More Than Willpower: How to Overcome Barriers to Fitness

Alice Stevens

Last Updated: March 15th, 2021

Part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

If you're having a hard time fitting physical activity into your daily life, you're not alone. Overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s report on physical activity levels in U.S. states and territories shows that activity levels could be improved in most areas.

The first article in this two-part series took a deeper look at the report and reviewed possible reasons for the striking differences the report found across regions and ethnicity.

The CDC's initiative Active People, Healthy NationSM has great resources for organizations and community leaders working to encourage physical activity in their communities. These are helpful for addressing these physical activity trends from a larger scale.

While broader trends and barriers to fitness are usually better addressed at a societal and community levels, it's possible to incorporate more physical activity into your life even with existing barriers. Active People, Healthy NationSM also has helpful advice and resources for individuals and families. Joining the initiative can also connect you with other people becoming more active and keep you up-to-date on the movement.

We reached out to experts for tips on overcoming barriers to fitness. Whatever barriers you face when it comes to regular physical activity, working to overcome them will benefit you.

Where to start

As you plan to increase your physical activity, you’ll need to determine your end goal, identify potential barriers, and plan ways to be successful.

As you think about your end goal, keep in mind that visualization won’t be enough to help you achieve.

“Surprisingly, it has been found that visualizing isn’t enough and maybe even harms the process! That’s because visualizing can give us a feeling of reward right on the spot within our brain. Imagine saying “Ah, imagine if I’ve written that book . . .”  It feels great and then that was enough!” says Alexandra Miller, Psy.D, Host of Psychology America with Dr. Alexandra Podcast and Director of Live Well Psychology.

Making a clear, doable plan can help.

“The first thing is to not try and change too much too soon. What I mean by this is often someone is aware they should be more active and believes they need to start going to the gym every day and change their diet all at the same time.

What happens more often than not is one will start off by going to the gym five or more times a week. This is too much to start off with,” recommends Anthony Treas, MPH, CHES, Men's Life Coach for STRONG Men Coaching, LLC.

Pacing yourself and gradually increasing your physical activity levels will help you be more successful with your goals over time.

“When I coach someone who would like to add physical activity in their life, we start by just adding just a few days a week. If they can do more, that is fine, but the goal for the first few weeks is to participate in physical activity for a few times a week.

Then gradually work to adding more days to eventually be doing some sort of physical activity everyday. Once they have a good routine, then it is time to start changing the diet,” continues Treas.

Another key to achieving your fitness goals? Finding something you like to do.

“The second thing is to find a physical activity that is enjoyable. Doing something enjoyable will help someone to stay consistent and consistency is the key to receive the health benefits of physical activity.

Although, it is important to add in strength training, flexibility, and functioning exercises, doing something you enjoy is the most important for longevity,” advises Treas.

Even if you have a clear plan and an activity you look forward to, you can always change your mind in the moment. Miller has advice to counteract this: 

“What we need to do according to recent research is consciously think of our biggest internal barrier to making our goal (i.e. increased activity) happen. This often comes in the form of one sentence we tell ourselves and will be unique to each person. For my patients it’s often 'I’ll do it tomorrow,' or 'I don’t have the energy' or 'I don’t have the time right now.' Once we come up with this sentence, we then make a plan of how to overcome this barrier. The play may be in the form of a sentence paired with an action, such as 'It’s now or never . . . and then I put on my running outfit.'  This method has a fancy title: ‘Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions,’” she says.

exercise shoes and free weights

How to overcome barriers

Anticipating and planning to work around barriers will help you achieve your goals.

“Make a list of how incorporating physical activity may be difficult for you. Identify these areas and then find a way to make it easier to incorporate physical activity. It will require some changes, but the health benefits are worth it,” suggests Treas.

Specific barriers you face will vary in their type and intensity, so your plans to overcome your difficulties will likely be different from someone else’s. Below are some tips for overcoming common barriers.


Kristen Burris, LAc, MSTOM, Acupuncturist and Master Herbalist for Eagle Acupuncture
“If weather is a challenge: either too hot or too cold, finding activities indoors will be your saving grace. In the dead of winter, going to a gentle warm heated yoga class sounds abundantly more appealing than walking in the windy city with snow all around.”

Amber Nash, fitness expert and founder of Fit Healthy Best
“Try 20-second exercise snacks to improve fitness and boost motivation in cold months. Researchers found that just 20-seconds of stair climbing a few times per day improved the subjects' cardiovascular fitness. This can be done easily indoors all winter or when someone does not have access to physical activity.”

Michael Groesch, PT, DPT Clinical Manager of Menorah Park Center for Senior Living
“Ice skating, skiing, and winter hiking can be a great way to beat the winter blues and avoid gaining the extra weight we may experience in colder months.”

While these tips focus on colder weather, you may need to find indoor activities if the summers in your area are too hot. 


Jennifer Ellis, ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor and Life Enlightenment CEO
“Just move. Many people I find feel like they have to join a gym, sign up for a class, walk a certain number of steps per day, etc in order to be active. I tell my students — just move! I don’t care what you do or for how long; any amount of movement will be beneficial — do a set of squats while brushing your teeth, park farther from wherever you are going and walk, if you are a parent with time constraints turn on some music and dance around the house with your kids. Those are a few of many easy examples I share with my students.”

Michael Groesch
“Even while watching TV, one can stand, do squats, lift light weights, (if you don’t have dumbbells try using books, filled bags, or canned goods for weight) do leg extensions, toe touches, and jumping jacks. Workout videos are entertaining, high energy, and can be done any time, and anywhere that you have access to a computer, TV, or phone with YouTube. Most are found free on the internet.

Before bed, gentle stretching can be part of your nightly routine. Try sitting toe to toe with your partner and stretching back and forth.”

Kristen Burris
“Many community centers offer classes for free or for only a few dollars. Write down on a calendar each week a new activity you'd like to try from tai chi to yoga to square dancing to Pilates to weight training to snowshoeing to pickleball to flying a kite or riding a bike. Figure out what you like. The things you dread, avoid. If taking on activities feels too daunting, walk more, drive less, park further, carry more, take the stairs not the elevator, and start slow. The other option is to YouTube exercise for beginners or a 10-minute workout. All you need is a phone, Wi-Fi, and 10 minutes.”


Sandra Crawley, RN, BSN and Mom Loves Best medical consultant
“If someone puts in long hours working and comes home to take care of the family, then has to travel to a different location to be able to be physically active, chances are the first thing to go is physical activity.

When time and money are limited, take small steps to become more active. Dance while doing chores — don’t just sit and watch the kids, get up and join them. Take a walk after dinner and explore your neighborhood. Find your support person. No matter what the perceived barriers are, there is always a way around them.”

Gaye Groover Christmus, MPH of CalmHealthySexy
“One of the easiest ways to get more physical activity is to work it into your daily life. Every day, think about your schedule and ask yourself, 'How can I move more today?' Wear an activity monitor, set a step goal, and add short periods of walking throughout the day. Walk at your children’s sports practices and lessons. Walk and talk with a colleague, rather than sitting and talking. Take 20 minutes of your lunch hour to walk.”

Michael Groesch
“If you can’t join a gym or health maintenance program, you can get your activity in at a local mall; it’s a great place to walk! Also, multi-level office and apartment buildings have steps to each floor, which provides great cardio. A 10-minute walk during your lunch break can do wonders for your energy level, cardio health, lowering blood pressure, and de-stressing.”

two women doing a one-armed plank and high-fiving

Ways to stay on track

Keeping yourself accountable will help you stay on track. You can hold yourself accountable to yourself or find a friend to work with are great options.

If personal accountability works for you, you can use fitness technology, like Fitbits, to keep yourself going towards your goals.

“Invest in some tech. Wearable devices that track your activity have been shown to be very effective. Setting an active goal and using technology to track your progress throughout the day is a great way to remind yourself to keep moving,” suggests Samantha Clayton, vice president of sports performance and fitness for Herbalife Nutrition.

If tech is beyond your budget, you can use a calendar, journal, or make your own tracker. You can also keep track on your phone.

Social support can also help you succeed.

“To help increase activity levels, people should find some support, either from family, friends, or a group. People are more apt to be physically active if they have another person be active with them and the extra support will keep you motivated,” suggests Crawley.

Finding a friend or family member to work-out with or even just to go on walks with can help you stay on track for your activity goals. You may even be able to find support groups by joining the CDC's Active People, Healthy NationSM.

If you have a health plan, your insurer may offer rewards or programs that make it easier to be active. For example, Cigna offers a Healthy Rewards® program that provides discounted fitness club rates to plan members among other discounts. 

With a workable plan and the right support, you can be successful and increase your activity.

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