Overcoming Barriers to Physical Activity

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere." —

Given the health benefits of regular physical activity, we might have to ask why two out of three (60%) Americans are not active at recommended levels. There are barriers that keep Americans from being, or becoming, regularly physically active. Understanding common barriers to physical activity and creating strategies to overcome them may help you make physical activity part of your daily life.

Environmental Barriers

Social environments such as school, work, family and friends can influence an person's level of physical activity. However, characteristics of our communities such as the accessibility and location of parks, trails, sidewalks, and recreational centers as well as street design, density of housing, and availability of public transit may play and even greater role in promoting or discouraging an individual or family's level of physical activity. There are also significant environmental barriers from water and air pollution to crime and dangerous automobile traffic.

There are many opportunities within our environment that support physical activities from parks, trails, and sidewalks to recreation and fitness centers. Even malls provide opportunities for fitness walking. Understanding environmental opportunities and barriers that we face in our pursuit for a healthy lifestyle may provide some of the knowledge necessary to promote healthy living.

Personal Barriers

Aside from the many technological advances and conveniences that have made our lives easier and less active, many personal variables, including physiological, behavioral, and psychological factors, may affect our plans to become more physically active. In fact, the 10 most common reasons adults cite for not adopting more physically active lifestyles are (Sallis and Hovell, 1990; Sallis et al., 1992)
  1. Do not have enough time to exercise
  2. Find it inconvenient to exercise
  3. Lack self-motivation
  4. Do not find exercise enjoyable
  5. Find exercise boring
  6. Lack confidence in their ability to be physically active (low self-efficacy)
  7. Fear being injured or have been injured recently
  8. Lack self-management skills, such as the ability to set personal goals, monitor progress, or reward progress toward such goals
  9. Lack encouragement, support, or companionship from family and friends
  10. Do not have parks, sidewalks, bicycle trails, or safe and pleasant walking paths convenient to their homes or offices
How can I figure out which barriers affect me most?
The Barriers to Being Active Quiz can help you identify the types of physical activity barriers that are undermining your ability to make regular physical activity and part of your life. The quiz calculates a score in each of seven barrier categories. Once you’ve taken the quiz and identified which barriers affect you the most, look at the table below for suggestions on how to overcome them.
Barriers to Being Active Quiz:   What keeps you from being more active?

Directions: Listed below are reasons that people give to describe why they do not get as much physical activity as they think they should. Please read each statement and indicate how likely you are to say each of the following statements:

How likely are you to say?  Very likely  Somewhat likely  Somewhat unlikely  Very unlikely

  1. My day is so busy now, I just don’t think I can make the time to include physical activity in my regular schedule.  3  2  1  0
  2. None of my family members or friends like to do anything active, so I don’t have a chance to exercise.  3  2  1  0
  3. I’m just too tired after work to get any exercise.  3  2  1  0
  4. I’ve been thinking about getting more exercise, but I just can’t seem to get started  3  2  1  0
  5. I’m getting older so exercise can be risky.  3  2  1  0
  6. I don’t get enough exercise because I have never learned the skills for any sport.  3  2  1  0
  7. I don’t have access to jogging trails, swimming pools, bike paths, etc.  3  2  1  0
  8. Physical activity takes too much time away from other commitments—time, work, family, etc.  3  2  1  0
  9. I’m embarrassed about how I will look when I exercise with others.  3  2  1  0
  10. I don’t get enough sleep as it is. I just couldn’t get up early or stay up late to get some exercise.  3  2  1  0
  11. It’s easier for me to find excuses not to exercise than to go out to do something.  3  2  1  0
  12. I know of too many people who have hurt themselves by overdoing it with exercise.  3  2  1  0
  13. I really can’t see learning a new sport at my age.  3  2  1  0
  14. It’s just too expensive. You have to take a class or join a club or buy the right equipment.  3  2  1  0
  15. My free times during the day are too short to include exercise.  3  2  1  0
  16. My usual social activities with family or friends to not include  3  2  1  0
  17. I’m too tired during the week and I need the weekend to catch up on my rest.  3  2  1  0
  18. I want to get more exercise, but I just can’t seem to make myself stick to anything.  3  2  1  0
  19. I’m afraid I might injure myself or have a heart attack.  3  2  1  0
  20. I’m not good enough at any physical activity to make it fun.  3  2  1  0
  21. If we had exercise facilities and showers at work, then I would be more likely to exercise.  3  2  1  0


Follow these instructions to score yourself:

  • Enter the circled number in the spaces provided, putting together the number for statement 1 on line 1, statement 2 on line 2, and so on.
  • Add the three scores on each line. Your barriers to physical activity fall into one or more of seven categories: lack of time, social influences, lack of energy, lack of willpower, fear of injury, lack of skill, and lack of resources. A score of 5 or above in any category shows that this is an important barrier for you to overcome.

____ + ____ + ____ = ______________________
Questions: 1, 8, 15          =Lack of time
____ + ____ + ____ = ______________________
Questions: 2, 9, 16          =Social influence
____ + ____ + ____ = ______________________
Questions: 3, 10, 17        =Lack of energy
____ + ____ + ____ = ______________________
Questions: 4, 11, 18         =Lack of willpower
____ + ____ + ____ = ______________________
Questions: 5, 12, 19         =Fear of injury
____ + ____ + ____ = ______________________
Questions: 6, 13, 20          =Lack of skill
____ + ____ + ____ = ______________________
Questions: 7, 14, 21          =Lack of resources

Suggestions for Overcoming Physical Activity Barriers:

Lack of time

  • Identify available time slots. Monitor your daily activities for one week. Identify at least three 30-minute time slots you could use for physical activity.
  • Add physical activity to your daily routine. For example, walk or ride your bike to work or shopping, organize school activities around physical activity, walk the dog, exercise while you  watch TV, park farther away from your destination, etc.
  • Make time for physical activity. For example, walk, jog, or swim during your lunch hour, or take fitness breaks instead of coffee breaks.
  • Select activities requiring minimal time, such as walking, jogging, or stairclimbing

Social influence

  • Explain your interest in physical activity to friends and family. Ask them to support your efforts
  • Invite friends and family members to exercise with you. Plan social activities involving exercise
  • Develop new friendships with physically active people. Join a group, such as the YMCA or a hiking club.

Lack of energy

  • Schedule physical activity for times in the day or week when you feel energetic.
  • Convince yourself that if you give it a chance, physical activity will increase your energy level; then, try  it.

Lack of motivation

  • Plan ahead. Make physical activity a regular part of your daily or weekly schedule and write it on your calendar.
  • Invite a friend to exercise with you on a regular basis and write it on both your calendars
  • Join an exercise group or class

Fear of injury

  • Learn how to warm up and cool down to prevent injury.
  • Learn how to exercise appropriately considering your age, fitness level, skill level, and health status
  • Choose activities involving minimum risk

Lack of skill

  • Select activities requiring no new skills, such as walking, climbing stairs, or jogging.
  • Exercise with friends who are at the same skill level as you are
  • Find a friend who is willing to teach you some new skills.
  • Take a class to develop new skills.

Lack of resources

  • Select activities that require minimal facilities or equipment, such as walking, jogging, jumping rope, or calisthenics.
  • Identify inexpensive, convenient resources available in your community (community education programs, park and recreation programs, worksite programs, etc.).

Weather conditions

  • Develop a set of regular activities that are always available regardless of weather (indoor cycling, aerobic dance, indoor swimming, calisthenics, stair climbing, rope skipping, mall walking, dancing, gymnasium games, etc.)
  • Look on outdoor activities that depend on weather conditions (cross-country skiing, outdoor swimming, outdoor tennis, etc.) as "bonuses"-extra activities possible when weather and circumstances permit


  • Put a jump rope in your suitcase and jump rope
  • Walk the halls and climb the stairs in hotels.
  • Stay in places with swimming pools or exercise facilities.
  • Join the YMCA or YWCA (ask about reciprocal membership agreement).
  • Visit the local shopping mall and walk for half an hour or more.
  • Bring a small tape recorder and your favorite aerobic exercise tape.

Family obligations

  • Trade babysitting time with a friend, neighbor, or family member who also has small children
  • Exercise with the kids-go for a walk together, play tag or other running games, get an aerobic dance or exercise tape for kids (there are several on the market) and exercise together. You can spend time together and still get your exercise.
  • Hire a babysitter and look at the cost as a worthwhile investment in your physical and mental health.
  • Jump rope, do calisthenics, ride a stationary bicycle, or use other home gymnasium equipment while the kids are busy playing or sleeping.
  • Try to exercise when the kids are not around (e.g., during school hours or their nap time).
  • Encourage exercise facilities to provide child care services

Retirement years

  • Look upon your retirement as an opportunity to become more active instead of less. Spend more time gardening, walking the dog, and playing with your grandchildren. Children with short legs and grandparents with slower gaits are often great walking partners.
  • Learn a new skill you've always been interested in, such as ballroom dancing, square dancing, or swimming
  • Now that you have the time, make regular physical activity a part of every day. Go for a walk every morning or every evening before dinner. Treat yourself to an exercycle and ride every day while reading a favorite book or magazine.

Content in the "Personal Barriers" section was taken from Promoting Physical Activity: A Guide for Community Action (USDHHS, 1999).

Pate RR, Pratt M, Blair SN, et al. Physical activity and public health: a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association 1995;273(5):402-407.

Pratt M. Exercise and sudden death: implications for health policy. Sport Science Review Journal 1995;4(2):106-122.

Sallis JF, Hovell MF. Determinants of exercise behavior. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews 1990;18:307-330.

Sallis JF, Hovell MF, Hofstetter CR. Predictors of adoption and maintenance of vigorous physical activity in men and women. Preventive Medicine 1992;21(2):237-251.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. Promoting physical activity: a guide for community action. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1999.

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