A new survey shows that most Americans want to be in better shape, but few are putting in the work to get there.
The survey found that more than 75% of U.S. adults said that being fit and looking good were “very important” to them. A similar number said they wanted to change something about their physical appearance.
Many people judged themselves as “too fat,” or worried that they were not physically fit enough.
Despite feeling that way, only 31% said exercise is a regular “habit.” And 45% admitted to not being active at all, according to French technology company, ReportLinker, authors of the survey.
The study was conducted online in May and included more than 500 U.S. adults.
The exercise experts were not surprised by the results.
Heather Hausenblas, a professor of kinesiology at Jacksonville University in Florida said that it’s well-known that most U.S. adults fall short of physical activity recommendations.
In fact, only about a fifth of Americans meets their exercise guidelines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For adults, the minimum guidelines call for at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity each week, along with some muscle-strengthening exercises at least two days out of the week.
Both the American College of Sports Medicine, or ACSM, and the American Heart Association say Americans should get some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes at least five times a week.
But if so many Americans believe they’re out of shape and want to look better, why aren’t they exercising?
For one, body dissatisfaction isn’t the best motivator.
“If that’s the reason you’re starting to exercise, you’re probably not going to stick with it,” said Hausenblas, who studies physical activity and body image.
“On the other hand,” she said, “if health reasons are your primary motivation, you’re more likely to stay active.”
That’s because the health benefits of exercise are not just physical. Once people make exercise routine, Hausenblas said, they may notice a “host of psychological benefits,” such as feeling more energized and less stressed.
These types of effects can keep people on track, agreed Dr. Pamela Peeke, an ACSM spokeswoman.
“The more that physical activity becomes a habit, and you notice how good you feel, the more you miss it when you’re not active,” said Peeke, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Unfortunately, poor body image keeps some people from ever becoming active — especially women, Peeke said.
“If you feel bad about your body, the last thing you want to do is strut into a gym,” she said.
Fortunately, there are other ways to be active other than using the gym, Peeke pointed out.
“Get up and walk,” she said. “That’s the No. 1 way of getting the ball rolling.”
Peeke said she avoids the term “exercise,” in favor of encouraging people to move whenever they can — in a world full of desk jobs escalators, and remote controls.
“If you’re on the phone, walk around while you talk,” she suggested. “If you’re at work, use the stairs to get to the bathroom three floors up, instead of using the one on your floor. We need to get creative in our daily lives.”
Both Peeke and Hausenblas said it is easier for some people if they exercise with others.
The survey showed that almost one-third of respondents who said they exercised stayed motivated with the help of friends or “exercise buddies.”
Others said they just used their smartphones or other devices to track their progress, such as seeing how many miles they were able to jog.
Hausenblas said that the type of activity has to be based on personal preferences, too.
About 40% of exercisers in the survey, said “training at a fitness center” was their favorite activity. About one-third said they jogged, played basketball or swam, while 21% preferred yoga classes.
“What’s important,” Hausenblas said, “is that you do things you enjoy. If you like being outside, go outside for a walk. If you like taking a class, do that.”
“And always remember that it’s not about looks or competition, Peeke said. Three-quarters of survey participants admitted that they compared their physiques to others’.
“If you’re comparing yourself to other people, you’re automatically downgrading your strengths,” Peeke said.
Instead, she advised, focus on your strengths and the other, more important reasons for staying active.
“Are you doing it for the sake of your well-being, and being there for your grandchildren?” Peeke said. “If your motivations are rooted in love for yourself, that’s great. If it’s all based on changing your appearance, then you’ve got a problem.”