November, 2017


by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.


Motivation can be slippery.  Say you need to clean out your closet and you’ve been thinking for months about doing it but when you have the time, you just don’t feel like getting to it.  One day, you start the project almost without thought and little effort.   Some time later, when you are done, you think, “Why did I take so long to get to this?  It wasn’t that much of a chore; what was my problem?”  It may seem as if the motivation simply descended upon you.

Research indicates that regular exercise has enormous, positive impacts on one’s life.  But, deciding that you want to exercise regularly is different than cleaning your closet.  It isn’t a once-a-year activity.  To show results, it’s 3-5 times a week and requires motivation on an on-going basis.

Exploring your personal history regarding exercise is helpful.   Many people think they can “Just do it” like Nike suggests.  For others, that seems almost impossible.  Try not to override your resistance, but explore it and find ways to work with it.  This article presents some of the common resistances that my clients have raised.

Feeling Controlled

Some clients have had parents that hover over their every decision, and they feel controlled even by their inner “shoulds.”  From a psychological perspective, we can experience every age we have ever been.  We can, at the same time, experience our infantile self, and our rebellious teenager, the one who doesn’t want to be told what to do.

So how can we reconcile these conflicting messages?  First, allow yourself to feel the anger or resentment that you carry.  Recognize that you were denied freedom of self-expression growing up and now struggle with anything that feels as though it’s a rule.  But in reacting to childhood demands, you are still being controlled; you aren’t experiencing true freedom of choice.  Then you may realize that if you didn’t feel powerful growing up with hovering parents, exercise can make you feel powerful now.

Mistrust of one’s body

If you grew up not feeling athletic or physically strong, you may have some ambivalent feelings about your body.  In that circumstance, it is essential to start an exercise regimen slowly.  If you begin to climb the stairs in your building, you may need to pause several times going up.  With consistency, you will be surprised at how quickly it gets easier.  Notice also that when you get a slight cut or burn, your body takes care of it without you having to do anything.  If you get a cold, your body will also heal itself without you having to make it do it.  Relish in these little miracles, beginning to feel more trust in the inherent wisdom of your body.

Magical Thinking

We often want habits and changes to happen easily and without effort.  Waiting for inspiration or motivation to appear, however, is not an answer.  Many times we create motivation and momentum by our behaviors.  I’ve heard several of my clients tell me that they know it takes about 3 weeks to create a habit.  That’s true if we are talking about a small simple change such as drinking a glass of water after breakfast.  Research confirms that starting and maintaining an exercise program will take much longer.  The beginning stage is consistency and is much more important than almost anything else.


Some clients may feel hopeless about ever being able to exercise on a regular basis.  They may be overweight and the process feels overwhelming and futile.  It is a cruel irony that exercise is an important tool for dealing with depression, but it is when you are feeling depressed that you are least likely to be able to exercise.  When I refer to going slowly to begin an exercise regimen, I am talking SLOWLY.  Very small changes in behaviors, but most importantly, changes done consistently have a greater impact than more dramatic changes done periodically.

Sue Speake, LMFT has written a book called The End of Living Large, which journals her weight loss of over 80 pounds and lays out a process for people to address their own issues of overweight.  In the book, she makes a case for changing habits in small, almost miniscule ways.

As you examine the sources of your own resistance, the beginning stage of becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings is important.  You can address this experience, allowing you to make progress.

I’ve never heard any of my clients say that they started exercising on a regular basis and that it didn’t do much for them.  Overwhelmingly, clients have talked about how life changing the process has been.  As in the fable, it is the tortoise, not the hare that wins the day.



Speake, Sue, LMFT.  The End of Living Large.   Speake Press, California, 2015.

Dr. Susan Harper Slate is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Santa Monica.  Dr. Slate is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.  You can contact Dr. Slate at (310) 582-0010 or

Copyright 2017 Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.