Health

‘How Do I Convince My Girlfriend She Needs to Exercise?’

“We’ve both gained weight during the pandemic, and have back and body pain. With the end of the pandemic in sight, what can I say to motivate her to go to the gym with me?”
March 17, 2021, 6:02pm
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So the pandemic has been long, and I know you frown upon the idea of "gaining weight," but both me and my girlfriend have gained weight in quarantine from all the added stress, lost access to outside and gyms, and so on (and drinking more than usual, lol). My girlfriend seemed especially to be eating her feelings; I'm trying to say this without judgment, because I love her very much, and I get it! But she complains about the weight she’s gained. We both have a lot of body pain, back pain, neck pain. Now that this is almost over, I'm getting excited to go back to the gym and get strong again. She wasn't much of a worker-outer before, and I've always been a little more into it, but I've also always hoped she might get into it too. Now that quarantine is ending soon, this seems like the perfect opportunity. I'd even do it with her! What can I say to her to motivate her?  —Excited to Go Back

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Absolutely do not make “getting into the gym” about your girlfriend’s weight. I’m warning you now. It’s a bad idea, because not only it will create a vicious cycle of shame and guilt, but she will also just hate you for it.

But OK, look—as someone who sees the value in working out, I understand your discordant feelings about people who don’t work out, and seem like they would benefit a lot from a little movement. If you were to ask me if everyone in the whole world should work out, I would say, yes, to the extent they are capable. Just as we have gotten to a point where we’re asking “it seems possible to eliminate all in-person social interaction from life, but should we?” and the answer is “No!!!” We’ve also gotten to a point where it seems possible to eliminate all physical activity, but should we? Fuck, no!!!

Even the U.S. government, which for all intents and purposes wants us to be ill, says to work out. There are virtually no downsides, only upsides: better sleep, better mood, shinier hair, clearer skin, a sense of accomplishment, a longer life and a better life while you’re living, because your back doesn’t hurt all the time. It’s so simple, so obvious, I feel nearly as much pain popping my blood vessels over the resistance to it as I assume they feel from what they ascribe to “getting older.” (I must note neither you or I are doctors, and maybe that’s who she should talk to, but I’m assuming here there is zero indication of a more serious health issue.)

It is honestly infuriating for me, to hear my peers, and especially people I care about and want the best for, say each and every day, “wow my lower back hurts—guess this is what getting old is like!!” because it’s NOT what getting old is like, at least not when we are, like, 30; it is what not moving anymore is like. I don’t blame them, I blame the fact that there’s not time for or education about good health habits out there, but nonetheless, I get frustrated. 

And then later, when I see these same people post to social media something like “turns out working out actually helps lol!” I don’t even care that they are doing the Kayla Itsines Bikini Body Guide, or a “TWO WEEK SHREDDED ABS CHALLENGE,” instead of something much simpler and less hateful toward their bodies; I’m so excited that one more person finally gets it that I go and run screaming through my house like a banshee, because the pandemic is somehow still going and there is very little to be excited about. 

And then when someone tries actual strength training and then gets it, like actually really gets it, how much better it feels to have workout goals that are not based on “losing weight,” to put work into the way their body naturally moves to be as strong as it can be, and eating to support those goals? Oh man; I wish I could just give this feeling to every person in the world. It made such a difference to me it’s a wonder I’m not standing on a corner right now with a mic plugged into a loudspeaker, handing out leaflets.

For every person this happens with, I wish I could have just told them to work out, or even patiently and meticulously built the unavoidable case for working out, and that they would have listened. I think I have even tried, like an idiot. But now I sit there quietly and listen to “My back hurts! My knees hurt! My neck hurts!” and go “yeah haha” like a chump because, generally speaking, no one, including me, wants to hear solutions when they are complaining; they mostly just want to be heard. 

And that’s fine! I complain about lots of not-workout-related things that I’m sure I could fix about myself, but I can’t do everything. Mentioning my house is in disarray or that I have a lot of, like SO MUCH, dirty laundry probably irks the shit out of the people I know who are meticulous housekeepers, but so far I have not had anyone say, “Have you thought about just doing your laundry?” However, if someone close to me said to me “do your laundry, you absolute slob! Come on!” I’d be like, fair. Working out and body stuff tends to have quite a bit more baggage for people than washing their clothes. But would this help me form a good laundry habit? Probably not, because that’s a bit more complex.

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This is a convoluted way of saying that people are different, and allowed to pick and choose how they spend their time. While working out is an incredibly obvious net good, like way up there with brushing your teeth and eating 2–4 vegetables each day, we can’t force people to do these things. 

Just as it seems impossible for me to internalize the positive feedback of “having lots of clean clothes,” maybe people who avoid working out have not internalized the positive feedback loop that can come with working out, particularly strength-training and mobility-focused workouts, Maybe we all just want validation that we are not bad people for struggling, which doesn’t mean we’ll never eventually do something about our personal challenges.  

I’ve had multiple boyfriends who, in entirely good faith, wanted me to come lift with them. I remember going one time and just being very scared of the weight room and feeling like everyone was staring at me, and then I never went again. 

I didn’t actually get into lifting, or previously, running, until I found my own way of understanding it. I’m actually living proof that someone can get into the gym, and even lifting, basically spontaneously, without being raised as a Division I athlete. Some people thrive on people-pleasing, but I go absolutely wild for not doing what other people tell me, just because they say so. I will lie down and wait to die rather than do something just because someone else said to do it. Your reasoning for lifting might not click for her at all, because people of different identities can and will get very different things out of an activity. You might enjoy feeling the steadiness and concentration working out takes; she might enjoy feeling alpha as hell. 

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What ultimately got me into running was mental health issues, and what got me into lifting was needing to save myself from myself. It didn't take any personal convincing by someone else, but also all the personal convincing in the world would not have let me find my own reasons that made it stick.


You can, of course, do all the normal things: invite her to go with you and show her the ropes; blindfold her as a “sexy surprise” and then when she takes off the blindfold, surprise, she’s at the gym; wake her at 5 a.m. using a trumpet and football coach whistle so she has time to train before work; plaster her office with posters of women doing physical feats of strength; try to move her arms to show her the right way to do a push-up while she is watching TV. 


I know you love your girlfriend, and it’s hard to watch people we care about (or even people we don’t!) suffer unnecessarily. But tread with a lot of caution here. It doesn’t sound like her health is in grave danger, and you don’t want to create resentment between you over something that is a kind of sensitive topic for a lot of people, because it’s wrapped up in a lot of insecurities and shame. Maybe it isn’t, and you’ll be perfectly fine! But at minimum you should stay extremely wary and communicate carefully about it. I would say be prepared to reassure her a lot that this isn’t about looking a particular way, and to back off if she is triggered by this. 

You could try to gently help her connect her sedentary lifestyle with the possibly very straightforward solution of “more exercise.” You can try to use your own experience to relate, e.g., “Yeah, I’ve noticed since I’m sitting a lot more, I also hurt so much; I can’t wait to get back to my workout routine when gyms open again. I might even get a jumpstart now!” and then do some push-ups on the floor. 

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While you can make some general observations and invite her along, generally speaking, leave your girlfriend alone about going to the gym, especially with you. No offense—it’s just that sometimes the only thing more embarrassing than flailing around a bunch of weights and obviously caring about your health is doing it in front of someone you love, and she might be equally or even more likely to take to working out if she’s allowed to feel like she doesn’t have to explain it to anyone.

The bigger picture thing you should think about here is your shared values: Does it extremely bother you that your girlfriend doesn’t work out? Can you let this go, or do you feel like nagging her about it is going to be on the tip of your tongue forever? Even if you can let go of the weight thing (I hope you have let go of it by now), is it going to endlessly bother you, as it might me, to experience someone complaining about a thing that could easily be fixed if they simply did what comes easily to you? 

Hoping for your girlfriend to, essentially, change a fairly fundamental thing about her spontaneously, or worse, because you asked, is a bit of a pink flag. People go from “not working out” to “working out” all the time for many, many different reasons; I think I would just be extremely careful when you are talking about something that you always hoped your girlfriend would do, and whether you are holding her to an unfair standard. Neither of you has to be in a relationship with the other, remember. You could probably find someone who shares your love of lifting so much they leave the gym ready to tear the roof off, but they might not share your girlfriend’s other lovely qualities (you did, after all, make it through quarantine together). Just go easy, and do your best to distinguish between unfair pressure and open-minded, good faith invitations; be encouraging of any efforts; and, above all, just be chill and kind.  


Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.