Why Can’t You Exercise Regularly? One Reason: Convenience.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday:  8 reasons why it can feel inconvenient to exercise.

Right now, I’m editing my next book, Better Than Before, an examination of the most interesting subject in the world: how we make and break habits. (My editor is reading the draft for the first time right now, in fact, so wish me luck.)

In the book, I identify multiple strategies that we can use to make it easier to foster good habits. One of the most familiar, and most effective, is the simple, straightforward, powerful Strategy of Convenience. And its counterpart, the Strategy of Inconvenience.

We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, thirty percent of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only fourteen percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.

We can use this tendency to help strengthen our habits.

One habit that many people want to form? Regular exercise. And when they explain why they find it difficult, they often point to inconvenience.

I’ve found that it’s very helpful to think very hard about exactly why exercise seems inconvenient. Instead of just thinking, “Oh, it’s such a pain, I can never get to the gym,” really think it through. Identify the problem. Often, by identifying the problem, you identify solutions — which may be easier than you expect.

  1. It’s a pain to pack up the gear when I’m leaving the house in the morning
  2. It takes too much time to work out
  3. It’s a pain to drive and park there
  4. It’s a pain to secure my place in a popular class or to wait my turn on equipment
  5. I don’t know how to use the equipment or do the exercises
  6. It takes too much time to get there
  7. I don’t want to sweat and mess up my hair
  8. I always forget something I need

Identify the problem, find the solution. High-intensity work-outs take very little time. Many forms of exercise don’t work up a sweat. A friend told me, “Even though my gym has multiple branches, I found it very inconvenient. I finally realized that sometimes I’d go to the gym from home, sometimes from work, sometimes from my girlfriend’s apartment, so I never had what I needed. I bought multiple sets of everything—deodorant, shoes, a giant bag of cheap socks. I have what I need, so I don’t have an excuse to skip.” (Not an under-buyer, clearly.)

Justifications based on convenience may also be loopholes, so it’s helpful to use the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. (How I love loopholes! They’re so funny.) It may also be helpful to consider this list of questions, to understand how to shape your habits better.

Note: for Obligers, the problem may not actually be convenience, but accountability. Obligers do well to figure out ways to build in the external accountability that’s key for them.

UPDATE: Better Than Before is now published and a New York Times bestseller. Sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you a free chapter from it!
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  • Maureen Schlosser

    Along this line of thinking, I’ve decided that workout clothes are optional. Sometimes if I’m short on time/motivation, I skip switching into workout clothes and just hit the elliptical machine we have at home in whatever I’m wearing. Today it was jeans and a t-shirt.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great idea.

  • Andrea

    I found that a spreadsheet of my exercise goals and accomplishments have been very useful in the past (naturally, since I’m primarily an obliger according to your quiz that I took recently). However, the major factor for me recently has been to get in shape in preparation for a possible pregnancy. Now it is no longer a question of whether or not I feel like working out – my health (in the near term!) will be vastly improved by a healthy cardiovascular system. And I’m not longer exercising just for myself, but for a future child as well. What a huge change this has been to my attitude about exercise! I wonder if a similar thought process could be used even for those who aren’t soon-to-be-expecting mothers.

  • Kristina

    Hmmmm. It seems to me that if you hope that exercise will become convenient, then you have a very good excuse not to exercise. 🙂 Exercise IS inconvenient! It takes up big chunks of time, it makes you sweaty, and it can be downright uncomfortable (and actually, it doesn’t really “work” until you start getting uncomfortable.) I gave up thinking it would be convenient, and that is when I got more successful at my exercise habit. I acknowledged that I would have to get up early to exercise, which meant going to bed earlier (highly inconvenient on both parts), and I had to get organized and lay out my clothes the night before (also inconvenient) and I had to be willing to put up with a gym (yuck! no! I don’t like it!) or who-knows-what-weather (I’ve grown used to running in the rain; it turns out that if you stuff your shoes with newspaper afterwards they dry out faster). None of that is “convenient”. HOWEVER: I found things that I love. I love running outside, especially on the water (and it’s not far from my house, which is convenient). I love the feeling of going through the day knowing that I already did my exercise. I love watching my mileage build (what, I can do that?!). I love how strong I feel. Exercise is STILL inconvenient for me, and I still hate it when the alarm goes off in the dark and it’s cold outside. But the inconvenience is outweighed by what it does for me….and that’s how I’ve kept going. (I’m running my first marathon in less than a month. Wahooo!)

    • Veronique

      Kristina my sentiments to the letter. My husband and I were just discussing this in the car last night. We were saying how much time exercising takes up. I work out for ninety minutes every other day and sometimes when that routine starts to get boring for forty five minutes every day. I can’t really get around the thirty five minutes it takes me to run 5K. At fifty years old I’m running as fast as i want to 🙂 so sometimes I do that one day then weights the next. I also love the feeling of knowing I’ve done my exercising for the day. I force myself to go at nine A.M. on my workout days and like you I hate the summons but I love the benefits of exercise. I also love, love running. I look forward to that a lot.

    • Veronique

      Oh I also meant to say Kristina good luck with your marathon.

  • Jane B.

    Hi Gretchen!! I’m excited for your new book. Can I ask, will you be narrating the audiobook this time? The Happiness Project was SO enjoyable to listen to, and Happier at Home was less enjoyable without your particular voice coming through. What will you choose for this next book? Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes I will!

  • Meg

    I’ve take the opposite approach to Maureen. I started wearing my workout clothes to bed. I find that when all I have to do is get out of bed and lace up my shoes, I am much more likely to get out the door and run.

  • MsLaurie

    I worked through a similiar ‘what’s the problem?’ process a while ago, and ended up signing up for a gym that is right next to my bus stop home from work, and directly above the supermarket where I’ll often pick up bits and pieces for dinner. As I’m “already going there”, going to the gym has become less of a drama. Also, I realised that I really don’t enjoy exercising of any type (bores me!), so I’ve decided not to try and find it fun, but just look at it as “something that must be done” – but only in short bursts! So I limit myself to 30 minutes, 2-3 times a week. Its probably not enough, but its better than zero, and unlike when I was attempting to do “proper” workouts, with a short burst I actually DO do it.
    Its been 6 months now, and while I’m no gym bunny, I am actually still going, and I am definately fitter – I can now run on the treadmill while singing along to “Happy” and doing a little jazz hand dance 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Great approach.

  • Jamie

    I enjoy Zumba but my gym got rid of all the instructors I liked. Suddenly I found myself without my favorite class at a time that I could attend. So I dumped my membership and got certified to teach the class myself. I started teaching the class at my church at a schedule that works for me. I get a great workout and I’m helping others too.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Catseye

    I began working out with some hand weights I found at the back of a closet in early January. I’ve had them for years and never really used them. I decided to either use ’em or lose ’em. I use them while I’m watching my soap during the week – I keep them on a shelf next to the TV. I’ll also use them on the weekends if I remember and also have the time. But, and this has made the biggest difference for me – if I miss a day or two, I just get back on schedule. The combo of convenience and no self-criticism has made the difference! Also, my lower back pain disappeared. Win-win!

  • Jeanne

    Here is a good site to start with on researching regional dialects in the US.

    • gretchenrubin


  • The way I’ve got round the excuses not to exercise is to stock up on the “Ten Minute Solution” workout DVDs (this is not an advert BTW, I have no affiliation with them, just a happy customer!). There are all different kinds (pilates, kickboxing, toning, dance…) and they are broken down into ten minute chapters – there’s not really any excuse to avoid a ten minute workout – “It’s only ten minutes!” – and once you’ve done ten minutes, you’re into it so will inevitably do more chapters. In fact, I’m gonna go stick on one the DVDs right now!

  • Mel

    One thing that has helped me enormously with the boring gym treadmill is distracting myself with interesting movies. I have one of those old portable DVD players and I check out all kinds of movies at the library to watch while I exercise. So much better than constantly flipping through channels during my workout. Also, I only let myself watch those particular movies while on the treadmill, so I actually want to go to the gym to see what will happen next and how it will end.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great example of Pairing.

  • phoenix1920

    Reading the ideas as to how others create ways to make habits easier is fascinating and SO helpful! I wonder if, when the book comes out, there can be a section on the website as to each of the 7 main habit topics (if I’m recalling the number correctly) where blog readers can post ideas and help encourage each other and brainstorm together! I can be creative in some areas, but for some reason, this does not translate as well in finding ways to cultivate good habits.

    In reading this post, I LOVE the idea about changing into gym clothes prior to the decision to exercise ( the OP is using it for PJs). I don’t exercise enough, even though I love the way I feel when I exercise. For me, I am going to start changing into gym clothes when I get home from work, because even wearing gym clothes helps me recall that feeling of power and challenge I get when I work out. I feel more energetic in gym clothes!

  • Stuart JF Gilding

    I struck a big problem when the babies came along. It became very inconvenient to get to the gym and back again. In fact it just became inconvenient to leave the house!
    So my wife and I bought some gym equipment that we felt would meet our standards and put it in the garage. Ducking back in the house to listen out for a baby who had woken, and then going back to garage to continue the workout was very do-able. Minus the gym memberships for several consecutive years, and the expense was not even significant either.
    Just like the guy with the multiple gym bags, I think sometimes you need to outlay on some infrastructure that makes it easier to keep exercising when your life stage or circumstances shift. And be open to changing when / where / how you exercise rather than being too rigid about it.

  • This entry was very timely! I read it when it was posted. That day I had decided to skip my run.

    I don’t really force myself to exercise anymore. I just listen to my body. If I am restless, I know that running will make me feel better. But if I feel lethargic and really need to catch up on sleep, I’ll do that. It takes a lot of trust in myself to do this, but I find it works better for me than just forcing things. I think I am a Moderator so this system works, versus running every day.

  • Mari Dagni

    After working out at the gym for many years spending lots of money and time on it, I decided to quit and do my exercise at home 5 times a week for 30-60 min. depending on my days schedules. Unless you really want to build up huge muscle masses most of exercises can be reasonably done without much support other than the own body. I also use gym bands, the strongest I can find. Other than that you only need a yoga mat, maybe a chair and minimal space. Every other day I work on either legs/hips/balance and stretching or upper body, back and abs for half an hour each. I try to do each movement as intensive as possible. As to the treadmill I have never liked it anyway. Instead I am using my legs as much as possible in daily life. An other advantage. I can watch the news or listen to the radio at the same time. No time to lose, no fancy cloth. Easy, fun and quick. The result: At 46 I am not only slim, but in good shape.

    • hush

      Amen, @Mari Dagni! Working out at home using my own body weight and minimal equipment worked for me. I work from home, and I sometimes keep odd hours, and so I discovered it works much better for me to do a workout DVD on my own time, in my own home. I save so much time not having to commute to a gym.

  • Sadye

    That’s why I love running — because I’m used to running outdoors, it’s very, very hard to tell myself that putting on shoes and workout clothes, then stepping outside, is too inconvenient. (I realize many people are more weather-sensitive, no judgment.)

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