In this edition of the series on working out for women we will investigate some underlying issues that may have worked to sabotage your fitness life in the past. For the best chance of success in your fitness journey, taking some time up-front to anticipate and plan for inevitable difficulties can greatly increase your chances of long-term success. In this edition of “The busy woman’s guide to rejuvenating her fitness life,” we discuss some lesser known and talked about barriers that may have held you back in the past as well as helpful ways that you can deal with them. Read on for ways to leap over barriers and tackle challenges! 

“If you think taking care of yourself is selfish, change your mind. If you don’t, you’re simply ducking your responsibilities.” – Ann Richards

Balancing care of others with care for self

Many women strongly identify with the role of caregiver. They prioritize caring for their families, their teams at work, their pets, their homes and anything else that requires regular love and nurturing. These same women often have a difficult time caring for themselves and doing activities—such as regular exercise—that they perceive to only benefit them. When it comes to working out for women, scheduling regular exercise can feel selfish for someone who doesn’t believe that they deserve time dedicated to their health, wellbeing and enjoyment. If you identify strongly as a caregiver and have a difficult time setting aside time for taking care of yourself, identifying this inclination is the first step toward introducing more balance in your life. 

Considering yourself a healthy role model for other girls and women in your life is a positive way to tie exercise to greater meaning. Everytime you set aside time for taking care of yourself and another woman or girl sees you doing that, it becomes a little easier for women to take care of themselves and feel like their health and wellbeing is as important as anyone else. Another way to frame taking care of your health in a new light is a healthier, fitter and more energetic you will be a gift to the people around you, who you care about. Regular activity helps you to be your best self and if you incorporate it into your life you will likely have even more to give those you love. Exercising with those you love and care about is another way to integrate your caring nature into a healthy, balanced activity life. If people can do yoga with goats, you can certainly do it with your kids, friends or partner. 

“The challenge is not to be perfect…it’s to be whole.” – Jane Fonda

Do a Mental Health Inventory

Regular exercise can be an important part of a proactive mental and physical health plan. Research continues to show that the mind and body are intimately connected and women who are struggling with their mental health are much less likely to participate in regular physical activity. You probably already know that motivating yourself to exercise when you are feeling depressed or anxious can be extremely challenging. One thing to keep in mind is that these feelings can make the body extra sensitive to pain, so hard exercise is likely to feel even harder than usual. 
Often, the best way to try and feel a little better is to engage in light to moderate exercise—preferably in a calming, natural setting like a park. Make sure you give yourself lots of credit and props for doing any kind of exercise when you are feeling low. Even just a short walk can be a positive step toward feeling better and a bit more empowered in your life. Loads of research shows that exercise can improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. In one study, women who were active 3.5 hours or more weekly and exercised with family members were much less likely to experience depression than less active women. As always, for more serious mental health conditions reach out to your doctor or consult a mental health professional.

“Step out of the history that is holding you back. Step into the new story you are willing to create.” – Oprah Winfrey

Identify and explore gender related barriers

Study after study shows that women experience more barriers to physical activity than men do. Working women with young children face even more constraints, making them one of the least likely groups to enjoy the benefits of regular exercise. The common narrative put forth by the fitness industry is that women should just try harder and with enough discipline they can have both six pack abs and happy, well adjusted kids. 

This false narrative does not recognize the multiple roles that women often play in families, communities, workplaces, etc. constraining their time and energy. Women often blame themselves for not being sufficiently active, instead of recognizing that they are living in a system that makes participation much more difficult for them. One study breaking down how men and women spend their time at home found that the majority of women (72%) spend at least 2+ hours on housekeeping per day, while the majority of men (74%) spend an hour or less on home maintenance. Men are also more likely to participate in sports, exercise or recreation on any given day (21%) versus just 16% for women and to spend longer at their chosen activity (1.9 hours versus 1.3 for women). COVID-related shutdowns have increased these discrepancies even more, placing even heavier burdens regarding childcare and housekeeping in the home for women. 

Keeping a brutally honest time and labor diary for a week or two is a helpful way to understand where your time and energy is going. Once you have this data, you can use it to figure out ways to negotiate tasks, get support if possible and find other ways to prioritize exercise in your days. Another possible way to reframe this situation is recognizing that exercise is a form of housekeeping for your body and is important as any cleaning you could do for your home. What would happen if you cleaned up less and exercised more?

“Done is better than perfect.” – Sheryl Sandberg

Appreciating small victories

Many women sabotage their efforts toward creating a more active life by downplaying their accomplishments and never feeling like they have done enough. You can hear this in the way women talk about what they e.g., “I only did 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer.” or “Don’t laugh at the tiny weights I’m lifting. I’ll never be that strong.” This type of negative self talk often goes on under the radar of our awareness, but has the power to slowly sap our motivation and confidence. One way to combat this common inclination is to challenge yourself to only speak positively about your exercise life. “I went on a 30 minute walk and I’m proud of myself.” or “I’m getting more comfortable in the weight room and stronger all the time!” Try to avoid using negative, limiting words such as “only” and “just.” 

Speaking positively about yourself and your fitness life may feel awkward at first, but like any exercise it will get easier the more you do it. And your subconscious mind is listening to everything you say and think, so make sure you give it some positive information to focus on. 

In the final edition of our series on working out for women, we will explore nuts and bolts of techniques and approaches you can use to help incorporate more fitness into your everyday life. Stay tuned! In the meantime, what underlying issues have made keeping a regular exercise routine difficult for you and what have you done to address them?