The Real Reason You Don’t Exercise

Özge Üstündağ

What are some of the first things that come to your mind about exercise? Good health, a fit body, small waist and low cholesterol?

Over a decade of research shows that regular participation in physical activity is necessary for sustained health benefits (especially heart health). So, what gets in the way of enjoying that endorphin rush (a hormone cocktail that puts us in a good mood after exercise) everyone is talking about? Why is it so hard to get out of bed in the morning to run? Why does it annoy you when your friend asks you to get a gym membership with him?

You literally see exercise as more difficult

Emily Balcetis, an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University suggests that small tweaks in perception lead to big changes in the way we approach goals.

Balcetis and colleagues found in an experiment that waist-to-hip ratio predicts people’s perceptions of distance when they are asked to walk to a finish line carrying extra weight. People who were physically less fit (measured by higher waist-to-hip ratio) actually saw the finish line as farther away than those who were in physically good shape.

In a follow-up study, Balcetis and colleagues found that motivation makes a real difference in the way people perceive how far away the finish line is. Even though waist-to-hip ratio predicted predictions of distance, unfit but highly motivated people saw the distance as short as those who were in shape.

“So, we all see the world through our own mind's eye, and on some days, it might look like the world is a dangerous and challenging and insurmountable place, but it doesn't have to look that way all the time. We can teach ourselves to see it differently, and when we find a way to make the world look nicer and easier, it might actually become so” says Balcetis in her TED presentation.

You don’t have the right motivator

In 2014 Psychologist Monika Slovinec D’Angelo and colleagues examined exercise adherence with a group of heart disease patients (data from 801 patients were used in the study, ranging in age from 25-85). They found both self-efficacy and autonomous motivation (reflecting personal values and interests rather than what one feels forced to do) to be crucial factors in predicting long-term maintenance of exercise.

Self-efficacy is about how confident one feels about performing a certain kind of activity. The researchers tested to see if patients would engage in physical activity even if they bumped against barriers such as feeling sad or failing to see improvements in fitness. The findings suggested that confidence in one’s ability to move past through such barriers helps people maintain their physical activity routine in the short-term.

On the other hand, the patients who adhered to their exercise routine for 12 months were intrinsically motivated to do so. “...Individuals energized by [self-determined motivation motives] become more invested in the commitments they take on and are motivated to integrate, eventually internalize, intended behaviors and routines into their lives” explain the researchers.

In other words, these patients were committed to carry on their activities because they wanted to not because someone forced them.

Ready to give exercise another try?

If you feel intrigued by the research, why not give exercise another try? Think creatively and figure out what activities suit you the best. Then focus on how that activity makes you feel. If walking relaxes you, go for walks! If running feels better than coffee, go run! If playing with your dog at the park makes you feel happy, then do it!

Behavior change is easier said than done but totally worth it!


Go move!


  • 1. Koestner, R., Otis, N., Powers, T. A., Pelletier, L., & Gagnon, H. (2008). Autonomous motivation, controlled motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Personality, 75, 1201-1229. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00519.x
  • 2. Slovinec D’Angelo, M. E., Pelletier, L. G., Reid, R. D., & Huta, V. (2014). The roles of self-efficacy and motivation in the prediction of short- and long-term adherence to exercise among patients with coronary heart disease. Health Psychology, 33, 1344-1
  • 3.