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Excuses, excuses

Why do so few Americans exercise? A new survey by the American Council on Exercise offers some interesting insights on our coach-potato culture.
'I'm too out of shape to exercise' and other cop-outs
A new survey by the American Council on Exercise reveals a variety of interesting excuses for not exercising.Kim Carney /
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Despite the many benefits of exercise, statistics show that two-thirds of American adults are not physically active on a regular basis and a quarter get virtually no exercise at all. Why?

The most common reason cited is a lack of time, fitness experts say. Schedules are overbooked and things like exercise often aren't a high priority.

That's not too surprising, but a new survey by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a nonprofit group based in San Diego, offers some additional and perhaps unexpected insights on our coach-potato culture. In October, the group asked visitors to its Web site about what, besides lack of time, stands in their way of going to the gym. More than 1,500 people responded to the informal poll, offering some interesting excuses for not exercising.

Gym intimidation
For instance, 19 percent of respondents said they're too out of shape to work out — they're afraid they'll be the only one at the gym who isn't buff.

People who aren't fit often think they've got to get themselves in "respectable shape" before they ever go to the gym, says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at ACE.

Of course, the whole point of going to a health club is to get in shape. But "gym intimidation" can be a powerful barrier, Bryant and other experts say, especially when a club is filled with hard bodies in Spandex.

Besides not looking the part, plenty of people — 21 percent — skip the gym because they don't know what to do once they get there, and 3 percent said they avoid the gym because they're afraid to ask questions, according to the survey.

Bryant says proper fitness guidance can be an issue because gyms have cut back on the number of instructors who walk the floor and help out exercisers in need. Clubs may provide an orientation session to new members, but additional instruction is often only available by paying a personal trainer for it, he says.

Another 46 percent of survey respondents said gyms are just too crowded, and 11 percent said people who go to them are too rude. Gym etiquette dictates wiping down cardio equipment after use, not monopolizing weight machines and avoiding long cell-phone chats, among other courtesies.

Where to begin?
But gyms aren't the only place to exercise, and some of these concerns could be avoided by working out at home, a no-frills recreation center or outside. (People can also search around for health clubs that better meet their needs.)

Regardless of the setting, it can be overwhelming for sedentary people trying to take that first fitness step, says Karyn Gallivan, an athletic trainer at the Tennessee State University Wellness Center and a spokesperson for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Many people say they don't have the time, she says, and if they do, they don't know where or how to begin.

"They feel that they are so far out of shape that it's too big of a job to get started," Gallivan says. And for those who do get started, sticking with an exercise plan is another major challenge.

This New Year's, many Americans will likely resolve to get fit. But undoubtedly plenty of them will throw in the towel well before swimsuit season. Research shows that more than half of people who begin exercising drop their program within three to six months, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Winning strategies
So what are the secrets to success?

Gallivan advises beginning exercisers to start slowly, and then gradually build up. "Do more than you're doing right now," she says, even if that means just walking for five minutes three days a week at first.

People who come out of the gates too quickly risk soreness and injuries, which can dampen enthusiasm for exercise, she points out.

At an ACSM meeting earlier this year, Kyle McInnis, a professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, led a panel of experts who discussed strategies for helping people stick with an exercise program.

Planning is key, the panelists noted. "Set realistic goals," says McInnis, and be specific. So instead of saying you'll get more exercise in 2005, make a plan to play tennis with a neighbor on Tuesdays and Saturdays, for example.

Getting into the exercise habit is important for beginners, even if they aren't exercising all that much starting out, McInnis says.

Experts often recommend scheduling an exercise session into one's day, just like other appointments. Another approach is to fit in short bouts of exercise — 5 or 10 minutes — a few times a day, with the goal of accruing at least half an hour of activity.

The ACSM panel also advised that people consider seeking guidance from a trainer to individualize a fitness plan, enlist the support of friends and family, and monitor progress regularly to help stay motivated and not become too discouraged.

"Any behavior change only occurs one day at a time," says Barbara Ainsworth, a professor of exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State University.

And simple measures like intentionally parking the car further from the mall entrance, carrying out your own groceries and taking the stairs instead of the elevator add up. "It's built into your day so it's not seen as something extra that people need to do," she says.

Once people start making physical activity a regular part of their lives, they'll likely begin to see some results and have more energy, says Gallivan. And those can be powerful motivating factors.

"As soon as people start feeling better, you have them hooked," she says.

"Our bodies were made to move."

Smart Fitness appears the second Tuesday of each month.