- I commonly hear that someone "can't" exercise, often due to pre-existing health conditions or injuries.
- At the same time, many people are simply scared away from exercise due to bad trainers and bad training info, compounded with negative experiences in the past.
- In reality, virtually anyone can exercise - it's just a matter of finding the right dose and method for you.
I’m very often told by people that they believe that they “can’t” exercise.
While this belief is probably well-meaning and reinforced by personal experience with exercise, I think that it’s often misguided.
Often, the people who think that they "can't" exercise are people who have had multiple negative experiences with fitness - often due to bad trainers who don't know how to properly work with them, or from crappy one-size-fits-all programs on the internet that don't show any results.
Some people are prone to injury. Some people have aches and pains and medical conditions that make it much harder for them to exercise in an optimal way. Often, these people are made worse via exposure to typical, brute-force fitness industry tactics - they’re thrust into exercise programs that are too difficult or aren’t properly tailored to their needs. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle of negativity (negative feedback loop) where they come to further believe that they “can’t” exercise because every attempt has failed so far (and often, made things worse!).
Now let’s be clear - there are some people who literally cannot exercise. If you’ve had an arm amputated, you certainly can’t exercise that arm. Some people may have serious illnesses or conditions that prevent them from training much at all without overstressing their already-overloaded system. Some people may have issues like illness or depression that make training consistently more difficult. All of these are real issues and can’t be overlooked.
At the same time, almost all other stuff is just… grey area.
Many people think that they can’t get much out of exercise until they’re put on a program that’s appropriately tailored to them by a real professional - and then they start seeing results. Others have recurring injuries that always seem to get worse when they train - until they’re put on a program that’s appropriately designed by a physical therapist. I cannot tell you how many clients I’ve worked with in the past who insisted that they couldn’t do much of anything - and within a few months, were doing more than they could have ever dreamed of.
Here’s the most important thing to remember - exercise is basically just about practicing movement patterns. Yes we have specific lifts like the squat, the deadlift, the overhead press, the bench press, and the row - but it’s not about training these lifts, it’s about training the movement patterns that they represent. These movement patterns are just common, everyday movements that we normally do in our everyday life.
This means that if you can do that movement pattern without weight, and without pain, on its own - then you can probably exercise within that movement pattern. From there, it’s just a process of adding challenge (weight or reps) in a slow, careful, controlled way. Many small aches and pains go away when we strengthen the related joints, tendons, bones, and muscles.
So, if you are capable of moving a limb without hurting yourself - you are probably capable of exercising it. Exercise is just repeated, careful practice of that ability to move a limb. Then, once that positive stimulus is applied over a long period of time, your body begins to adapt and improve.
For many people, this means that starting off with unweighted (or very lightly weighted) exercise is your only option. For people with back issues, you may have to do a lot of exercises with machines or be sure to use seated variants of major movements in order to avoid exacerbating those issues. You may need to work out some parts of the body heavy while other parts rest. Sometimes, you may need to start off with very short workouts in order to avoid exacerbating cardiovascular issues. Some people may not be suited for traditional gyms, and would be better off setting up a minimal home gym for the convenience and privacy that it can offer (as well as the money it can save). Others just need a properly structured program for beginners.
Yes, there are some people who can’t exercise - but I rarely hear the words “I can’t exercise” coming from someone who truly can’t. More often, I hear it from people who have been discouraged and put off by crappy, one-size-fits-all approaches and old-school “no pain no pain” trainers who only make things worse.
In the past I've worked with clients with virtually every available kind of health issue - fatigue syndrome, thyroid issues, serious back injuries, even cancer. While these seriously impacted the way that these clients needed to train, they only sometimes made it necessary to completely avoid exercise.
If you can move an arm or a leg without pain - chances are you can exercise it.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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