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What to do when you feel like you're failing at exercise and healthier choices

Frustrated? Down on yourself? Discouraged? I get it. I’ve been there.

After many years of yo-yo dieting and struggle with exercise, I changed my strategy and finally succeeded in making a healthy lifestyle transformation. My fitness journey dramatically improved my health and my life. Then I became a certified personal trainer and certified health coach, working with clients in their own journeys. I know first-hand the challenges of trying to eat healthier and exercise.

It’s not easy to get in shape, eat differently or lose weight when you’ve fought that battle most of your life. It doesn’t help matters either when we’re constantly bombarded with ads, magazine covers and social media influencers promising quick and easy results. So we try the latest diet or exercise craze – and then feel defeated when we can’t stick with it.

If that resonates with you, take heart! I promise you, hope is not lost. If a healthier, more active body is what you want, you can still achieve it. I’d like to share some real-life strategies that worked for me and my clients in achieving their fitness goals. It begins with adjusting your mindset.

First, rethink what success and failure look like

We’ve been conditioned to think that success in diet and exercise means attaining perfection. That’s incorrect. In fact, you don’t need to be perfect to succeed. Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you are failing.

Lapses are not a personal failure. They’re just part of the journey.

Big lifestyle changes aren’t easy to make and keep up with. If they were, no one would have a problem with weight or exercise, and no one would struggle with negative feelings about their exercise program. It takes time and hard work to change habits, and progress isn’t always linear.

Long-term change usually involves a few steps forward and then backward in order to go forward again. And plenty of plateaus, too. I like to say that, “Change is a process, not an event.”

It can be helpful to reframe your negative thoughts and experiences into a positive. Instead of thinking, “I tried 50 times and failed,” next time say, “I tried 50 times and learned.” Failure means learning. It’s not trial and error, it’s trial and learning. Minor setbacks are just part of the process.

And besides, are you actually failing? For example, being obsessed with the scale is a mistake. The scale often isn’t the best measure of progress. Break up with the scale! Focus on your habits instead, and the scale changes will eventually follow.

That brings me to my second point: It’s critical to give up “all or nothing” thinking.

Often we think that exercise means working out for an hour or hitting the weight room. Or that healthy eating means being on the diet that the magazine article or social media influencer promoted. Then when we can’t keep up with it, we feel defeated. You’re not a failure. You just need a different tactic – something that works for you.

So, be kind to yourself and use positive self-talk. Self-compassion and patience are your friends in this journey.

Here are a few practical strategies for sticking with exercise and healthier eating.

If working out feels like drudgery so you don’t do it, consider the following:

Think small. Even 5 or 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing. A small amount of time being active will still benefit you. I started with 15 minutes a day, because that was doable for me. What is your magic number? Remember, small steps add up! You can tailor your workout plans to your current fitness level, and just take one first step.

Find an exercise you enjoy doing, or at least don’t hate. Don’t force yourself into an exercise plan you dread. Try a new physical activity that you enjoy! It’s almost impossible to stay motivated when you don’t want to do something. Try new things until you find what clicks for you. Here are some exercises for people who hate to work out.

Walking is one of the simplest and best exercises you can do. It’s also one of the best ways to get started, and it doesn’t require a gym membership.

Fit movement in throughout your day. Check out these exercise ideas if you feel you have no time to workout.

Don’t make exercise about losing weight. Make it about getting stronger, being less stiff and sore, more energetic, and the many other benefits to your overall physical and mental health.

Enlist support rather than going it alone. Enroll in an exercise or dance class. Work with a personal trainer. Or team up with your best friend to work out with so you can encourage each other.

If it’s your eating habits that keep tripping you up, try this:

Start with one small change at a time. It’s a lot easier to keep up with something when it’s doable.

Don’t go on a restrictive or fad diet. Dieting can lead to binging, rebounding or giving up entirely. That just compounds the feelings of failure into a vicious cycle. And besides, who wants to be “hangry” or feel deprived? It’s just not sustainable long-term.

Instead of dieting, focus on improving your nutrition. For example: Having fruit instead of candy, eating baked chicken instead of fried, adding a vegetable to your dinner, or drinking fewer sodas and more water. What is one healthy change you could make this week?

Have smaller portions, rather than giving up a food you love. It will take some adjustment to get used to a smaller amount, but hang in there. It gets easier.

Fix your environment. If cookies are an irresistible trigger for you to overeat, don’t keep them in the house. You’re only human, after all.

Keep a daily journal. Track your food and beverage intake, and your emotions as well. This can help overcome mindless eating. Celebrate a victory each day, no matter how small.

Seek professional help if you need it. Work with a health coach or a registered dietitian for support and guidance; check to see if this is covered by your insurance plan. If you suspect that you might have an eating disorder, see a qualified therapist or medical professional for care. Contact your primary care provider or use our Find Care tool.

Secrets to making it work.

Focus on just one small habit change at a time. Maybe it’s walking every day after dinner, or taking your lunch to work instead of grabbing fast food.

Implement a strategy to make this happen, such as packing your lunch the night before, or setting out your workout clothes ahead of time. Do this one small change for a week, then add on to it with another small change the following week.

Define your “why.” What are your reasons for wanting to change, besides just seeing a change on the scale or pants size? What is your vision for the future? Try to be specific. For example, “I want to exercise and improve my nutrition because I will feel better and have more energy for my kids.” Or, “I know if I take better care of myself, I won’t have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure like my parents did.” Write down your why in your journal, and refer to it often as a reminder.

Don’t rely on willpower alone. Set a schedule for exercise, and keep it just like an important appointment.

Be realistic in your goals and how long it may take to get there. Generally, I advise avoiding setting a time goal for weight loss because even if you are doing all the “right” things, it may still take longer than you’d like. Take it from someone who’s been there: You have to be in it for the long haul.

Treat yourself with love and kindness. Ditch the idea that you have to be perfect to succeed. You don’t.

When you get off track – and you will, we all do – just get back on. It’s not a failure in any way. Let yesterday go. Turn a new page in your journal and start fresh.

Focus on one day at a time, and just keep going. Be patient but persistent. If there is one secret to success at exercise and healthier living, it’s that.

authors photo

Michelle Rogers

Michelle Rogers

Certified Personal Trainer

Michelle Rogers is a certified personal trainer who specializes in healthy living for adults over 40. She leads classes and workshops online at Reachable Fitness, her virtual exercise studio. Find out more at and connect on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @MRhealthyliving.

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