I Hate Exercise, but It Loves Me…

 Dr. Sara’s 5 Tips for Biohacking Exercise
When You’d Rather Do Anything Else

There, I admit it. It’s time to get brutally honest. After all, I’m in my forties, perimenopausal, and the best part about it is the newfound clarity, the lift of the hormonal veil–regarding the endless accommodation, the people-pleasing, the half-hearted enthusiasm for things you don’t really enjoy but you do them anyway. Such as, say…exercise.

Dr. Sara Gottfried MD

There are so many more interesting things than exercise…

Yet exercise helps me with important goals:

  1. Be less of a bitch.
  2. Fit into my jeans.
  3. Longevity, particularly keeping my telomeres, the little caps on my chromosomes associated with de-aging, long and lovely.
  4. How yummy I feel afterward. That is, how exercise optimizes my brain chemistry.

Yes, Dear Reader, when we exercise, eat nutrient-dense food, orgasm regularly, and right-size stress, we slow the aging process.

In fact, exercise improves gene expression. There’s just no way around it. Exercise is one of the best perturbations you can make to the complex ecosystem, the weblike matrix of your body.

Hack Your Pharmacopeia

The yummy factor, item #4, just might be most important to me on a day-to-day basis, and of course, it helps with goal #1. Numerous randomized trials show that exercise is either as good or better than taking an antidepressant for mild to moderate depression. In fact, I’d even say…

Exercise = Better Than Antidepressants

Here’s why: Antidepressants were linked last year to a greater risk of breast and ovarian cancer, particularly Paxil. Mechanism not completely clear but may relate to liver metabolism of estrogen. Add that new finding to the list of there badness associated with taking antidepressants, such as weight gain (to the tune of 10 to 20 pounds) and stroke, and suddenly exercise starts to look a lot better, even for folks like me who hate to exercise.

I learned from an early age about the marvelous soothing and numbing qualities of food.
Lest I become gigantic, I had to calibrate the right dose of food, and the right dose of movement.

Here’s what helps, when you hate to exercise…

Dr. Sara’s Top 5 Tips for Those Who Hate Exercise

I Don't Like Exercise, but It Likes Me(Or perhaps you feel like you have no time to fit exercise in. This is for you too.)

The key to these tips is what I’d call the “present-value” mindset.
Yes, I hate to exercise, but OMG do I love how I feel afterwards. Ah, the sanity of my serotonin where it wants to be, in its sweet spot. And let’s not short shrift the vanity–
Is there anything more delightful than zipping up your favorite low-rise jeans, and there’s room to breath and eat another gluten-free enchilada? And love handles aren’t hangin’ obscenely over the edge? You actually look kinda… hot?!

  1. Non-negotiably schedule it in the morning. Just get it done before you have your wits about you. The inner saboteur takes mornings off, but really gets goin’ by noon. Beat her to it.
  2. Keep it short. You exercise for 20 minutes, a la Gretchen Rubin. Or maybe you’re hacking exercise like me, and like to Sprint 8 to rock your growth hormone. More not that in a future post. A second cousin to this is akin to the many small meals per day — try many small doses of exercise.
    I do a 3-minute wall sit while brushing my teeth with Sonic care. I swing a kettle bell for 5 minutes between clients. I sprint for 10 minutes here at my home in the Berkeley Hills, between writing jaunts.
  3. You increase your accountability, until your inner accountability has a chance to catch up. Leverage up the Hawthorne Effect, Baby! Many ways to accomplish this: Work out with a trainer.
    Even better, get the trainer to come to your home and vow never to reschedule. Ever. Run with a buddy (I do this; better than therapy). Strap on your Fitbit. Wear a heart rate monitor. Track, track, trackety track.

  4. Goal set. This especially works for the overachievers in recovery, like me. Maybe it’s a 5K or a 10K. Or some new feat of fitness or yoga. I will do Scorpian! I will run a 7 minute mile! Whateveh you like.
  5. Roll out those signature strengths of yours. Show me yours. Mine: Love of Learning, Creativity, Appreciation of Beauty. When I am exercising and simultaneously integrating my top strengths (in other words, I’m channelling Dr. Martin Seligman of Flourish fame), I am happy, joyous, and free. That means:
    I try new sports — Barre workout, Samba! Kick boxing. Zumba! (Love of Learning). I take dance breaks and bust out some new moves (Creativity). I run in beautiful places (Appreciation of Beauty). 

More on the Damn Hawthorne Effect…

And let’s not forget that we have to make exercise fun. Sustained change is based on freedom and pleasure, plus I like to leverage the Hawthorne Effect when it comes to exercise — the idea that you improve your behavior when it is measured, because you know you are being watched.

Two examples. When I’m in a yoga class as a student, and my beloved teacher is nearby, eyeballs on me…
suddenly my poses get more interesting, more fully expressed, more embodied (let’s hope), and the experience deepens. Or when I wear my Fitbit obsessively, I take more steps, I go running, I track my food and weight.
Get this fundamental concept of human behavior to work for you, not against you. Mash up Hawthorne together with Quantified Self movement plus a bit of Positive Psychology, and you’ve got a great platform from which to exercise.

Would love to hear how you get exercise done, especially if you’re royally ambivalent like me. Post your comment below and tell me all about it.

xoxo Dr. Sara


  1. Becky on April 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Thanks, Dr. Sara! After a long and frustrating plateau (6 months of spotty exercise, poor eating, massive stress) following an amazing success (18 months of regular exercise, good eating, still massive stress, minus 20 pounds), I’ve figured out a way to hack my exercise to make it less of a chore.

    I exercise for 20-25 minutes two days each week (usually a 20-minute workout video followed by a short burst of body weight movement), and on a third I do 40 minutes (video, machine, etc). If it’s going well, I work three days on, one day off.

    During this season, I’ve also tossed a weekly dependence on a scale and work with the jeans and other pants, which are the “on the ground” indicators of good work or slippage. As a chronic measurer, I became dependent on the scale and always thought the “see how your pants fit” thing was BS and would never work for me, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this opportunity to think differently.

    It’s all about the hacks these days! Thanks for your work – appreciate your words, too.

  2. Dorothy on April 25, 2012 at 1:52 am

    Love this post! I’ve gotten into Peak Fitness (same as Sprint 8 I believe) and then T-Tapp, which I teach. I just do the 15 minute workout as many days as I can.

    I’m hypothyroid and struggling with perimenopause but I can at least fit this in. If not, I do my 10 minute stretch/yoga routine without fail.

    I’m working on getting a standing desk for my work too, which will make it easier to move around while working (and cut into Sitting Disease…yuck!).

    Look forward to more articles from you!

  3. Jeanett on May 9, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Reading through your website. Loving it for the most part. I’m looking for the natural remedies for insmonia. I just read your peice on cortisol and then the above piece, too. It looks like you are a runner but in the cortisol peice you said it elevates cortisol! Can you explain? Thanks!

    • Sara Gottfried MD on May 12, 2012 at 12:53 pm

      Here’s the story with running and cortisol, since many have asked about it. If you are someone who has high cortisol all day long, it may be better to learn how to lower it (targeted supplements like fish oil, phosphatidyl serine, rhodiola) plus start a contemplative practice that is shown to lower cortisol (such as medication or yoga). From the medical literature, we know that cortisol goes up after 20 minutes of running (see my latest blog on how I run for only 20 minutes right here: http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/2012/05/10/biohacking-exercise-dose-exercise-rocked-growth-hormone/#
      For people who just LOVE TO RUN, there’s good news about Vitamin C — it attenuates the rise in cortisol in runners when you take 1500 mg/day. Hope that answers your questions, Jeanett and Others! Jeanett, insomnia is rather complicated. I’m working on some blogs and a new course on it but I encourage my own patients to start with checking cortisol levels, especially at night.

  4. shannon on May 25, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    where have you been all my life? just found you today. Need you, love you, thank you.