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7 Ways to Be Less Perfectionistic About Exercise

How to stop perfectionism getting in the way of exercise enjoyment.

John Arano/Unsplash
Source: John Arano/Unsplash

Perfectionism can get in the way of exercising consistently. If you're a perfectionist, you may find yourself:

  • deliberating about the best exercise to do but not starting
  • procrastinating if you can't exercise perfectly
  • making exercise unenjoyable due to perfectionism (i.e. it triggers comparing yourself to others, or you feel compelled to progress your exercise every single session or hit new personal records constantly)
  • injuring yourself due to overdoing exercise or pushing too hard
  • feeling stressed or preoccupied about whether you can maintain a perfect exercise routine
  • feeling excessively frustrated by setbacks like injuries, and giving up

In short, for perfectionists, exercise may feel more punishing and less self-caring.

By being less perfectionistic about exercise, you may exercise more consistently, enjoy it more, and accrue more health and longevity benefits. Here are seven suggestions for doing that. Try one or two of these rather than all of them!

1. Don't overcompensate for imperfections.

For example, if you need to pause running to tie your shoe, don't add an extra minute to your session to make up for it. Making a habit of not overcompensating for imperfections can make it easier to resist later.

2. Pick a reasonable plan and stick to it, without accelerating it.

For instance, if you do a set program like Couch to 5K, don't choose to run every day rather than the prescribed three days a week. Take the rest days, as per the program. Find evidence to help convince you that, objectively, more is not infinitely better when it comes to exercise.

3. Keep your exercise goals simple.

Don't overcomplicate your exercise goals. You don't need to train like an athlete if your goals are health or longevity.

4. Use loss aversion to your advantage.

Loss aversion means that we're generally more motivated to avoid losses than to achieve equivalent gains. For example, we're more motivated not to lose $10 than to make $10.

If you're a perfectionist who is highly motivated by loss aversion, then you could try training a skill or performance benchmark, then training not to lose it. For instance, exercise to the point you can run 5K in 30 minutes or do a pull-up, and then commit to maintaining that. This approach may help you not keep expanding your goals to the point they're too onerous. (You can combine this tip with the last one about keeping your exercise goals simple.)

5. Consider channeling your perfectionism toward minimum effective doses.

The biggest exercise benefits occur when going from doing nothing to doing something, and not being in the lowest category of fitness. To ensure you get these benefits, build habits related to the minimum effective doses of different types of exercise. As an example, the greatest longevity benefits of resistance training seem to occur at a dose of 30-60 minutes a week. (There are two interesting research papers on minimum effective dose training here and here.)

By creating habits of always doing a minimum effective dose, your exercise habits will be more resilient during periods of your life when other goals and responsibilities take priority.

Another approach might be to challenge yourself to find the minimum doses you personally need to keep increasing your Vo2 max. Most scientific studies of exercise are short-term and often show the benefits plateau before the study ends. Since science can't as yet prescribe what exactly is best for long-term progress for an individual, you'll need to experiment with this yourself.

6. Occasionally train without a tracker.

At least sometimes, exercise without tracking yourself with a smartwatch, heart rate strap, etc. At least occasionally, exercise without knowing your pace or power output, etc.

7. Include a playful day in your exercise split.

Imagine you exercise five times a week. You might split this up into two pull days and two push/leg days at the gym (see the earlier papers mentioned about minimum effective doses) and one day that's for working on a particular skill or is for fun or doing whatever you feel like, and that isn't as focused as your other days.

If you feel accumulating fatigue from sticking to a rigorous exercise routine, consider de-loading with exercise that's mainly for fun, like digging out exercise equipment you own and enjoy but haven't used in a long time.

If perfectionism impacts your enjoyment of exercise or your consistency, which of these tips would help you most?

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