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8 Tips for Overcoming Obstacles to Exercise

Though a pandemic is an unusual obstacle, people face similar ones all the time.

Many of us have a complicated relationship with exercise. What does it mean to be “fit”? For most, the idea of “being fit” relates to concepts of physical fitness (e.g., achieving a certain mile time or being able to lift a certain amount or looking a certain way in the mirror).

While the relationship between exercise and physical fitness is obvious, exercise may be even more important to some because of its effects on emotional wellbeing. Many studies have shown that exercise can improve depression, with effects that are comparable to psychotherapy and medication (e.g., Kvam et al. 2016). With the days getting shorter, COVID-19 rates skyrocketing, and the holidays around the corner, we all might need to double down on exercise.

For me personally, breaking a sweat seems to help my body process all the daily stress. It is even sometimes enjoyable if I’m able to really get into my music (I’ve definitely been that person at the gym dancing on the elliptical machine!). Exercise is also a form of mindfulness for me—a glorious break from my brain’s constant planning and preparing.

But what happens when your exercise routine is halted due to an injury or, let’s say, a global pandemic? During the time of COVID-19, my twice-weekly trips to the gym suddenly stopped. Not only was this a loss of access to my beloved elliptical, it was also a loss of one whole hour to myself.

People thrive off routine—and especially during times of stress, maintaining structure can allow for a sense of normalcy and control. Now my family, like many others, are all home together all the time, trying to do remote school and work full-time during a pandemic—definitely not normal—and I never needed exercise more!

But I can’t go to the gym, and I can’t run as a substitute. I’m 39, but I have the knees of a 66-year-old. I was so stressed out and desperate for cardio that I tried to run a few times, and afterward, my knees laughed at me mockingly.

So, now what? Though a pandemic is an unusual obstacle, people face similar roadblocks to exercise all the time due to injuries or illness. Such obstacles are unwanted and out of one’s control. The one thing we can control is our outlook on the situation and our response to it.

Here are a few tips for anyone facing roadblocks to exercise—due to the pandemic, an injury or illness, or low motivation. I expect you know many of these already. Most are simple, but that does not mean they are easy to implement. It’s actually doing them that makes a difference.

  1. Challenge all-or-nothing thinking: I recognized that though I was no longer able to exercise as vigorously as usual, I was still able to get my heart rate up by walking or dancing at home. I also had to challenge thoughts like “I’m going to lose all the progress I’ve made with my fitness!” If I kept moving in different ways, I wouldn’t lose all of my progress. By letting go of all-or-nothing thinking, you can start to adapt to your situation and feel less stuck.
  2. Problem-solve: Even though I was surrounded by people, going to the gym was my only “alone time.” At home, I was interrupted by my children even while trying to do just 10 minutes of yoga. To reclaim my alone time, I made a sign that said “Do NOT enter” and taped it to my bedroom door so I could do yoga each morning. Ten minutes isn’t ideal, but it absolutely helped. I also prioritized going on walks when my partner was “on duty” with the kids so that I would not have to worry about being interrupted. There are lots of ways to problem-solve once we open up to less-than-ideal circumstances.
  3. Set SMART goals: If you are struggling with motivation or tend to set unrealistic expectations, try setting SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timed. If you want to “exercise more,” a SMART goal would be: “I will walk for 20 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday." Reward yourself for achieving you SMART goal!
  4. Focus on mood: While the physical health benefits of exercise can take a while, the mood effects can be quite immediate. Focusing on the immediate mood benefits can be more motivating compared to the long wait for physical pay-offs. We actually studied this in our partial hospital program at McLean Hospital. We compared three different therapy groups. One group focused on the mood effects of exercise, another on the physical health effects, and the third group didn’t talk about exercise at all. For people who had exercised before, the exercise-for-mood group was more effective at increasing exercise compared to the other groups (Hearon et. al, 2018)
  5. Practice flexibility: If you are injured and can’t do your exercise of choice, it’s an opportunity to practice psychological flexibility by shifting to something different. You can practice physical flexibility at the same time by stretching. Flexibility is one of four types of exercise, along with: strength, balance, and endurance. Stretching regularly can relax tight, tense muscles that generally accompany stress or injury. Indeed, yoga has been shown to reducing stress, anxiety, and depression and improve overall well-being and quality of life (Woodyard, 2011).
  6. Enjoy the great outdoors: Exercising outside has many benefits. Perhaps most importantly, it is free! Additionally, you can walk, run, and bike while keeping a safe distance from others. Not only are you receiving a little extra vitamin D to boost your mood, but frequent exercise in nature has been shown to be related to better emotional well-being (Pasanen et al., 2014).
  7. Keep it interesting: If you don’t feel comfortable going to the gym during COVID-19, virtual classes provide the opportunity to try all kinds of exercise at home. Workout videos online provide endless opportunities, from intense HITT workouts to gentle yoga stretching. Even if you are in an apartment or a small space, cardio and strength training are still possible with a little bit of creativity and YouTube.
  8. Focus on the function: Exercise is a form of mindfulness for me—bringing me into the present. Even when you can’t exercise physically due to an injury or illness, you can exercise mentally by practicing daily meditation and mindfulness. In some studies, mindfulness is even superior to physical exercise for managing depression symptoms (Alsaraireh & Aloush, 2017).

The Takeaway:

The truth is: Change is hard, especially when it feels forced upon us. Setbacks and challenges are inevitable, so remember to be flexible and patient with yourself when facing new obstacles. Although adapting to a new fitness routine may seem like a challenge, you are worth it! So take the time to care for your emotional and physical well-being and your body and mind will thank you for it.

Listen to Dr. Beard talking about exercise on The Lisa Show.

Arielle Solomon contributed to this article. Arielle is a third-year undergraduate student at Northeastern University majoring in Psychology.


Pasanen, T. P., Tyrväinen, L., & Korpela, K. M. (2014). The relationship between perceived health and physical activity indoors, outdoors in built environments, and outdoors in nature. Applied psychology. Health and well-being, 6(3), 324–346.

Kvam, S., Kleppe, C. L., Nordhus, I. H., & Hovland, A. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of affective disorders, 202, 67-86.

Alsaraireh, F. A., & Aloush, S. M. (2017). Mindfulness meditation versus physical exercise in the management of depression among nursing students. Journal of Nursing Education, 56(10), 599-604.

Woodyard C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International journal of yoga, 4(2), 49–54.

Hearon, B. A., Beard, C., Kopeski, L. M., Smits, J. A., Otto, M. W., & Björgvinsson, T. (2018). Attending to timely contingencies: promoting physical activity uptake among adults with serious mental illness with an exercise-for-mood vs. an exercise-for-fitness prescription. Behavioral Medicine, 44(2), 108-115.

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