Weighed down by a lack of motivation
With 53% of the population not getting enough exercise, many believe that starting gently is the key issue
Greg Kenny at Fit4less in Tallaght, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
There’s a bunch of bananas ripening on the countertop, pristine Wicklow walkways just outside the front door and a home gym in the converted garden shed, but Eric Dempsey still can’t get motivated.
Sitting at his kitchen table in Glenealy, Eric (43) makes no excuses for ignoring the doctor’s advice that he exercise. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2006, he should have dropped weight from his 18-stone frame long ago.
“There’s no point in beating around the bush, I hate exercising.” He reels off the thoughts that barge around his mind when he tries. “Why am I doing this? Wouldn’t it be easier to drive? Why am I putting myself through this? I’m going to be sore at the end of this. I’m sweating.” Most of his associations with exercise are negative.
His wife, Delores, couldn’t be more different. She and the couple’s daughter (17) are very health conscious. Most days there are three different dinners cooked in the house to cater for everyone’s taste, with Eric needing heartier meals than the women.
Delores regularly sets out for three-hour hikes and admits that her husband’s fondness for the couch exasperates her. “It is extremely frustrating. I don’t ask him to come anymore. Rather than have a row I just go out and relieve the frustration through my own walking. If he lost the weight, it would be the best present he could ever give me.”
For a man so honest about his hatred of exercise, it is surprising to hear that he represented Ireland internationally in Taekwondo in his heyday. It was a huge passion from childhood. His father brought all four sons to a local club and he was the only one who stuck with it. The training stopped in his mid-20s while the couple worked long hours to save for their wedding.
By the time things settled down enough for him to return to training, he had put on weight and found it rough going.
He can see the funny side of the lengths he will go to to avoid exercise but as he opens up, his tone becomes more serious. He badly wants to lose the weight – to get his life back and be able to shop for normal clothes – but there is a mental block that mystifies him.
He is attending a weight-loss clinic in Loughlinstown and even though he comes out of sessions fired up, the motivation leeches from him in about two weeks. “I wish I could find the switch. When I’m with the shrink up in Loughlinstown he tries and tries. He asks me questions like ‘what’s stopping you getting motivated’ and I can’t answer him. I just can’t answer him.”
He isn’t alone. Some 53 per cent of the population don’t get the recommended 30 minutes of daily activity. People seem to fall into one of two categories. There is a minority who relish exercise – the more muscle ache and projectile sweating involved the better – and a much larger group who regard it as a necessary evil undertaken to stay in shape, or avoid it altogether.
How do you motivate people who are not naturally fond of exercise? Greg Kenny is a Tallaght-based personal trainer who recently teamed up with the HSE, Bayer Healthcare and Diabetes Ireland to design a booklet, Getting Active for Better Health, for people who have been sedentary for years. It is pretty basic stuff; “chairobics” to get people moving in their seat before building up to 10 minutes of walking. He says that one of the biggest mistakes people make is that they start off training too hard and only end up reinforcing their negative feelings about exercise.
“Obviously some clients like training hard and walking out on their hands and knees,” says Kenny.
“Others you have to treat with kid gloves and say ‘look, you have done enough, well done and I’ll see you next week’. Always stop just before you get to that stage of feeling ‘ugh’ and leave something in the tank.”
The current trend for intense, military- style workouts like boot camp and CrossFit will often be hellish for people who hate exercise. He regularly sees people who are clearly unfit slinking from his boot camp class with every muscle in their body screaming, never to return.
Finding a form of activity that you enjoy is key. Kenny encourages people to think about the sports and activities they enjoyed in childhood. Perhaps it was cycling, skating or horse riding but whatever thrilled you as a child, tap into it now to get fit.
According to Dr Eddie Murphy, a clinical psychologist who coaches participants on RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, a lot of people really struggle around exercise motivation and need to work hard just to get out the door.
He asks his weight-loss clients to visualise their goals and to keep them in mind whenever the urge for short-term hedonism kicks in.
“I would ask someone what vision they have for themselves around exercise and around health. Where do they see themselves? And then we look at people’s choices. Are you doing things to take away from your future?”
People who struggle to lose weight can be harshly judged but chances are their self-esteem is rock bottom and sometimes there are deeper issues at work. “Often it’s not what the person is eating, it is what is eating them,” says Murphy.
Eric has one more session left with the weight-loss clinic and is worried that without their guidance, he will slip back into old habits.
“It is a big concern. I hope I don’t go back to how I was because it was ridiculous.” His name is on a three-year waiting list for a gastric bypass but he hopes to have lost the weight by the time his turn comes for the surgery. “I can’t get any more help than what I am already getting. I think it is all in the person and I hope to find out what is blocking me from doing it.”