5 Ways People Sabotage Their Success at Getting Fit

Do you sabotage your efforts to exercise?

Posted Dec 14, 2018

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Many of us have the goal of getting fitter, but there are some common ways people sabotage themselves in doing this.

Let's look at what these are, and then cover some solutions.

1.  You're prone to overdoing it — Too much enthusiasm!

When you've been doing very little exercise, it's easy to overdo it. For example, my favorite "ramp" program is Couch to 5K, which takes users from running 60 seconds at a time in Week 1 to running 30 minutes straight in Week 9. This program is designed for you to do three times a week, with each session lasting around 35 minutes (The first weeks are mostly walking with a few short running intervals). There are at least four potential ways to overdo it.

  • Skipping ahead
  • Skipping rest days
  • Running too fast
  • Doing other exercise on rest days, so that they're not actually rest days.

If you tend to approach life in boom and bust cycles, you're likely to feel the urge to do this with exercise too.

If you Google tips for completing Couch to 5K, you'll see it repeated over and over that you should focus on just completing each session and not on increasing your running speed. There are two contrasting scenarios that can lead to people ignoring what they perceive to be good advice for other people.

  • If you're particularly self-critical, you might think that it's OK for other people to go easy on themselves, but not for you.  
  • If you're prone to narcissism, you might think you're special, and therefore the usual rules don't apply to you.

Even though these thinking patterns seem like opposites, the outcome is the same!

2. You get frustrated if you don't improve every single time you work out.

Much like life in general, improving your fitness won't be completely linear. You'll have days when you have more energy and flow than other days. If you expect yourself to keep getting faster and faster every single workout, you'll get needlessly frustrated and lose enthusiasm. People who are prone to perfectionism are likely to be particularly susceptible to this problem.

3. You don't plan for obstacles or adapt when problems arise.

People who plan for how they'll overcome obstacles often have the most success. You can't plan for every single thing that might go wrong (and nor should you), but some potential obstacles to success are quite predictable, particularly scheduling issues, injuries, and illness.

For example, you might know that something about your schedule (e.g., travel) is going to get in the way of exercising and need to plan around that, like either swapping a run and rest day, or just taking an extra day.

Another issue that might come up is some type of pain or discomfort that needs to be addressed. Think about how you're likely to react if that happens. Would you just give up altogether? Would you ignore the issue, keep up your training intensity, and potentially worsen your injury? 

Some people only have two modes of operating. They either stick to a plan religiously, or they give up entirely. Success in many domains of life requires more flexibility and adaptability. Your goal should be to stick to the program as closely as possible, unless there's a good reason not to do that. 

4. You feel anticipatory anxiety.

Any ramp program, like Couch to 5K, is designed so that each step up is manageable if you've completed the prior steps. If you look too far ahead at the upcoming weeks, you can end up feeling anticipatory anxiety about completing those steps. Keep in mind that by the time you get to those stages, you're likely to feel more ready than you do now.

5. You suffer from excessive expectations and shooting too high.

You don't need to go from being a couch potato to running a marathon. When you start to experience some success with increasing your fitness, it's easy to get mentally carried away and start dreaming of bigger goals. The downside of this thinking pattern is that it can cause you to start to feel disenchanted with your initial goal, and give up before you even reach that.

Another way this principle manifests is that people often start several behavior change goals at once. As a general rule, stick to one goal at a time. Exercising regularly will naturally improve your self-control in many other areas anyway.


  • If you're interested in increasing your fitness, pick a ramp program you've heard good things about, and stick to it as closely as possible, without overdoing it or skipping ahead.
  • Don't goal switch — stick with your initial goal until you've completed it.
  • Recognize that setbacks and injuries happen and you'll need to adjust. Some types of discomfort can be easily remedied (e.g., through better technique or better shoes, etc.).
  • Get creative whenever necessary. Sometimes I run back and forth at a children's playground while my child is playing. This means my exercise includes some interruptions ("Mom, you need to stop and be a pretend rabbit"), but I stick as closely as possible to whatever I'm supposed to be doing, within the practical limitations I'm dealing with.
  • If your upcoming schedule will make sticking to your program difficult, plan around that in advance.
  • Keep the American Heart Association's activity guideline in mind, which for adults is 150 minutes per week of moderate activity, 75 minutes of more intense activity, or a combination. For Android users, I like the Google Fit app to help automatically track and include incidental walking, like when you're walking around a store. If you're prone to being boom and bust with your goals, don't be with this one. For almost everyone, this goal should be part of your life on a permanent basis. If you auto-track your activity using Google Fit or a similar app, you might be pleasantly surprised at how much your incidental walking adds up and gets you a good chunk of the way to the AHA guideline. You might also be pleasantly surprised at how even slow running gets counted by the Google Fit app as intense activity, which makes it even easier to achieve the guideline. Give it a try!


If you're interested in the Couch to 5K running program, there is an excellent free app for it from Britain's National Health Service (available for anyone on iPhone or Android). You can also download the same material as a podcast rather than installing an app.