Identifying Challenges to
Exercise Adherence

For both individuals and families, getting and staying active can present continued challenges—whether you’re attempting a goal-oriented weight loss plan or helping commit your children to a lifetime of general fitness. Knowing the factors that make exercise adherence difficult can help diminish their power and keep you on track, whatever your exercise goals.

Lack of Patience
One of the biggest mental barriers to exercise adherence is impatience. Remind yourself and your loved ones that exercise is challenging, and only over time can we expect to move beyond its initial psychological (not to mention physical) discomfort. Facing the extent to which you may have become detrained can be a frustrating, anxiety-ridden process. The key is to recognize and accept that the early phases of a new regimen offer no guarantee of enjoyment, but are an inevitable no man’s land which must be pushed through to get to positive feelings of accomplishment and good health just around the corner.

Set modest goals, but hold yourself to them. Focus on the fact that each day you are strengthening muscles and making new demands on the heart and lungs, and beginning a process toward weight loss whose essential ingredients are just persistence and time. Then dial back any impulse to overthink it, and simply begin.
Naturally, negative feelings and emotions can impair the development of an exercise habit. Eliminate “I don’t like this,” and “I’m too tired,” replacing them with thoughts like “I can do it,” and “Only three more minutes to go!” Perception quickly becomes reality when we take on unfamiliar tasks—and this can work either for or against you, so stay positive.

Anxiety is really worry over possible negative outcomes in the undetermined future, and so it is a distraction and a waste of energy. Sources of exercise anxiety include worry about meeting goals, physical appearance or being judged by others (e.g., strangers at a fitness club).

Remind yourself that exercise actually reduces both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) anxiety. Exercise is a well known behavioral strategy for managing anxiety, and telling yourself this can help you never allow exercise to become the source of it.
Avoid setting excessively high standards of performance. Catch yourself if you start down the road of overly critical self-evaluations. Coupled together, these two factors can grind your exercise regimen to a halt.

One barrier to exercise common in schoolchildren is deep concern about making mistakes. The heightened anxiety, particularly with regard to competitive sports performance among peers in school, can foment an attitude of giving up or appearing not to care—the close cousin of which is distain or ridicule for those who are in fact active. Needless to say, such attitudes are toxic for everyone.

It may be good practice to balance sports with non-competitive physical activity in school and the home. As skills and general fitness are gradually acquired in a safe, non-competitive space, confidence blossoms and traditional gym-class competition stops seeming so frightening.

It may also be helpful to emphasize comparisons to your child’s past self, rather than to peers. Genuine improvements are easy to see when highlighted as a series of personal accomplishments, rather than goals scored and races won against others.

Overcoming Obstacles to Activity Within the Family
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages family members to remind each other regularly of the benefits of exercise, as well as create individual “activity plans” for use in staying motivated.

These points can be revisited as a group or individually whenever motivation lags. Remind family members that being physically active allows you to:

  • Have fun
  • Spend time with friends
  • Increase your endurance for sport or hobbies
  • Improve your body image
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Increase energy levels
  • Improve your self-image
  • Feel stronger
  • Decrease stress

An activity plan is a worksheet you can fill out with your children that asks questions like:

  • What are the benefits I want from being active?
  • What are the barriers that keep me from being active?
  • What will be my solutions to these barriers?
  • What activities am I going to do?
  • Where am I going to do these?
  • When am I going to be active (times and days of the week)?
  • How many minutes will I strive to be active each day?
  • Who will be my activity buddies? 

Head These Negative Thoughts Off at the Pass

Thought: I don’t have time

Solution: Build it into your day:

  • Walk or ride for transportation
  • Get off the bus a stop early
  • Take the stairs
  • Walk around the mall twice before you start shopping

Thought: I’m not good at sports

Solution: Active hobbies like:

  • Gardening
  • Birdwatching
  • Sightseeing on a bike
  • Dancing
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Apple picking
  • Cross-country skiing

You don’t have to play a sport to be active.

Thought: My neighborhood isn’t safe


  • Use a home workout video
  • Dance with your children in your home to your favorite music
  • Visit your YMCA, Boys and Girls Club or community recreation center
  • Sign up for after-school activities

Thought: I’m out of shape


  • Start slow and short—e.g., 10 to 15 minutes of walking
  • Build activity breaks into your workday—take the stairs and walk around the block
  • Calculate your daily minutes of sedentary time and decrease them by 30 minutes
  • Join a program that involves learning a new skill—and get a friend to go with you

Remember also that you can greatly help your children appreciate and commit to an active lifestyle by being the powerful role model that you already are. You shape your child’s perception of physical activity and exercise in ways that may endure throughout his or her entire life.

Adapted from Human Kinetics,

American Academy of Pediatrics, Care of the Young Athlete Education Handout, 2011-2015

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