Why Do People Quit Exercising?

A large nonprofit organization asks me to help them solve a problem. “We can make people sustain exercise for six weeks,” they say, “but after that, they drop out. Why don’t they stay with it?”

Brings to mind a question Tom Robbins asked in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The most important question, he wrote, is, “What makes love stay?”

In the physical fitness industry, the most important question is, “What makes exercisers stay with it?”

Here’s my answer: Love.

By love I do not mean romantic love.

I mean three things:

1) Love of movement itself

2) Love of one’s own body, and

3) Love of other people who join you in movement classes, games, or activities. These are the key motivators for children and adults. It’s what makes exercisers stay with it. The problem with most “exercise programs” is that they’re motivated by hate and fear:

1) hate of fat
2) hate physical appearance
3) hate of self
4) fear of fat
5) fear of physical rejection
6) fear of illness and death.

Hate and fear, while potentially motivational in the short term, are not sufficient to sustain physical fitness. They also lead to conditional results: “If I lose weight, then I’ll be happy. If I don’t, I’ll hate myself.” Compare that thought process to, “If I move, I’ll enjoy myself, celebrate my ability to move, and give my bones and muscles a treat.”

With this approach, the physical consequences – toned muscles, less fat, improved circulation, improved mood, improved self-esteem – serve as their own reward, reinforcing the behavior. Once you love an activity, naturally, you want to stay with it.

So people who learn to love – their bodies, their teammates, and movement itself – are the people who keep moving in ways that restore and strengthen and delight their bodies.

As for what makes love stay? You’ll have to ask Tom Robbins.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Explore posts in the same categories: Exercise, Habits

One Comment on “Why Do People Quit Exercising?”

  1. This is such an excellent question — one I’ve struggled with for myself. I have rarely found physical activities that I LOVE. Most are things that are OK or fine. But even when I really, really like something, I find myself finding excuses to not do it.

    When Jazzercise moved into the church hall right next door to my house, I thought, “OK God. I guess you want me to exercise, don’t you?” The leader is fun and cute, but even his sexy dance moves don’t get me to cross the parking lot every time there’s a class. The good news is I make it more than if I had to exert more effort to go to a class. But the bad news is that it is easy to skip. I know this must be a foreign concept for an athlete like you!

    Rebecca Morgan

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