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Identifying and Overcoming Mental Barriers to Fitness

Updated on April 19, 2012

What's stopping you from getting in shape?

Many people want to be healthy and fit, but find themselves struggling to lose weight and eat a healthier diet. Others ride a roller coaster that takes them from losing weight to gaining it back again. These people often start a regular exercise routine, but stop when they become discouraged, usually resuming poor eating habits at the same time. This can happen even when a person is making steady progress towards their goals.

Why do so many struggle with this cycle? Is it the type of exercise routine they chose? The diet they were eating? Chances are, if a person is quitting good lifestyle habits in favor of older, destructive habits, there is a mental barrier they must overcome to break the cycle.


Identifying the mental barriers blocking you from accomplishing fitness goals is vital to success. First, think about the last time you quit exercising, or pursuing a particular fitness goal in earnest.

What reasons did you give yourself to justify quitting?

There are infinite reasons, but most fit into one of these categories:

1.) Not enough time.

2.) Physically or mentally unable.

3.) It wasn’t working.

Notice money was not mentioned. There are few fitness goals, if any, where resourcefulness will not enable you to accomplish your objective. To become incredibly physically prepared, no equipment is needed at all. Just you and your mind.

So back to the first reason, time. No matter what you do for a living, or how much responsibility you have on your plate, there is time to get in shape.

How is this possible if a person works 14-16 hours a day, commutes an hour home and then takes care of their kids or a dependent family member? By choice. You can park farther away, take the stairs, use your breaks and lunch hour to workout or even do exercises in a chair while on the phone.

I know, I’ve done it. In my last office job I did a prescribed number of chair dips and leg raises while I was on the phone. On coffee breaks? Pullups on the carport rafters or a fast walk around the block.

Lunch was rarely spent sitting around eating. There was an enormous set of stairs nearby with an interesting view at the top. Lunch was just enough time for a fast walk there, up and down half a dozen times and back.

When I returned, my body was energized, I felt more relaxed and performed better the rest of the day. If I was too sweaty, I always had an extra outfit handy. A small price to pay for feeling great and staying in shape.

The point is there is always time. Forget about big blocks of time. Use 5, 10, 15 minutes when you have it. One small block of time doesn’t burn off a 400 calorie pastry, but it does get blood flowing, taxes your muscles and gets the heart working.

Even in small blocks, these exercise sessions do something else. They help you form a habit, and that habit becomes a lifestyle.

Reason number 2, being mentally or physically unable, rarely applies. If you are reading and comprehending this, I assume you are mentally able to exercise.

A person who has been hospitalized or is recovering from injuries is exempt, but the rest of us are physically able of engaging in some type of exercise.

Number 3, ‘it wasn’t working.’ A lot of people will talk about the intense effort they have put in over the last month or two, and then wonder why they still don’t have a flat stomach. Obviously the diet must be faulty, or the workout routine they are doing, or the trainer. The truth is much simpler. They are creating a backstory to allow them to give up.

If this sounds harsh, ask yourself what you would do; what you have done. The last time you quit an exercise program, under whatever circumstances, how did you start to rationalize this in your own head?

I bet you began to build a backstory, a reason that you could point to later on to justify quitting to yourself and those around you. This doesn’t make you a bad person; in fact it makes you human.

Working out can be painful, and because short term results are hard to see, it’s easy to convince ourselves we aren’t making progress. The truth is simple. We are the key to our own fitness lifestyle. However, if you are riding the fitness roller coaster, you will have to create a new vision of yourself if you want to get off.


“To change your lifestyle, you must change your lifestyle.”

You already have an old vision. The football player who blew out his knee in college, gained 80 pounds and then decided he could never resume regular workouts may envision himself as a physically broken man. He accepts the limp and the story in his mind that this is just the way things are now.

A woman who gained 40 pounds during pregnancy and never gets back to her pre-baby weight builds another vision of herself. She now accepts the weight as her rite of passage into motherhood; a proud memento from her struggle bringing life into the world. This is a lot easier than working it off.

Everyone creates a vision of themselves, and most of us do it unconsciously. It is time to consciously create your vision of yourself, and then start working towards it.

Exercise works. It stops working when people stop doing it. In your new self-made vision, you are not following a program, taking classes or working with a personal trainer; these are temporary concepts.

Instead, you are now accessing the body’s full potential. To use it to its fullest is a lifelong quest.

Want to know a secret? Everybody can pursue this boundless potential. Forget about genetics, size or where you are on this journey now. We are all given the freedom to pursue the infinite physical potential of our bodies. That means you.

So whatever the particular reason is you gave for quitting, write it down. Now, with an open mind, write down at least three ways you could have worked around this. Be honest, don’t limit the possibilities. Did you get at least three?

Great, next step.

Starting on your own power is important, but reach for help when you need it. Resources for personal trainers:

The American Council on Exercise is all about education and continuing education. Find a personal trainer in your area or just enjoy browsing the wealth of information on the website.

IDEAFit Personal Trainer Directory

IDEAFit has a humongous personal trainer directory. The organization hosts an annual fitness convention and is an excellent resource for health and wellness professionals. Don't let this stop you from visiting. There is so much to see and learn here.


Hopefully you realize that you are worthy and deserving of your own best physical potential. Notice I didn’t say your best body; or that everyone can look like a fitness model. Your own best physical potential is what counts.

Why? If you focus on what the body can do, instead of how you want it to look, you are going to create a lifestyle shift that aesthetic standards can’t deliver to you. As a bonus, you will shed pounds and be able to see your muscles again!

Since the goal is to create a new vision, and a lifestyle based on that, it is time to start doing. Right here, right now, decide you are now an active person. There are no prerequisites to making this choice. Go ahead. Make it now.

If you made the choice and are now an active person, congratulations!

Feel free to have a long term goal. Maybe you want to be a bodybuilder or finish a triathlon. Great. Keep it in the back of your mind for now.

In this moment, you start a new life as an active person. Nothing else. What does an active person do?

Yes! They move! So this is the part where I give you a thorough 8 week program complete with diet and exercise advice, right?

Forget that. Start with one move. You choose. If you want some suggestions try one, ONE, of these:




-Toe Raises

-Isometric contractions (yes, flexing!)

-Bike riding


-Joint rotations

-Punching a heavy bag/shadow boxing

-Leg raises


Take just one movement, and start doing it. Do it until you start sweating and your muscles are getting tired. Repeat this exercise every day until you can do it with ease. Then start a new move, and repeat.

Remember, this is about movement. Can’t do a flat pushup? Do it on your knees or against a counter.


You can only walk to the end of the block and you have to rest? Good. Rest and repeat tomorrow.

Surely a person in your condition can’t do shadow boxing, can they? Isn’t that bad for your joints?

YES YOU CAN DO IT. Start by throwing light punches, you don’t have to extend the arm completely. Try doing slow tension punches.


Remember, you are an active person now, and what do active people do? That’s right, they move!

Right here, right now, you deserve to be congratulated on your decision. I look forward to seeing you pursuing your boundless physical potential.

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