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A report in Prevention magazine (5/10/08, page 10) has got me going—“Research shows that typically half of all women drop out of exercise programs within the first 6 weeks of starting one. Most women say having little free time, a lack of confidence when exercising, and supportive friends and family are the main reasons they stop short of achieving their goals.” Superficially reasonable answers, sure, but based on my years of professional experience, researchers need to dig deeper to get at the real issues.

Yes, many women are pressed for time. Working in and out of the home, trying to live up to cultural expectations, they’re overworked, overextended, and exhausted. But women with an all-or-nothing mentality generate an inner pressure to do everything and do it perfectly which prevents them from exercising—if they can’t do it all, they do nothing, if they can’t do it well, they don’t even try. So rather than exercise briefly, incrementally, or less than they wish they could, they don’t bother.

Lack of confidence when exercising sounds suspiciously like poor self-esteem, a touch of perfectionism, and discomfort asking for help in learning how to exercise. Basically, we’re talking shame here: not recognizing that everyone starts at the beginning and that those who succeed generally need guidance along the way. What is it women don’t feel confident about regarding exercise? Doing it correctly? Whether it will help them lose weight? Is the problem confidence or something more complicated and conflicted?

The issue of lacking supportive friends or family may be due to a need for approval, a fear of rocking the boat, and a habit of women putting themselves last. If intimates aren’t going to cheer us on toward health and happiness, we need to ignore them, challenge them, minimize contact, get them out of our lives, or prove them wrong. Giving lack of support as a reason for not exercising is victim speak. Encouragement makes it easier, but we need to build up our own resources in spite of what other people say and do.

If you’re an exercise drop-out, it’s time to consider your real reasons for not achieving fitness goals. Don’t just skim the surface, but dig deep to identify your unconscious dilemmas and underlying conflicts. You really can’t find 30 minutes a few days a week to exercise? Why must you be confident? Why do others need to support, encourage, or approve of you exercising? When you’ve identified the real issues, challenge them one by one until your thinking is clear and unconflicted. Then go out and try exercising again. Maybe this time you’ll be in the statistical half of women that don’t drop out.