Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
October 21, 2023

Why Is Sticking to a Workout Routine So Hard? How to Exercise (And Like It) With ADHD

Here’s something I hear all the time from my clients during sessions: “I know exercise is good for me. I know I should be working out. But I just can’t get myself to stick to it.”

Sound familiar?

If you’re like many of my therapy clients who have ADHD, you’re probably fully aware of the benefits of exercise. However, that doesn’t change the fact that your neurodivergence makes getting regular and consistent exercise a huge challenge. Exercising with ADHD can be a struggle, but it’s totally doable. Learning to untangle shame from exercise, create habits that stick, and fit physical activity into your life in a way that works for you can help change your relationship to exercise for the better.

How to exercise with ADHD

Why Do I Struggle to Exercise With ADHD?

In western culture, there’s a prevailing ideology that if you want something enough, you’ll make it happen. In my view, this just isn’t the case.

Take exercise, for instance. Most people want to be healthier, stronger, and feel better in their bodies. That desire doesn’t change the fact that there are plenty of obstacles in the way. So why do you struggle to exercise with ADHD? Here are some potential reasons.

  • Genetics. This includes neurodivergence, physical health issues, and underlying mental health problems.
  • Executive functioning challenges. Self-control, motivation, time management, and overwhelm are all common problems that stem from executive function difficulties among people with ADHD.
  • Exercise feels boring. Walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes? No thanks.
  • You rely only on willpower. Being self-reliant is great, but having accountability buddies for exercise can make it so much more enjoyable and sustainable.
  • You assume it has to look a certain way in order for it to “count.” We’ve all heard we’re supposed to get so many steps or minutes of exercise per day in order to benefit from it. This belief can make exercise feel inaccessible, and causes a lot of people to give up before they even start. 

Another reason why you might struggle to exercise with ADHD is shame. 

There’s so much shame around ADHD and habit formation. We’re taught that habits, self-discipline, and willpower make a “successful” adult. But for people with ADHD, habits are a lot more challenging. It’s easy to feel deep shame around these struggles. But shaming yourself into being happier or healthier doesn’t work. Shaming yourself into good exercise habits won’t work in the long run, either.

In order to find an exercise routine that’s sustainable for you, it helps to untangle fitness and exercise from shaming, shoulding, and self-worth.

Many of my clients think they’re supposed to want to lift weights, or they like the idea of becoming a runner, but in truth, they don’t actually want these things. They just want the feeling of being someone who does those things.

Maybe this is true for you, too. You may want the prestige, admiration, or respect that comes with being someone who’s fit and attractive. After all, people who are conventionally attractive – thin and physically fit – are seen as morally superior to those who aren’t. Furthermore, attractiveness is associated with real privileges – things like more opportunities, higher rates of success, better pay, and better career placement. This is incredibly unjust. It perpetuates the idea that those who don’t or can’t exercise are lazy, weak, gluttonous, or otherwise morally questionable. It justifies thinking that people who aren’t fit for whatever reason are undeserving of respect and care. 

All of this can make it incredibly difficult to untangle what you actually want from what you think you should want. In reality, exercise is just a tool among many others. There are plenty of positive benefits to working out, as you know – things like improved cognition, better blood pressure, and reduced stress – but exercise is a morally neutral activity. Fitness does not make you a superior person. It does not make you more deserving of love, respect, care, or any of the things you want in life. 

Struggle to exercise with ADHD

3 Ways to Exercise With ADHD

Here are three ways to exercise (and actually like it) with ADHD.

  1. Figure out what you enjoy

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your exercise habit won’t stick if you hate it. This is true for most people, but it’s especially true for ADHDers. You know how hard it is to get yourself to do something boring, repetitive, or unrewarding. So if your exercise routine is boring, repetitive, or unrewarding, good luck forcing yourself to stick with it. 

Hate gyms but keep trying to force yourself to go walk on the treadmill or use weight machines? Then there’s very little chance going to the gym will become a sustainable routine for you. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with not partaking in something you don’t like.

It can be tough finding exercises you do like. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Ride a bike (mountain biking, bike commuting, road biking – there are lots of options here)
  • Walk dogs at your local shelter
  • Take classes like dance, yoga, mixed martial arts, or kickboxing
  • Join a local soccer, frisbee, or volleyball club
  1. Get accountability

Just like a body double can help you finish unpleasant work or life tasks, a workout accountability buddy can help you stick to an exercise routine. If you commit to meeting up with a friend to go for a run or to a new workout class after work, you’re much more likely to go than if you rely on your own willpower to get yourself out the door.

It can also help to get a personal trainer or follow along with free workout videos on YouTube. Having someone simply tell you what to do can make working out feel much less overwhelming than coming up with your own workouts. The fewer steps you need to take in order to exercise, the better. 

  1. Make exercise more accessible

There’s a popular misconception that exercise has to look a certain way or take up a certain amount of time in your day. But that’s bullshit. There’s no one-size-fits all prescription when it comes to exercise. You don’t have to go to the gym for an hour or take a 30-minute run in order for exercise to “count.” 

It can feel impossible for some ADHDers to have a regular workout routine. Managing the overwhelm, prioritizing exercise, and getting yourself out the door are all hard to do. If this is true for you, think about building exercise into your life in small ways. Try setting a timer to do one minute of exercise every hour or so during your workday. Or instead of hopping in your car to get coffee, bike or walk instead. Breaking exercise up into small, bite-sized chunks throughout your day can feel much more accessible than trying to get in one huge workout all at once.

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Navigate Exercising With ADHD

If you’re struggling to figure out how to exercise with ADHD, you’re not alone. Working out doesn’t have to be a struggle. Cognitive behavioral therapy or coaching for ADHD with me can help.

During our sessions, we’ll come up with real-life solutions to your specific problems and challenges. We’ll set goals to help you create habits that stick, figure out how to make exercise enjoyable for you, and find ways to fit fun movement into your life. 

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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