I’ve heard thousands of excuses over the years of why people can’t exercise and most of them boil down to a handful of concerns. The most common excuse, of course, is that they don’t have time, but I reject that one outright. People will always find the time to do things they consider important, and the benefits of quick high intensity interval workouts allow you to get an effective workout in minutes. I’ve had times in my life when I was working 20-hour days for months at a time and I was able to fit in a quick workout here and there (at the very least, it helped keep me from passing out at my desk).
The point of this article isn’t to focus on the mental excuses. I can’t talk you out of those. Either you’ll decide exercise is important enough to add into your schedule or you won’t. What I want to focus on are some legitimate physical concerns that keep people from exercising, and why avoiding exercise over those concerns is far more likely to harm you than exercise itself.
It doesn’t take much to extend your life
A recent article in the New York Times analyzed two separate studies to see how exercise effected mortality rates (your likelihood of dying early due to chronic diseases), and whether the activity needed to be intense or if moderate intensity (walking verses running) could achieve similar benefits. It’s worth a read if you have time, but I’ll quickly summarize some of it here since the point of this article isn’t to analyze those studies, but to confirm exercise drastically reduces your chances of dying early. The current government recommended amount of exercise to maintain health is 150 minutes of moderate activity each week. These studies looked to see if this amount was sufficient, and if greater amounts produced greater benefits or if too much exercise became harmful at a certain level.
Those that didn’t exercise at all were at the highest risk for an early death.
Those that exercised less than the recommended 150 minutes a week still reduced their risks of premature death by 20 percent.
People that met the guidelines were 31 percent less likely to die early compared to those that never exercised.
Those that worked out 450 minutes a week (a little more than an hour a day) were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely. While an hour a day may sound like a lot, the majority of this activity came from walking. You don’t need to run for an hour to significantly extend your life, you just need to walk like you’re trying to get somewhere.
The decrease in mortality rate plateaus above this level and actually declines a bit. People that exercised 10 times more than the recommended level actually had a similar decrease in risk to those that met the minimum recommended level of 150 minutes per week. So while too much exercise does cause a bit of a backslide, it doesn’t increase your chance of premature death. Reports that marathon training may shorten your life were always a bit exaggerated, and these studies further refute that finding along with many other studies.
While moderate activity is all that’s required to hit these reductions to mortality rate, adding in small amounts of vigorous activity increased the benefits. Those that spent 30 percent of their fitness time in vigorous activities or workouts had an additional 9 percent reduction in mortality rate and people that spent over 30 percent of their fitness time in strenuous activities had an additional 13 percent reduction in mortality.
There was no increase in mortality among those that had the highest percentage of vigorous activity.
Exercise significantly reduces your chances of dying early. Not only that, but intense activity provides additional benefits and does not seem to increase your chances of death when done for longer durations. It may feel unpleasant at times, but you’re not going to work yourself to death. Now that I’ve shown that exercise greatly improves your health and lifespan, I want to address some common excuses I hear that cause people to avoid these benefits. I don’t do it to shame people into exercise, but rather to confirm it’s OK to push yourself without risk of worsening your health.
“I’m afraid I’ll have a heart attack”
Ironically the reason we all should exercise is a reason why many don’t. They fear that suddenly dusting off their sedentary heart and getting it pumping may actually cause a heart attack. Check with your doctor first, of course, if you have any preexisting conditions or concerns, but for the most part, you’re better off starting an exercise program than avoiding one. As the above studies showed, you don’t even need to work that hard to improve your health. Walking is a safe and effective way to build up your fitness and strengthen your cardiovascular system.
In addition, a recent study by Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute concluded that not only are middle-aged athletes at a low risk for sudden cardiac arrest while playing sports, they also are more likely to survive these usually fatal events. I’m not saying you should jump off the couch and start running a marathon, but when you do work up to more intense levels of activity, your improved health will make you less likely to suffer any sudden adverse events.
Another article in the New York Times summarized how patients with conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, pulmonary disease, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease actually benefited from adding high intensity interval training. The author analyzed many studies that “strongly suggest that a more demanding but more efficient and often more enjoyable form of exercise known as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is not only safe for most patients but more effective at preventing or reversing the deficits associated with many chronic ailments.” The old belief that people with chronic ailments were too fragile for more strenuous activity kept them frail. Your body adapts to effort and strengthens the overall system to make it better able to endure future effort. These positive changes require energy and our bodies are also lazy (efficient is another way to describe it). It isn’t going to waste calories building up a stronger body if you’re just sitting around doing nothing. In fact, you body will reclaim helpful muscle and harden arteries against movement to conserve more energy. The less you move, the less your body will be capable of moving.
“I have high blood pressure”
High blood pressure is another condition people site as a reason to avoid exercise, when in reality, exercise can reduce high blood pressure “as good as some blood pressure medications.” It can also keep your blood pressure from increasing as you age. Doing regular cardiovascular exercise strengthens the heart which means it can pump more blood with less effort. Less effort means less pressure within your blood vessels. Strength training can also reduce high blood pressure, ironically by causing high blood pressure during your workout. Lifting weights causes the smooth muscle of blood vessels to contract in order to quickly delivery blood to working muscles. When the work is done, the vessels can then relax (lowering your blood pressure again). People with high blood pressure tend to have inelastic blood vessels. This means they can’t expand or contract very well in order to regulate internal pressure which eventually leads to hardened arteries, atherosclerosis, and heart disease. Regular exercise can reduce age-related thickening of blood vessels. That combined with a stronger heart, can reduce high blood pressure even when an exercise program is started later in life.
“I’m a type 2 diabetic and I’m afraid my blood sugar will crash”
For the average person, the risk of becoming hypoglycemic during or after exercise is actually pretty low. That’s why I recommend working out on an empty stomach if you’re trying to lose weight. However, diabetics being treated with insulin or insulin secretagogues actually do need to consume carbohydrates before and after their workouts to prevent hypoglycemia. Your body normally reduces insulin during exercise and relies on different pathways to regulate blood sugar. Throwing extraneous insulin into the mix can cause your blood sugar to dip too low. The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association has the following recommendations for what to eat before and after exercise if you’re on insulin or insulin secretagogues:
“Insulin users should likely consume up to 15 g of carbohydrate before exercise for an initial blood glucose level of 100 mg/dl or lower, with the actual amount dependent on injected insulin doses, exercise duration and intensity, and results of blood glucose monitoring. Intense, short exercise requires lesser or no carbohydrate intake (156).
Later-onset hypoglycemia is a greater concern when carbohydrate stores are depleted during an acute bout of exercise. In particular, high-intensity exercise can result in substantial depletion of muscle glycogen, thereby increasing risk for post-exercise hypoglycemia in users of insulin or insulin secretagogues. In such cases, the consumption of 5–30 g of carbohydrate during and within 30 min after exhaustive, glycogen-depleting exercise will lower hypoglycemia risk and allow for more efficient restoration of muscle glycogen.”
While extra precautions should be taken if you are on medication for diabetes, the same joint recommendation by The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association makes it very clear that exercise will drastically help control and improve your symptoms. Type 2 diabetes is a horrible syndrome, but it’s one of the few chromic diseases that you can cure. Yes it will take some effort but it’s worth it. Uncontrolled diabetes turns your own blood cells into sugar-coated chunks of sand paper that float through your bloodstream shredding all of your blood vessels. The tiny capillaries in your fingers, toes, eyes, etc. are the first to go causing the organs to die, but bigger vessels will give out in time. Doctors giving their patients insulin are just trying to treat the symptoms by getting blood sugar levels under control, but to cure the disease, you need to treat the underlying problem, insulin insensitivity.
Type 2 diabetics produce plenty of insulin, but their muscles just stopped listening to the signals long ago because they kept their systems so flooded with sugar. The quick fix is to just pile on more insulin to force the muscles to listen again and clear the sugar from the blood stream. The problem is that insulin also tells your body to immediately store any fat you consume and to not release any stored fat from fat cells. Insulin also tends to spike your appetite causing you to eat later (and store it). Getting on extraneous insulin is a life saving measure, but it’s also a vicious cycle because it makes you hungrier, it causes easy weight gain, and it makes it much harder to lose weight.
Exercise not only helps get rid of that stored fat, but it improves your insulin and glucose sensitivity for hours afterwards. Improving insulin sensitivity and losing weight may allow you to eventually get off the medication. It all depends on the severity and length of your illness, but at the very least, exercise makes controlling blood glucose levels much easier.
“I’m afraid I’ll aggravate my bad back, bad knees, etc.”
This is a pretty common excuse caused by our ever-increasing sedentary lifestyles. As people sit for longer and longer stretches each day, muscles in the legs like the glutes, quads, and hamstrings will atrophy along with important support muscles in your core like your rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae. It’s like putting yourself in a full body cast. As these muscles waste away from lack of use, the joints they support find themselves under increasing strain. The end result is chronic weakness and pain. The problem is that most people don’t make the connection that weak muscles are causing their joint pain. They simply assume their joints wore out due to age and exercising now will only make the joint pain worse. People have told me for years that they can’t do squats or push ups or whatever because they cause joint pain, and my solution has been to lead them through a modified version of those same exercises to strengthen the muscles around those overstrained joints. As I’ve mentioned many times before, our bodies adapt to what they’re exposed to so they can better handle it in the future. You’ll never get rid of the pain unless you work your body in a way that will help it adapt to the cause. I’m not just saying push through the pain with full versions of the exercises. Your body isn’t ready for that yet, but it will be in time. By incorporating eccentric exercises into your routine, you can strengthen long-atrophied muscles without straining the effected joints. Another great exercise that has been shown to rehab injured knees while building up your leg strength and cardiovascular health is the recumbent bike. It’s a great starting point for people that are carrying a bit of extra weight or struggling with knee and back pain. I’ve helped hundreds of people finally fix their chronic joint pain by strengthening the muscles that provide support. Don’t let this excuse stop you from doing something about it, you’re only hurting yourself.
“I’m too heavy to exercise”
I am sympathetic to this one. The idea of simply getting up and walking to the mailbox with an extra 100 pounds, 200 pounds, or more strapped to my body sounds painful. And it is painful for millions of people worldwide. Many people have to carry a crushing amount of weight with them wherever they go and the idea of going for a 10 minute stroll sounds like torture, but what’s the alternative? I have an aunt who has crossed the 400 pound mark and her solution has basically been to stop leaving her house. She is literally a prisoner in her own body. Change is hard, losing weight is hard, but you don’t have to give up. One of the benefits for being so drastically overweight is that your body wants to shed fat. When we diet, we lose a percentage of fat and a percentage of muscle. As you get leaner, you lose larger percentages of muscle along with the fat (that’s why those last 10 pounds are always so hard to shed), but when you’re obese, you’ll mainly drop fat and in large amounts. As I mentioned in a previous article, one pound of stored body fat is only capable of generating 31.4 calories of energy per day. For many people that means dieting too hard causes excessive muscle loss, but for severely obese people, their fat stores can provide a great deal of energy each day.
Start with simple changes that make a huge difference. Studies have shown that your body doesn’t recognize liquid calories. Worse yet, a recent study showed that drinks with high-fructose corn syrup stimulate areas in the brain that seek reward through eating unhealthy and fattening foods. This is why soda and sports drinks are such a big contributor to our obesity crisis. The good news is that you can also cut out hundreds or even thousands of calories each day without it impacting your appetite too much.
If a 10 minute walk sounds painful, start small. If you’re carrying hundreds of pounds of body weight, even a 1 minute walk will burn some calories. Make it a point to get a minute of movement every hour. Even shuffling around your house is a start. Add time as your weight drops and your leg strength improves. Work up to walks around the neighborhood. As I mentioned above, a recumbent bike is also an excellent option for people carrying a lot of additional body weight. You can burn some decent calories and strengthen the muscles supporting your aching knees without causing additional strain. It’s actually one of the primary exercises used to rehab weak or injured knees.
When someone asks me to sum up how to succeed at weight loss in one sentence I always say, “stop drinking soda and walk 5 miles a day.” As the New York Times article above shows, it will add years to your life and it’s all you need to free yourself from a body that has imprisoned you.
Excuses keep your momentum moving in the old direction
We are creatures of habit in everything we do. We like the comfort of routine, of knowing what the future holds. Changing the momentum of our lives often requires more mental energy than physical effort, and excuses are basically an easy and effective way to avoid altering our momentum towards an unknown future. The thing about momentum is that while it takes more energy to change things at first, it gets easier and easier over time until, before you know it, you’ve developed a new habit.