Number One Reason We Don't Exercise - and What to do About It

Sharon Basaraba

Ever wonder what our most common excuse for not exercising is?  A lack of time.  That's right - and if you're feeling swamped with family obligations, tasks at work which keep piling up, and you're still trying to read the newest bestseller from a year ago - even though you know regular exercise is good for your longevity - this won't surprise you.

A 2002 review published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise examined the main demographic, psychological, behavioral, cultural and environmental factors affecting whether or not a person is regularly physically active.

  Researchers from Australia and the US looked at 38 different studies on exercise behavior.  Though all the studies relied on people recording their own exercise habits (this is called "self-reporting" and may include errors in recall or journaling), the review offers some insights into what keeps adults from moving on a regular basis.

What the scientists found:  Overall, physical activity levels were consistently higher in men than in women, and was age-related in that younger adults were more active than older subjects.

In addition, a number of factors seemed to limit the activity levels of the subjects among the various studies.  Within leisure hours, here are the primary barriers to physical activity for both men and women:

  • Lack of time
  • Activity is too tiring
  • Subjects feel too weak
  • Subjects are afraid of falling
  • Bad weather
  • No facilities for exercise
  • Lack of exercise partners
  • Lack of social support from family or friends

    Female subjects in the US Women's Determinants Study cited these additional reasons:

    • Poor health
    • Lack of energy
    • Self-consciousness about appearance

    What helped people to be more active?  The review offers some ideas about the social and environmental conditions that tend to promote more activity, which include:

    • Past activity (if a person used to be active, they're more likely to continue to be)
    • A person's confidence in their ability to be regularly active
    • Social support
    • Access to exercise facilities
    • Safe footpaths for walking

    So is lack of time really a factor?  There's no doubt that feeling overwhelmed with work and family obligations can prompt people to ditch their exercise plan.  But these researchers discovered several things that seemed to help people be more active - none of which included extra hours in the day. 

    For example, in an Australian study of adults 60 years of age and older, having friends who were regularly active, along with safe walking paths and access to a park were all significantly linked with regular activity.  Indeed, other studies have revealed that people who exercise outdoors are more likely to stick with their exercise plan. Just seeing other people being active, along with a perception of neighborhood safety, were also correlated with more activity.

      If your day is feeling just too short, making time for exercise may not be as impossible as it seems.  Remember that adults now spend at least half their leisure time watching TV, according to time-use research surveys.  That amounts to an average of almost 3 hours per day, not including the time we spend on our computers and smart phones.

      Proponents of alternative fitness approaches like high-intensity interval training HIIT) argue that you can more easily work activity into your day - with the same health benefits - by varying the intensity of small portions of your exercise session.

      A different but effective way to avoid the perils of a sedentary lifestyle - often defined as taking fewer than 5,000 steps per day - is to simply sit less during waking hours.  Try and build in ways of adding movement, such as keeping your phone further from your desk, using the stairs when possible, parking further from your destination, and generally making your actions lessefficient over the course of the day. 

      University of Toronto associate professor of family medicine and public health Michael Evans calls this approach "making your day harder", by choosing movement over energy conservation.


      American Time Use Survey Summary. Conducted by US Department of Labour, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed January 28, 2015.

      Trost SG, Owen N, Bauman AE, Sallis JF, Brown W. "Correlates of Adults’ Participation in Physical Activity: Review and Update." Med Sci Sports Exerc 34: 1996–2001, 2002.

      King, Abby C.1,6; Castro, Cynthia2; Wilcox, Sara3; Eyler, Amy A.4; Sallis, James F.5; Brownson, Ross C.4 "Personal and Environmental Factors Associated With Physical Inactivity Among Different Racial–Ethnic Groups of U.S. Middle-Aged and Older-Aged Women." Health Psychology Issue: Volume 19(4), July 2000, p 354–364.

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