Project Louise: Sometimes It’s Just Plain Hard

Yep, that's Louise on the right, behind the chicken bone. (Courtesy)

Yep, that’s Louise on the right, with glasses and chicken bone. (Courtesy)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

You know what? This is really hard.

Maybe it’s just the up-again-down-again weather, or the time change, or the work stress, or the home stress, or something I ate or didn’t eat, or the phases of the moon, but I am really, really struggling this week. And I don’t have any great ideas for how to fix it.

So I guess this is all the wisdom I have to offer this week: Change is hard.

Even with great support, even with a trainer at the ready and a terrific strategy coach and friends cheering me on, even with wonderful guidance on changing my eating habits and practicing new exercise routines and being kinder to myself – even with all that, I am just not changing as fast as I want to. Or, more to the point, as consistently.

Yeah, I’m eating better. Most of the time. But I am really, really not getting to the gym. And I can’t quite figure out why.

I took this question to Allison Rimm, the aforementioned terrific coach, and she reminded me of an exercise called the 5 Whys. (It’s a Toyota corporate thing, apparently.) If you have a problem or you’re getting stuck on something, you ask “Why?” five times. And by the time you get to the fifth answer, she says, you should have dug down to the root cause of the problem.

So we give it a try.

“I promised my trainer I would get to the gym on Wednesday and Friday at 7 a.m. this week, and I didn’t make it either time.”


“Well, Wednesday I had been up really late the night before because I was at work late and then couldn’t get to sleep, and Friday I had made that commitment while completely forgetting that it was ‘journal day’ in my daughter’s kindergarten, which I love and do every week. It’s ridiculous that I forgot; I just held two conflicting ideas in my head at the same time and didn’t realize it until that morning.”

At this point Allison observes, “Sounds like a bit of self-sabotage going on. Why do you think that is?”

I have to agree, so I accept that as the second “Why?”

“Because something is making me not so eager to go to the gym lately.”


I ponder this one. “Because I don’t like it as much as I did in January, when all the students weren’t there.”


“Because seeing all those young perfect bodies makes me feel fat and clumsy and old, and I feel like they’re looking at me with pity or ridicule or something.”

At this Allison bursts out laughing and says, “They’re college students! They’re so self-absorbed they’re only looking at themselves in the mirror! And even if they are looking at you, why the heck would you care?”

I guess that’s the fifth “Why.”

“Because it reminds me of being a fat little kid in gym class and being made fun of and feeling really bad.”

Yup. Sounds like a root cause to me, all right.

So: I am not a fat little kid anymore. I am no longer the fifth-grader who ran a 50-yard “dash” in 18.5 seconds. (In that fifth-grader’s defense, my nose was all sweaty so my glasses fell off and I stopped to pick them up, and the gym teacher still insisted on counting that as my official time. But I’m totally over it.) No one is making fun of me. And even if they are, why the heck should I care?

I will now repeat that 100 times, in hopes that one day I’ll believe it.

And meanwhile, just so you know, this stuff is hard. So if you’re having a hard time too, don’t beat yourself up. Just ask why.

Readers, are there times when you feel as if change is just too hard? And if there are, what do you do about it?

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  • Linda Morse

    Love the 5 Whys – great idea. I think it all goes back to our ability to permanently change – it’s terrifying to think, wow, this is it, I’ll have to go to the gym forever, stop drinking forever, only eat 1200 calories a day forever, etc. Permanent change is hard – we want to reward ourselves for hard work and denial all week, do we “deserve” something for all that effort – thus the heroine epidemic, the struggles with weight, going to the gym regularly, etc. etc I think we really need to examine this concept of denial and reward in a deeper way and the 5 why’s is a great start! How can we convince ourselves that we don’t need or want a reward, that we are not denying ourselves something or forcing ourselves to do something (i.e. gym). Now that you know about these whys, maybe it will be easier to find more likely times you can get to the gym and maybe find some new activities to do there where you will be too busy to see other people or think about why you don’t enjoy exercise as much as some people. You’re doing great – I can’t imagine displaying all this the way you are – I am very impressed. You are brave and courageous and this year will pay off in ways you cannot even foresee. Hugs!

    • Louise Kennedy

      Thank you so much — I just saw this comment, and it’s a great encouragement for a Monday morning! I think you’re right about the “reward” problem — and my latest thought is to look for a form of exercise that feels like its own reward. For me, I’m hoping it will be riding my bike. It’s something I loved as a kid, and even into my 30s; I gradually stopped once I had kids, because I did NOT enjoy worrying about their safety in a seat on the back. But I’m hoping that the sense of freedom and fun it always gave me will feel more like a “playout” than a workout.

  • Hopefulandhappyone

    Two steps forward, one step back, still equals one step forward! Hang in there, Louise. You are definitely ahead of where you were when you started. Just keep reminding yourself of that. :)

    • Louise Kennedy

      It is so great to have people cheering me along — that’s the upside of putting all my foibles and Cheez-Its out in public. Thank you!

  • Nancy

    I have found two things helpful – find something I like to do and do it with other people. That could be one person or a class, but sometimes I just need to feel as if I owe it to someone else to be there. Your motivation for exercise matters and the more in the “why I should ” column the better.

    What I will also say is the more that the motivation is positive (I’m doing this because it will make me feel better) rather than negative (I’m doing this because of the consequences of not exercising) the more likely you are to make a change. And if you keep with it, at some point you will say, “that felt good, I’m glad I went to the gym.”

    As for seeing people at the gym who are out of shape, I know how difficult it must be for them to take that step to go to the gym and the sense of pride they must have to taking on a difficult challenge to improve their lives and I think, “good for them!”

    Good luck! Spring is coming and just getting outside and moving more will make it easier! Hang in there – once it’s habit, you don’t think about, you just go.

    • Louise Kennedy

      Thank you, thank you. And you’re right — when I see someone more out of shape than me at the gym, or running by the road, my reaction is admiration, not contempt. I’ll try to remember that the next time I’m imagining someone else’s reaction to me.

  • alexafleckensteinmd

    P.S. With an inexpensive theraband you can do even more 21-times exercises – wherever you go. But, seriously, skip the gym!


  • alexafleckensteinmd

    Louise, don’t try so hard to get to the gym. The centenarians’ study showed that people who make it to 100 have never seen a gym from the inside: The putter in house and garden, and stay active and involved in other people’s lives.

    So, for now: Just jump up and down 21 times (come down gently – don’t hurt your knees). – Find little exercises – bending, pushing, twirling, jumping, whatever – throughout your day, right where you are. Do them 21 times. Pat yourself on your shoulder for every short 21-times exercise. It takes less than a minute. Even in your busy stressful day you will find that time.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • Louise Kennedy

      Thank you — and re the P.S.: I got the therabands and they’re helping! Great little thing to have at home.

  • BozToz

    The 5 Whys are excellent! I have never heard that before. I will use them to figure out why I’m not putting the energy into finding another job, even though I cannot abide the company I’m at now…

    • Louise Kennedy

      Yes! I think it’s a useful tool for all kinds of “I’m stuck and don’t know how to get unstuck” situations. Good luck!

  • Jimmy

    Have you thought about going to a different gym? Over the years I have been a member of many gyms. My two favorites so far are the YMCA because you see people of all shapes and sizes there working out. I was in my mid 20s when I went there and loved seeing men and women more than double my age who could do everything better. I found that to be very motivating. Now I go to take bootcamp classes at a local Crossfit gym. The atmosphere is very wonderful. The classes are filled with men and women of different age and size and the coaches (one over 60 years in age) change the movements for individuals that may not be able to do the regular exercise. I personally find the class atmosphere way more appealing than one on one with a trainer.

    • JR

      I agree with Jimmy. CrossFit provides a fitness community that is energizing and always supportive. The people there share incredibly different fitness backgrounds: some folks have always been competitive athletes, while others have never set foot in a gym before. The culture becomes addictive because the benefits extend well beyond the gym. For example, you might find that as your energy improves you’ll become more productive at work and at home. Your body will require good food and sleep. Most importantly, you will likely gain better mental focus and toughness, which is especially useful when overcoming negative self-talk.

      Keep up the good work, Louise! I look forward to reading your posts every week.

      • Louise Kennedy

        Thanks, JR! I don’t know much about CrossFit but had the vague sense that it was insanely hard and maybe even risky for someone who wasn’t already in good shape. Any thoughts on that issue, everyone?

        • angela

          I agree with Jimmy that the YMCA is a great place, for similar reasons. I really enjoy the classes, there is such a variety of wonderful people attending. Before I joined the Y I spent a year and a half working out at home. I think this helps with feelings of self consciousness while at the gym becuase when I did start going, I was confident in what I was doing and knew the moves, so to speak. So even if sometimes I feel self conscious about my looks, it doesn’t bother me as much because I am confident in my actions. As far as crossfit, there was interesting piece in the Globe awhile back on it… doesn’t seem like it is for me, though people do love it.

        • Jessica

          I really like CrossFit. I think the community is a huge motivator. I know I wouldn’t go to the gym at 7am if I didn’t have someone waiting on me. You could get that by having a gym buddy! Research shows even a virtual gym buddy can get you working out harder and stay motivated.

          CrossFit is really fun and challenging. If you aren’t ready for it though it could be demotivating. I think you want the challenge to be just out of reach for the most reward.

          For motivation I use an app, gympact, it charges $$ if you don’t go as many times as you promise. Check it out, it also connects to other apps.

    • Louise Kennedy

      Interesting. I have done classes and find that my self-consciousness gets even worse. But I did buy some weights so I can work out at home — we’ll see if that helps!

  • Jean Fain

    Louise, It’s hard because logic isn’t all that motivating. Trying to use your head to move your body is never enough to move anyone in a sustainable way. Not that the “Why” exercise isn’t useful. In my professional opinion, it revealed that you’re kind of bored, if not discouraged, with your workout now that it’s no longer all shiny and new. Maybe try asking yourself: What do bored people need? No, not a new motto or a kick in the butt. Keep asking that question and actually listen to your inner wisdom. I suspect that’s where the motivation is.
    Jean Fain, Harvard Medical School-affiliated therapist and author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.”

    • Louise Kennedy

      Thanks, Jean, I think this is helpful advice. And you’re right, once the novelty fades and the reptilian brain realizes this new exercise gig is supposed to be permanent, it’s a little harder to stay motivated. OK, a lot harder. So I’ll keep thinking.