exercise work for you

Exercise Does Not Have to Be a Dirty Word: Make Exercise Work for You

February 15, 2021

Make Exercise Work for You

Exercise can be an elusively practiced goal for people who are overweight and obese. Obstacles and barriers result in multiple unsuccessful attempts followed by a lack of motivation and the absence of consistent exercise practice. Ultimately, the consequence is a sedentary lifestyle. It is probably that you haven't found exercise to work for you.

As a certified bariatric counselor, part of my responsibility is to help people increase physical activity in their lives.

One of the strategies I implement is to have my patients think about exercise from a different perspective and thus, ultimately, change the context in which they relate to exercise.

Physical activity levels can change when how one thinks about exercise is transformed from something awful into something possible. As motivation increases, so does the formation of a newly acquired habit and lifestyle change that promotes what my weight loss surgery patients say matters to them. What matters? Based on what my pre-bariatric weight loss patients say, what matters is (a) feeling better/feeling healthy, (b) being there for their family, and (c) improving their self-esteem/confidence.

Make Exercise Work for You

Strategy Number One: Keep Your Eye On The Donut; Not On The Hole

The responses above are your donuts. They are the non-caloric values that the majority of overweight people in my practice state are important to them. Yet, they become invisible or at least are shifted into the background rather than the foreground of their minds when it comes time to exercise.  

This is when the donut hole shows up. The donut hole consists of a conglomerate of avoidance reasoning that interferes with doing what leads to practicing values that move in the direction of goal attainment.

One type of avoidance reasoning is perpetuated by thought myths. Thought myths are self-fulfilling prophecies that promote low self-esteem and unhealthy choice making.  

Thought myths enable inactivity and are essentially untrue. Some examples of thought myths as they pertain to exercise avoidance are:

(a) I can’t exercise for twenty to thirty minutes at a time because of joint pain, so why bother,

(b) when I do exercise, it does not make much difference to my weight so it does not help me,

(c) I am too busy to fit exercise in my life, and (d) my food plan is reasonable, so I don’t need to exercise.

What is the truth? In examples (a) and (c), some research supports that several short intervals of low impact exercise lasting 10 minutes make a different to health when exercise is not possible for longer periods of time (Jakicic, Wing, Butler, & Robertson, 1995).

Another study by Bhammar, Angadi, & Gaesser ((2012) found that three 10-minute sessions spaced throughout a day had a better outcome for study participants who had high blood pressure than one 30-minute exercise session.

The average blood pressure was lowered as well as the number of times blood pressure increased throughout the day. Hence, for at least high blood pressure, some research indicates that breaking up exercise into segments is more effective than a single session.

Upon further consideration of example (b), exercise has multiple benefits that are not related to weight loss. Don’t make weight loss the only reason why you exercise. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018), some of the benefits are improvements in cognitive functioning, sleep, brain health, and reduced depression. Metabolic factors can impact ability to lose weight for some people. Talk with your doctor about weight loss options under these conditions. 

Lastly, for example (d), while having a healthy food plan is part of the equation to achieve health, presence for family, and self-confidence, physical activity is often the missing factor to maintaining weight loss (even in small amounts), and can help with co-occurring health concerns such as hypertension, heart disease, and osteoarthritis.

I tell my patients a food plan without physical activity is like taking a shower and then diving into a pool of mud. One without the other can be self-defeating.

So, if health and longevity are your donuts, then this means it is highly beneficial for you to do some form of moderate exercise at the level possible based on your current health conditions. I encourage you to examine your own thought myths to see if they are based on absolute truths and remember your donuts defined as non-caloric values that make your life meaningful and fulfilling. Exercise - even in the measurement of minutes makes a difference.

Strategy Number Two: 5-Minute Rule

Set realistic and attainable exercise goals that are revised on a regular basis and grounded on what you can do; not what you won’t do. Individuals who carry extra weight may have mobility limitations caused by joint pain, fatigue onset happening sooner, and less choice of exercise equipment due to weight limits. Rather than sabotage an exercise plan with an unrealistic one, consider this suggestion.

Pick an exercise that you are willing to do at a moderate pace for five minutes a day. This exercise has to be possible.  

So, if hiking the stairs of Machu Picchu for five minutes daily is on your list - this qualifies as self-sabotage (unless of course you live in southern Peru). When choosing an exercise, consider practicality along with agility, balance, and personal preference. Pick something you like…. or at least as close to like and as doable as possible. I know, five minutes is not what the US department of Health and Human Services recommends for exercise on a weekly basis; however, some activity is better than inactivity and people who participate in any amount of exercise can acquire health benefits (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018).

There is biology and psychology behind my “just five minutes” rule. First, the biology. The first five minutes of exercise is hard because the body is being asked to increase oxygen intake to muscles, which rely on an energy system called ATP-PC (the anaerobic glycolysis system) to supply energy when the oxygen level required for the muscles is not available right away.

If you move for approximately three to five minutes, your body will reach what is called a steady state where there is an equilibrium between the demand and delivery of oxygen to your muscles – a request prompted by the additional movement.

At this point, your body switches into an aerobic energy system which is a more efficient way of oxygen delivery for increased movement of active muscles.

Why does this matter? This links to the psychological component of the “just five-minute rule.” When your body reaches more of a steady-state, it is easier to add on another minute. After all, you are already doing whatever exercise you chose, and your mind will probably not talk you out of one more minute. One more minute is a graspable amount of time that is not likely to be off-putting. If you are able to do six minutes, you can see if you could do one more minute to make it seven. This becomes an easier way for you to add minutes to an exercise routine. 

Mind you; if you do five minutes, then you have succeeded. That is your goal. You have not failed. Our bodies are not robots that function at one level every day. Some days are “five-minute days”- others are six, and some may be seven…etc.  Research by Lally, Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle (2009) supports the automaticity of behavior for new habit formation. Habitual exercise practice is crucial for optimal long-term outcomes.

Exercise does not have to be a chore that is worse than cleaning toilet bowls. Exercise motivated by values and committed action in service of what matters can trump the donut holes.


  • Bhammar, D. M., Angadi, S. S., & Gaesser, G. A. (2012). Effects of fractionized and continuous exercise on 24-h ambulatory blood pressure. Med Sci Sports Exerc44(12), 2270-6.
  • Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998- 1009.
  • Jakicic, J. M., Winters, C., Lang, W., & Wing, R. R. (1999). Effects of intermittent exercise and use of home exercise equipment on adherence, weight loss, and fitness in overweight women: a randomized trial. Jama282(16), 1554-1560.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. (2nd ed.) Washington, DC.

Dr. Michelle Matoff, Psy.D, LCSW has a private practice in San Luis Obispo

exercise work for you
michelle matoff


Dr. Michelle Matoff, Psy.D, LCSW is a board certified bariatric counselor, a member of the American Bariatric Advisory Board, EFT certified (Level 2), DBT board certified, and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with a doctorate degree in psychology (Psy.D) and is a psychotherapist with her private practice in San Luis Obispo.
Read more articles by Dr. Michelle Matoff!