happy once you get moving.

      When I’ve been in this position, I’ve just gone back to basics. I would think about what I did when I was regularly exercising, start small again, look at what is standing in my way and see if I could put in some strategies around the obstacles.

      The good news is that it doesn’t take long to re-establish the habit again.

      Good luck!

  8. Hey there Lisa. I know exactly how you feel about wanting to take those first steps in building a healthy workout routine, however there are some great ideas here that I am hoping to utilize- this Morning! I too find that wanting to make exercise a habit is a struggle especially when you are working from home with two small children. Good Luck to you! And thanks Claire for your tips!

    1. You’re welcome Olivia! Sometimes we need to get really creative to get the exercise habit established, particularly with little ones. It does get easier :)

      All the very best

  9. Hello Claire’
    I am starting with doing 5 minutes each day as I am sure this is the best way for me . Chronic fatigue is a problem I am dealing with & it sure zaps the motivation to exercise .When I make 5 minutes exercise a daily habit I plan to make it twice daily & then onto three times daily . Now that will really be something . Exercise used to be just a natural part of my day & needs to be again . Thank you so much for this article Claire ;it is a great help !

  10. Thanks for posting this, Claire! It’s amazing how our thought life can totally inspire or discourage. I work as a mental health therapist and this is an area I continually focus on with my clients…and with my self! (:

    As far as exercise goes, I’ve found that it has to be something that fits you and your lifestyle. For example, after seeing clients all day the last thing that I want to do is go to a crowded gym. Instead, I choose to do yoga in the comfort of my own home or take my dog out for a walk. Everybody’s different, so you just have to find what works best for you!!

    1. You are so right, Jill! It IS so individual. I’ve found that experimenting and giving things a go is a great way to see whether something will work for you or not.

      Dogs are a great way to get more exercise :)

  11. Hi
    Your last point make it enjoyable. This in my opinion is where so many people go wrong there are endless ways to exercise. So why as soon as you mention it people go I don’t like jogging. I like working out and exercising do I go jogging no. I go swimming to the gym and windsurfing. Surely everyone can find something they like. Either that or they just don’t want to feel healthier.

    Great stuff lee

    1. There are certainly lots of options these days, Lee. I’ll admit I’m not a great lover of jogging either :)

      You are certainly getting a great mix of different exercises with your swimming, gym & windsurfing.

  12. mahavir nautiyal

    ANTS starts operating when we begin with a strenuous exercise. For me, a long walk in morning in the woods is good enough. It is invigorating . It gives me time to remember God and thank Him for the gift of life. What I make of my life is , however, in my hands except that i seek His help on the way, if possible and willing !

  13. Great tips! I had to do the same thing with flossing. I find it to be so tedious. It was easier to make it a habit when I elliminated the option of not doing it. I made sure to tell my brain “Nope. This is not negotiable.” No room for excuses.

  14. I am 50 years old and about 75 pounds overweight. I have very high blood pressure. I am on 3 different medications, and it is still high. I teach school which I really love, but it leaves me zapped at the end of the day. I haven’t taken care of myself in years (that’s obvious). I love to help others, but it is sooooo difficult to make time for myself.

    I love the idea of getting in the habit of exercising for 5 minutes each day … just to get in the habit of exercising. I have got to make a change. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I am going to begin my journey today. I have participated in negative self talk all my life. I am going to try to recognize those thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. “I can do it! Easy does it!!

    Like others, I need all of the encouragement I can get but especially positive thoughts from myself.

    Thanks for helping me to get started 5 minutes at a time!!!

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