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Paige Waehner

How Not to Give Exercise Advice

By August 28, 2009

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The other day, my husband told me he was going out for a run. My response was, "Are you running the same route you always run? Why don't you run somewhere different? And you should do some interval training, because you can burn more calories, and you should..."

It was at that moment that his eyes glazed over and I very quickly picked up his silent message: "Shut up, dear."

I love giving advice, even when it isn't asked for and I think that's something many exercisers enjoy. We like sharing our knowledge and helping people, but sometimes we're just annoying, as my husband can attest.

A few things I've learned about giving advice:

1. Don't - What I've learned from my husband is that, "I'm going for a run," doesn't actually mean, "Tell me how to improve my workout in excruciating detail." Unless someone specifically asks for advice, it's probably best to keep it to yourself.
2. Don't oversimplify - When people do ask for advice, especially beginners, we sometimes oversimplify, forgetting what it's like for people who are just starting out. For example, saying, "Why don't you just eat less," to a person struggling to lose weight may make their eyes roll out of their heads, leading to permanent blindness. In fact, almost any sentence that starts with, "Why don't you just..." is usually followed by a useless statement. Remembering our own struggles can help us avoid that kind of counterproductive advice.
3. Don't waste your breath - Then there's that person who constantly asks for advice and never actually takes it. We probably all know someone like that and our advice usually goes in one ear and out the other. Some people are looking for justification for their behavior, not real advice. If you find yourself saying the same thing over and over again, ("Maybe you can't follow that diet because it requires you to eat tree bark and lemon wedges all day"), it may be a good idea to back off and save it for someone who's listening.
4. Listen - This sounds silly, but most of us spend half the conversation thinking about what we're going to say next. Instead really listen to what the person is saying so you can give a thoughtful response. Sometimes people say one thing ("I can't seem to lose weight") but they're really talking about something else ("I feel so stressed, that I eat more than I should"). Knowing what's really going on may make it easier to offer your help.
5. Share your own struggles - It's great to offer advice, but it's also helpful to talk about how you struggle with your own choices at times. When you're healthy and fit, people may feel intimidated by that, not realizing that we all have to work at making healthy choices.

Do people come to you for exercise advice and, if so, do you ever go a little too far? What's your advice for giving exercise advice? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

August 28, 2009 at 9:40 am
(1) John DeFlumeri Jr says:

I should have read your article years ago. I have been an exercise nut for 30 years, running, biking, swimming, weight training, walking, etc.
All that time I have told many people, to the point of madness, how they should or could start exercising. I really overdid it!

Thanks, John DeFlumeri Jr.

August 28, 2009 at 11:02 am
(2) Mary C says:

I’m glad I read your column. I have been giving exercise advice to my daughter for a long time and it hasn’t helped yet. It’s easy for me to tell her what I think she should do to lose weigth but there are some underlying issues going on that I am not hearing because I’m too busy giving advice. I have always been an exerciser and I try to maintain my weight so when people come to me for advice or suggestions, I love to give it. I think I need to listen to the underlying message. Thanks.

August 28, 2009 at 11:19 am
(3) db says:

I find it is easier to give advice when the time is right. Last week the wife and I finished up a box of jelly filled donuts. She was in agony and the heartburn was killing her. She said she need to go for a walk. It was perfect timing as I threw out the “honey, next time you should only eat one of these.” I think she got the message. Timing is everything.

August 28, 2009 at 11:23 am
(4) Lisa says:

I think the best advice is to wait until asked for advice. And that goes for all aspects of life, but also when people are considering any sort of lifestyle change. When they’re ready for advice, they’ll ask for it. Giving it before then is no better than talking to a brick wall.

August 28, 2009 at 12:31 pm
(5) ivi says:

I agree with you and your other readers. Forty-five or so years ago in law school an instructor said, “Free advice is worth what you pay for it.” For me that metamorphosed into, “Don’t give advice unless you’re asked for it.” And basically that’s what your excellent article and subsequent comments said.

August 29, 2009 at 9:11 am
(6) Lindatwist says:

You are truly a wise woman – sounds like you come from a long line of strong, funny, entertaining, interesting, and courageous wise women, long may we live- with your help in educating us into a healthier lifestyle –


September 1, 2009 at 7:51 am
(7) Koss says:

Great article! That’s what I believe to be true about giving an advice! Do not give it until you are asked to.
“Unasked” advice can really make other people mad.

March 19, 2010 at 3:26 pm
(8) shezy says:

totaly agree and plus “un asked advice” can also sometimes be taken the wrong way for an insult. 100% right.

September 3, 2010 at 12:58 pm
(9) mb says:

One thing to remember: Don’t assume you know more than the other person, or that your way of thinking is better than theirs. Often what works for you (just eat less, etc) is not appropriate for the other person. If they have medical issues affecting their ability to lose weight (medications, thyroid issues, etc) simple advice won’t help, and it could make them feel like failures.

Before giving advice, ask yourself if you would like to be on the receiving end of that advice.

September 6, 2010 at 5:03 pm
(10) Charlie says:


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