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What Not to Say to a Loved One Who Just Won't Exercise

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Updated February 12, 2013

We know about the usual issues that plague relationships, such as money, sex, power, who left the toilet seat up, etc. However, there's another issue that can cause just as much conflict: Exercise. More specifically, what happens when one of you exercises and the other doesn't? If you're the exerciser in the relationship, you may try to nag, shame or guilt the other into working out because you love them, want them to be healthy and want to share something that's important to you.

Those are great intentions, but the outcome may be the opposite of what you're hoping for. Forcing a loved one to workout is often the worst kind of exercise - It gets you nowhere and, worse, doesn't burn any calories. We don't always know the best way to encourage someone to exercise, but there are some approaches that are probably best avoided.

1. "Did you do your workout today?"

Category: Nagging
AKA: Nit-picking, bugging
Translation: If I ask you enough times, maybe it will somehow motivate you to do what I want you to do.
Possible Reaction:

  • Defensiveness-"I would have worked out if I didn't have to take your kids to school".
  • Lying-"I did!" - if you consider walking out to get the mail a workout.
  • Avoidance-"Oh, did you say something? I was totally engrossed in the latest episode of 'Moonshiners.'"

Maybe you nag your loved one because you care about them, but it often has the opposite affect, causing them to withdraw or dig in their heels even more. And there's something else to think about. You may think the other person doesn't exercise because they're lazy or stubborn. However, the non-exerciser may have deeper reasons for avoiding exercise; fear of injury or fear of failure, for example. He or she may be in pain or confused about where to start. If you don't know why this person doesn't exercise, that may be the best place to start.

2. "You would look so much better if you exercised."

Category: Shaming
AKA: "You have such a pretty face!"
Translation: ...Because you suck right now
Possible Reaction:

  • Playing the Victim -"I know, I am such a mess. It's no wonder you hate me."
  • Resentment/Sarcasm -"Well, I guess we can't all be as perfect as you, can we?"
  • The Martyr Compex -"I'm sure I would look a lot better if I hadn't had all those kids/didn't have to work so hard to support you/had been born a superhero."

Exercisers or those who don't have weight problems sometimes forget something important: People who are overweight know they're overweight and they already feel bad about it. We may think we're helping by reminding them of this glaring fact, but it often triggers even more guilt and shame. More guilt and shame can lead to the very things that contribute to weight problems like emotional eating and too much stress.

3. "So...that's your idea of a workout? Huh."

Category: Shaming
AKA: Know-It-All Syndrome
Translation: Why even bother if you're not going to sweat/go all out/exercise until you puke?
Possible Reaction:

  • Quitting-"Why bother, indeed?"
  • Defensiveness/Resentment/Sarcasm-"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were the Master of the Exercise Universe. I'll make sure to run my workout by you next time."

Something else we exercisers often forget: What it's like to be a beginner. If you feel the urge to criticize someone else's workout, take a moment and remember what it was like when you first started. How scary was it the first time you walked into a gym or tried an activity you'd never done before? Remember the courage it took you to start and then recognize the courage in your loved one.

4. "I'd NEVER skip exercise, but fine-just sit there and accumulate even more fat."

Category: Shaming, Judging, GOML (Get On My Level)
AKA: Moral smugness, condescension, moral superiority
Translation: Maybe if I point out how superior I am, that will motivate you to attempt to operate at my level.
Possible Reaction:

  • Self-Doubt-"Oh, I thought I was supposed to rest during a severe bout of pneumonia, but maybe I should go workout."
  • Defensiveness/Resentment/Sarcasm-"Well, excuse me for wanting to relax after work. I guess I should've been suffocated at birth."
  • Guilt/Martyr Complex -"You're right. I can't believe I was going to skip a workout just so we could have dinner together. Maybe I can do pushups in between bites."

It's easy for an exerciser to feel a little smug about his or her commitment to health and fitness. But, pointing that out all the time is not only annoying, it smacks of condescension and the need to put someone else down to raise your own self-esteem. Worse is when we fall into the I-started-exercising-why-can't-you trap. It's narrow minded to think that what works for us is going to work for someone else. Genuinely understanding where the non-exerciser is coming from can give you insight into what would work for them. That may be completely different than your approach and that's okay.

5. "My friend's loved one works out all the time...Why can't you?"

Category: Shaming, Judging
AKA: Comparison shopping, veiled threat to find someone better
Translation: Maybe if I point out how much better someone else is, that will motivate you to work harder.
Possible Reaction:

  • The Bridge-Jumper Defense: "If John/Mary jumped off a bridge, would you want me to do that too?"
  • Throwing said friend under the bus: "I'm sure John/Mary only works out all the time because he/she doesn't have a real job. I actually work for a living."
  • The Statistical Defense - "I heard that 86% people who start working out a lot are usually having an affair."
  • Sarcasm - "Well, why don't you go marry her/him then? I'll be happy to give you a divorce."

Being compared to someone else, someone who seems better than we are, feeds into our worst insecurities and doesn't do much to motivate us in the right direction. One About.com reader, commenting on a blog post about this very topic, said it best: "I wish [my husband] would just love me for who I am."

6. "Oh, you're starting exercise? We should train for a triathlon together!"

Category: Excessively expectant
AKA: Overeager, overexcited, puppy-like
Translation: Finally, I have someone who will run with me for 4 hours every Sunday!
Possible Responses:

  • False Flattery -"Oh, I could never work at your level. I would only hold you back."
  • Mind-Change -"You know, my ankle's acting up...I should probably rest it."
  • Lying-"I wish I could train with you, but I just realized I have an important meeting next year and I simply cannot miss it."

Like the person who starts planning a wedding after one date, some exercisers get so excited when their partner starts working out, they immediately plan a future that includes all of their favorite activities. Meanwhile, the newbie may have no interest in doing a triathlon, running a marathon or hiking Mt. Shasta. A better approach to fostering exercise closeness might be to do what they like from time to time. If they enjoy it, they may just decide to climb that mountain with you someday.

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