The Three Biggest Mistakes Novice Exercisers Make

My clients have something in common.  Every one of them came to me for personal training because they had tried many times to establish a fitness routine but were unable to sustain it.  They all are moms but each has very different schedules.  Some have very young children, others have their children in school full-time.  Some work full-time away from home, others work part-time or at home.  Some exercised regularly at some point in their lives, others hadn’t.  So, one can’t say that a particular schedule, life stage or lack of experience is to blame for the difficulty in establishing a fitness routine.  The reality is that everyone who struggles to incorporate regular exercise into her life is making at least one critical mistake early on that is repeatedly derailing her.  Here are the three most common mistakes most novice exercisers make that significantly decreases their chances of long-term exercise adherence.

Too Much, Too Fast

This can encompass many scenarios.  The most obvious is someone who has not exercised regularly, if ever, begins a high-intensity or long-duration workout with the idea that she’ll be able to shed pounds faster.  This will lead to immediate physical discomfort, psychological discouragement in short order and, at worst, injury.  Similarly, deciding to go from working out less than once a week to working out 5 or 6 days a week is unrealistic and will lead to abandonment of exercise altogether.  Sometimes biting off more than you can chew isn’t about the intensity, duration or frequency of the exercise regimen but the investment in it.  Many believe that if they shell out a lot of money for a gym membership, home exercise equipment or DVD series they will be incentivized to stick with it because of what it cost them.  But, once the money is gone from the bank account, it’s gone.  There’s no longer a financial incentive attached to working out.

Novice exercisers are negatively effected by their perceived failures more than they are positively effected by their perceived triumphs.  Miss a workout and you will view it as a failure and the negative internal dialogue begins – I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I’m not good at this, I’m too busy.  Better to begin with a goal that is attainable until a routine can be established: one exercise bout per week.  Celebrate those workout days and give yourself a pat on the back, every single one of them is a triumph.  Maybe there will be times when you can fit in a second day in a week, treat that as extra credit.  If a week comes along when you miss your goal – big project at work, illness, vacation – it won’t derail you.  You can tell yourself that you’re cashing in your extra credit and plan to get right back on track the next week.  You have an entire lifetime to work up to five or six workout days a week.  You wouldn’t want your teenager setting off on a cross-country road trip the day after he got his driver’s license, why would you expect yourself to be able to handle a veteran exerciser’s weekly regimen right off the bat?

Going It Alone

This mistake is a bigger one for women than men.  Numerous studies on exercise adherence show that those who exercise with a partner or as part of a group are much more likely to achieve exercise adherence than those who don’t.  These same studies indicate that the correlation between exercising alone and failure to adhere is stronger for women.  Of course, this is a generalization and there are many men and women who enjoy, actually prefer, to workout alone.  I am one of them.  But if you have repeatedly tried to adopt a regular fitness regimen on your own and have been unable to sustain it, you are not likely one of them.  You probably need the motivation and accountability of an exercise buddy.  The socialization that takes place during exercise with a partner also creates positive reinforcement – you enjoy the experience with your partner which gives you overall positive feelings associated with the workout itself.  This makes you more likely to repeatedly return to workout and less likely to skip a workout.  My one caveat is to be choosey about your partner.  This is a huge commitment.  In order to achieve success, you want the partner to be someone who is dependable, is as committed as you are to the process and with whom you get along.


Like anything else you aim to be successful at, effort is not only required during the activity but also leading up to the activity.  To not put some forethought and planning into building your fitness routine is to sabotage yourself.  Regardless of where you workout – at a gym, fitness studio or along the sidewalks in your neighborhood – you should schedule your workouts just as you would any other important appointment on your calendar.  The time you set aside for a workout is your time and is one of the most important investments in your health that you make.  Schedule it on your calendar every week and plan your day around keeping that appointment.  That means being prepared: have your workout clothes in your car, pre-arrange childcare and make sure everyone in your household is aware of your workout schedule, that you consider it a priority and, therefore, so should they.

Unexpected events that require our attention arise almost on a daily basis, especially when children are in the picture.  But putting fitness and health at the top of your list means attaching high priority status to your workouts.  If the event wouldn’t cause you to reschedule a doctor’s appointment or medical test, parent-teacher conference, lunch with a friend or business meeting, then it shouldn’t be a reason to skip your workout.  Even illness isn’t always a good excuse to sit it out.  If you don’t have a fever, diarrhea, vomiting or respiratory distress then a walk outdoors at a moderate pace, low-intensity strength workout or gentle yoga may actually help with symptoms of a mild cold.

There will be times when an emergency causes you to legitimately cancel a workout.  Be prepared for that too.  First, accept that it will happen and guard against guilty feelings or beating yourself up over it.  Second, plan for cancellations.  Have back-up slots scheduled on your calendar to fit in a workout reschedule or to use as your extra credit workout.  For tips on how to do this effectively see my May Small Steps post here.

In the end, the best approach to establishing a successful fitness regimen while avoiding pitfalls can be summarized this way: be realistic and take it in small, incremental steps and make fitness a priority by creating a supportive network and planning ahead.  This is more about having the right state of mind than it is about having willpower or hyper-motivation.  The willpower and motivation will not always be there and those are precisely the days that keeping your eyes on the fitness prize will be what gets you to and through your workout.

Author’s Note: Always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.

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