The Reluctant Exerciser

When I was younger, I used to play sports. In recent years, I tried kickboxing and loved it, but had trouble fitting it into my regular schedule after I came back from sabbatical, and I finally stopped on account of shoulder pain and panniculitis (inflammation of the subcutaneous fatty tissue) in the front of my lower leg, which I believe had to to with the kicking trauma.

I have always hated running; I admire people who can do it, because it seems to be  phenomenal exercise, but I find it deathly boring, among other things. I would prefer to have some sort of activity where there is someone who pushes me to do stuff (because I know I will cheat if left to my own devices) and I like it if there are other people around, but such an activity would have to be one I can accommodate in my schedule and which hopefully doesn’t involve excruciating shoulder pain.

There are also constraints in that I don’t want to make my DH have to pick up the slack regarding handling the kids on account of my exercise too many times per week. With child drop off and pickup/evening activities of various children, my time at work is highly constrained, so I also can’t just take an hour to go to the gym in the middle of the day.

If people really want to exercise, they find the time. I completely agree with that. My problem is that I don’t really want to exercise, but I know that I should, because I am getting older, I sit too much, I don’t want to get diabetes/hypertension/heart attack/blood clots from too much sitting, and I would like to see my kids grow up.

So, how does one squeeze in the time to exercise, when one should, but is not burning with desire to do so and therefore is not willing to go to great lengths upending her and everyone else’s schedules? How do you fit in the minimum necessary exercise around the fringes of your schedule? And what is the true minimal exercise? People say 1 hr per day, which is too much of a time commitment for many people, and definitely for the likes of me who don’t actually want to do it.

Kudos to everyone who exercises regularly.
However, this is a post and a question for the rest of us, for reluctant and/or simply lazy would-be or barely exercisers (especially those who work and have young families):

Do you exercise? How often, how much? What would you consider an acceptable minimum? How do you squeeze it in?
How do you will yourself to do it? Were you once more or less lazy than you are now?

Can one stay fit and healthy long-term, while never falling in love with exercise? Is it possible? Or are heart attacks looming in our collective future?


  1. I’ve always hated to exercise, but I’ve managed to maintain enough aerobic exercise in my life by not owning a car. Walking or bicycling happens because I need to get places, and the exercise is valuable side effect.

  2. I used to ride bicycle to work (30 min each way, at least 3 times a week). Cycling was great because I did not have to find extra time for it, was actually faster than driving or taking a bus — win win! But now that has stopped since I do drop-off and pick-up of our two year old. Plus increased pressure to have a more regular routine has made exercising very difficult.

    A year later and few kilos heavier, I have recently started giving jogging a try. I am following couch-to-5K podcasts that aim to get you running 5 kms nonstop within 8 weeks. Currently on week 4, so let’s see how it goes!

  3. I bike to work. I also prepaid my MMA gym membership for a year and I’m cheap. So I get my tush in there 2x/week to get my money’s worth! And punching people is good for my sanity anyway.

  4. I bike to work when it’s not snowmaggedon.

    Minimal exercise 1 hr/day?! Ludicrous, and I really like exercise! Wow! I have a time limit for myself: no more than 3 hrs/week in the gym. Maybe that’s silly but I want to fit many things into life.

    Check out the NYTimes 7-minute workout. I know one academic who really likes it, does it at home. Check out Crossfit-like or hotel workouts: you don’t need to join a gym & you don’t need to do the crazy stuff, but if you ease into workouts like “warm up. Then run 400 meters, do 40 squats, 30 situps, 20 lunges, 10 pushups. Then run 400 meters. Done.” you’re doing good. Or “3 rounds of 10 pushups, 10 lunges, 10 situps, 10 step-up-carefully-onto-your-dining-room-chairs, rest in between a bit.” Most of these are less than 15 minutes. Many you could challenge a kid to do.

    30 minutes in the gym of “lifting weights faster” three times a week seems great to me. Once a week seems great. I love kettlebells — get one at home and do 100 swings a day (5 sets of 20 to start), then stop. Or get one and put it in your office under your desk, and every hour or three, close the door and do some swings. Or do pushups or lunges holding on to your desk to get the blood moving now & then.

    Truly, doing very small things regularly is excellent. Some recent reports say that people who run 1 mile/day have as much physical benefit as they need for health. Even at my pace that’s less than 13 minutes once I struggle into my good running sports bra. And 1 mile isn’t long enough to be deathly boring 🙂

    I used to be anti-exercise and then I got the bug once I discovered strength stuff; hence the novel. The rest of my family likes running and skiing and etc and I just never got into that.

  5. I am like the academic kt mentions. 10-15 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week, boosted my fitness massively. The key was well-chosen exercises and well-chosen routines. I exercise at home, no equipment, so squats, lunges, burpees, pushups, jacks, planck, crunches, and variations thereof. Usually interval training, twice a week at high-intensity. For instance, when really short of time to even think to what to do, I just do 8-10 cycles of “30 seconds burpees, 30 seconds rest”. Once or twice a week I go for a longer (35 minutes) brisk walk, mainly to get outdoors.

    You can do it!

  6. I found that a Burley bicycle trailer worked well until about age 4 (and preschool was an elevation gain of about 60m over 1.4km). After that a Trail-A-Bike half-bicycle worked well until my son was old enough to ride his own bike. He’s now a freshman in college, and walks or takes the bus (he’d ride a bike, but the UCSB campus is too small to really need one).

    When I lived in snowy places (which I haven’t for 28 years) like Ithaca NY and East Lansing MI, I walked once they started salting the roads each winter.

  7. Hey xyk, I like your blog but don’t think I’ve commented before. I do not much care for exercise but have exercised ~1 hr/day for decades. Part of the reason why is probably because DH is much more of an exercise enthusiast so this has become one of our “family values” over the years. The key to sticking with it is to fit it into your schedule in a way that it becomes an automatic habit; you just do it, you never ask yourself do I want to exercise today? I definitely get the problem of fitting it into a family and work schedule that is screwed down tight-to-bursting, and not wanting to dump extra responsibility to pick up the slack on your spouse. What solves this problem for me is mornings, equipment at home, and multitasking. At our house the grown ups get up at 4-4:15 and the kids sleep until 6. We are fortunate to have space and means to have invested in a health club-grade elliptical trainer at home. I can’t recommend this enough! If the new ones are out of your range, reconditioned ones could be an option. If you really make it a part of your life style and do it every day, you don’t want cheap crappy equipment. For some, a stationary bike, treadmill, rower, etc might be preferable; I like that I burn more calories on the elliptical than I would on a bike, but without the back and knee pain I have when running. Yes it is boring, and eats up an hour of my day, so there is multitasking. If I am teaching or giving a seminar in the next few days, I will probably review my lecture notes or practice my seminar on the elliptical. If I have a backlog of manuscripts or grants to review, I will read a manuscript or grant. More typically though I will goof off; I will catch up on the blogs I follow on my iPad ( I am on the elliptical right now!), or watch a movie on Netflix. I do not watch TV at any other times, and try to limit leisure media consumption at other times. If any of these activities would otherwise consume an hour of my day anyway, then the exercise is really costing me no time. Ideally I would probably exercise with higher intensity than I actually do, and get same or greater benefit in less time, but this works for me because I can be consistent about it. When I finish the cardio, I do a few minutes of abs on a balance ball, and a few minutes of upper body strength stuff with bands and weights.

  8. My advice would go in a slightly different direction: Find a sport that you really like to do and that you can view as something that you do almost exclusively for fun, not because you have to. Then it will be easier to fit in. I have found that I only like sports that also give my mind something to do. Like zumba, because it is hard to follow the moves, and concentrating on the steps makes me forget that I am exercising. Also it feels more like dancing at a party than sports and also is fun because it is nice to watch the other dancers around me. I also like certain type of yoga classes (like jivamukti) that are both relatively high impact and require high concentration because you have to constantly control your breathing. There are also some rituals involved that help to leave daily life behind. Those go more in the direction of meditation/concentration exercises combined with physical exercise and really take you into a different place. I understand that 15 minutes every day would perhaps be better, but I prefer 2-3 times a week for about an hour, because then I do not have the overhead of changing, showering etc. every day. What I recently discovered is that learning something completely new while doing sports really makes it more interesting for me and more likely that I will stick with it even when I am feeling tired. Currently I am irregularly going to a belly dance class and an afro dance class, and both is really fun because I am learning to move in a new way and that makes me happy and is also interesting for my brain. Dance classes also feel to me like a social activity, and I noticed especially afro dance class is full of nerdy women that I find likable. 🙂

  9. I’m with you!

    The best I can do is make it a habit to take the stairs, I really should do like my colleagues and park farther from the school so I have to walk, but I don’t want to. One of my colleagues has a dog in order to force walking. My DH does calisthenics in the morning based on some kind of program.

    When we’re good we walk the kids to the park after school so they can burn off energy, but this week is pretty packed because everybody but DC2 has to make up missed work from going to a conference/vacation last week. Hopefully that won’t destroy the habit.

  10. I also used to find running deathly boring, but now I actually (almost) enjoy it. I run outside and it is my daydreaming time. I put my NSF proposal together in my mind on a long run recently, got back all sweaty and started writing (it took less than a week, a personal record, and I didn’t even hide in a cave). I also used to run around the neighborhood and let myself get lost – I discovered all sorts of interesting places that way.
    I absolutely hate schedules, so I don’t schedule anything that I don’t have to. On the days when I don’t teach or have any important meetings in the morning, I drop the kids off at school and go for a run. I get back home, shower and then go to work.
    If you are like me (and I think you are), running might actually appeal to your inner achiever: you go out and feel like a total loser when you can’t run 50m. But you can’t have that! You used to play sports! You should be able to run 100m! So, next time you do. You can actually make noticeable progress each time you go out. And then you start feeling good. And you start appreciating the quiet time when no one is throwing tantrums or whining about their grades or expecting you to have opinions on strategic planning for the department and you can daydream about anything you want (be it NSF proposals or vacations in tropical places). It calms you down and helps you focus. And you drop 15 pounds. At least that’s how it worked for me, even though I still usually get bored after about 30min (which now means about 5km at a reasonable pace).

  11. 1 hr/day??? Wow I thought recommended minimum was 30 min of cardio 3x a week.

    I used to walk or bike to work, which was awesome because 2 birds-1 stone. Now we moved so I commute about 1.5 hours per day so my time is more limited and I’m spending the time I was excersizing sitting on my butt.

    So this week I’ve started (briskly) walking my daughter in stroller and dog 30 min each morning before I take her to school. Her school doesn’t open until 8:45 so we have the time. I’ve always preferred walking as my main mode of exercise, though I took up running a little bit last year and I’m trying to maintain doing that for ~30 min a week, typically on weekends.

  12. I invested in a standing desk last year- I really like it, keeps me active and more alert throughout the day. I only let myself sit down to grade or when I’m sick. Only downside is I can no longer sit still for long stretches at conferences or meetings- I’m now one of the people who chooses to stand at the back.

    I also bike to work, even though the kids’ school is on the way. I now drive them to school (youngest hasn’t mastered the bike yet), then drive home to exchange car for bike. I like the fresh air and podcast listening time I get on my bike commutes.

  13. I agree with Zinemin – I’ve been going to a Zumba class for the last 1.5 years and I really love it. It is fun, involves a lot of ass shaking, and makes me forget that I am exercising. I go 3x per week for an hour and that is plenty. You just have to get past the first 3-4 classes when you are clueless and feel like an idiot 🙂

  14. Since last year, I have joined adult learn to swim program at a local pool. I go there twice a week religiously (once on weekend morning). I knew basic swimming before joining and have gotten more efficient in this year, but I have found that having an instructor is better than going to swim on your own. There are other adults who also come exactly for the same reason that they want to exercise regularly and having an instructor makes it more fun. Over the year, I know now many people there and it feels like a local hangout place. Once it became a routine, now I just do it without any thinking. Everyone around me adjust their schedule when it is my day.

  15. I recommend CrossFit. Intense? Yes. Will it improve your fitness dramatically? Yes (and it will ideally help out with physical ailments if you are careful about it). Importantly though, for many people, it will make you want to go and want to find a way to fit it into your life (because it is a cult, of course :)). I have done lots of different exercise routines, from group classes, to going to the local gym alone, to working out at home, to running/swimming, but this is definitely the most fun, most effective, and easiest to stick to. It’s not the most efficient, necessarily, because you could in principle get pretty fit by doing short intense home workouts. The problem, here, of course, is lack of motivation. I would be hard pressed to make the home workout along thing work in the long term, so would rather not have to do this.

    My husband and I are busy people, and we make it work. Both relatively successful professors (I am a research professor therefore have a little more breathing room at work, but my husband has some pretty heavy responsibilities). Three kids: 11, 9, and 7 months. Husband coaches kids sports seasonally (12 h/week) and drives them to and from activities most of the year. I deal with the household (he helps!). We lead a pretty high quality of life (eat, sleep, travel, tiny bit of social life), and outsource very little.

    You could go three times per week: two weekdays and a Saturday, for example. Some people make it work by going in the early morning. I have done this for periods, but I don’t love it because I’m just too tired. But for lots of parents, this works. Currently, I go once a week at lunch (work from home this day), once or twice a week during the evening, and once on the weekend. Husband will come with me for some classes, and sometimes I go alone. Sometimes we bring the kids, and they can play on the sidelines for an hour. Things are kind of hectic with a baby, but we trade off. It definitely has to be a priority, but can work, and I personally think it’s worth it.

  16. We bought a cargo bike – a regular bike with a long frame. Our kids sit on the back and I bike them to their schools and then myself to work. I prefer it to a trailer because the kids are up off the street and its narrower. It’s not a particularly fast ride and sort of sucks in bad weather, but by not having options, I’m forced into exercising every day. I could make it to the gym sometimes before kids. After kids? Never.

  17. I am not a gung ho exerciser, but I do know that I feel better and think better when I’m getting regular exercise, so I generally find a way to get some at least 3x/week. I am as surprised as anyone that my current routine involves running, but it does. I think that is because I live in a place w/a pretty damn good climate almost year round, and can currently go for a run by the bay.

    But, back to your question. When I’m squeezing in exercise, I tend to do things at home. I have a great deal of self-control and can motivate myself to do a lot of things… but not to exercise without a guide. So I use videos. There is a good series with 10 minute routines called 10 minute solutions. I think they have a kickboxing one, so if you have the room to do the moves at home, you might like that one (I think it is cardiobox, so no impact). I don’t have that kind of room, so I have a dance one, which is hilarious because I am so not a dancer.

    Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to get yoga back into my life. Probably it will involve being better about not farting around on the internet after the kids are in bed….

  18. Lots of great tips and suggestions. I seem to go in phases of either regular exercise or pretty much zero. For me the bare minimum is a 30 minute walk per day and that’s mostly the minimum because we have a very active dog who needs at least that.

    I am currently in a little to no exercise slump. With the new baby, I just haven’t figured out the scheduling to get a real workout in. However this new baby is now nine months old so maybe I can get my act together!

  19. I don’t enjoy going to the gym, but in winter there is no option due to snow around here. To avoid skipping it I leave my makeup stuff in the gym locker. I know that there is NO WAY I am going to work without makeup. Seem like negative reinforcement works best for me 🙂 So I drag my butt to the gym every morning,as I prefer to go before the day starts.

  20. @lucyeng I love the idea of leaving makeup in the gym locker! That’s really funny but I can see how it would also be very effective.

  21. Prior to baby #2, I committed to exercise as a combination of date night & socialising (DH & I played mixed touch rugby with several of our friends). We had a sitter one night a week for that. Once committed to that, I had to keep going in order to not let my friends down.

    Then I needed to run as well sometimes to keep my fitness up for touch and got competitive by entering a race with my sister & cousin. Then I was kept running by the peer pressure of signing up to do a half marathon with all five of my husband’s siblings & one of my friends.

    So I’m motivated by seeing my friends, doing something with my husband and peer pressure/ a competitive nature.

    At the moment I’m not doing much beyond walking the dog, usually in the company of a baby or small child. I sometimes manage to get out on my bike which I like because it’s alone time (which I desperately want at the moment). However I will sign up for a few running races next year to get me going again. I have a goal to run 10km in one hour (my quickest so far was 1hr 6min and that felt easy)

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