We’ve all seen or heard the tagline in fitness industry marketing: “No excuses.” People who study human behavior and, especially, those who consider themselves experts in behavior change tell us shame and guilt are poor ways to get someone to adopt new long-term habits. Yet, there’s an awful lot of shaming and accusing being thrown at people who struggle to attend classes or gyms on a regular basis. I think it’s high-time to reframe this discussion.
First, the definition of exercise or a workout isn’t the same for everyone. Those who have been exercising regularly for years are internally motivated to perform what I call structured workouts: gym sessions, exercise classes, trainer-led workouts, track routines, power walks, runs, cycles, rows, swims, HIIT routines, calisthenics, Pilates, yoga, organized sports games and matches. These individuals are committed to their favored forms of exercise. They tend to have specific reasons for a skipped workout and are likely to make it up on a different day or, in the case of an illness or sidelining injury, usually get back on track as soon as they’re well enough to do so. No guilt, no shame.
For those who are mostly sedentary and who may vacillate in and out of structured workouts, the difference between a reason and an excuse for not exercising falls into a gray area. They’re likely to need to schedule structured workouts into their lives. We all know how life has a way of impeding on our schedules, constantly forcing us to re-prioritize and to pick and choose what gets done and what will have to wait for another day. Newer habits tend to fall off the list first. When a planned workout gets bumped, is it a legitimate reason or a shameful excuse? If the person feels it’s the latter, guilt sets in and, unfortunately, makes her more likely, not less likely, to miss the next scheduled workout.
However, structured workouts aren’t the only exercise options for these individuals. Since they’re not already exercising regularly, any conscious movement counts as exercise. Three ten-minute walks throughout a day can legitimately count as 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise for otherwise sedentary individuals. Bonus points if she makes an effort to include stairwells or hills in that half hour. It may not be equal to an hour Zumba class, but it is legitimate exercise that she can feel good about and motivate her to attend the next Zumba class. If a late work meeting forces her to cancel her strength session with her personal trainer, when she gets home she can do 20-30 minutes of the body weight exercises she’s already mastered with her trainer. Again, no guilt or shame associated with having to cancel her training session.
In other words, illnesses, injuries, family emergencies, accidents and the like are legitimate reasons for missing both structured exercise and conscious movement opportunities. Excuses like being time-crunched or tired may cause someone to skip out on a structured workout. But, she can avoid the shame and guilt by replacing the workout with conscious movement. Doing so accomplishes two things. First, it will allow her to escape the feeling of failure, making her less likely to quit her new healthy habits. Second, it gives her ownership for her exercise. While she may prefer and get a better workout from the class, she learns she still can meet her goals even if she occasionally misses a class. She’s more likely to become the first exerciser I described above – one who is internally motivated and committed to exercise in all its forms.
So, the next time you have a legitimate reason not to workout, give yourself permission to put it behind you and move on. If you have an excuse for missing a structured workout, avoid the guilt by finding opportunities for conscious movement. Ten minutes of conscious movement is sufficient, 20 or more cumulative minutes is fantastic. In that way, you’re replacing your excuse with meaningful action. Nothing to be ashamed of there.