Nobody wants to be told that they're fat or out of shape -- but that's often how even the best-intentioned attempts at encouraging a friend to exercise come off. If you really want to be supportive, there are only two tricks to remember: If your friend is already working out, ask if they want company. If they aren't already working out, model the type of behavior you'd like to encourage in your friend, then invite him or her to join you. But whatever you do, don't let your friendship be contingent on whether they accept the invitation.
If your friend is already trying to build a healthy exercise habit and you know her well enough to be frank, just ask what you can do to help. She might ask for something specific -- for example, asking you to help her train for her first 5k -- or she might just need a sympathetic ear when she's feeling frustrated. But either way, the fact that you cared enough to ask -- then respect what she tells you -- counts for a lot.
When somebody first starts changing unhealthy habits to healthy habits -- say, going for walks instead of sitting on the couch to watch television -- it can feel pretty lonely, because he's probably surrounded himself with others who still follow the same unhealthy habits he’s trying to quit. One of the best ways you can encourage a friend who's trying to start working out is just by showing up so he doesn't have to build those new habits alone.
The Low-Pressure Approach
Even if you don't know your friend well enough to have a frank discussion about her exercise plan -- or if she isn't showing any desire to work out yet -- modeling healthy behavior is the best way to encourage her without driving her off. But there's more: Make what you're modeling accessible. Invite your friend to join you in workouts that are suitable to her fitness level, so she can leave feeling good about what she's just accomplished. If she says no, respect that -- but keep your eyes open for signs that it might be time to invite again.
What Not to Do
Odds are very good that your friend already knows all the reasons he should be working out. If that's not enough to have him in the gym already, lecturing won't help -- it'll just drive him away. So unless he broaches the subject first or you think he's going to suffer serious health consequences if he doesn't start working out right now, hold your peace.
Do keep up the low-key invitations though, and remember that it doesn't have to happen in a gym to be good exercise. Long walks, sports leagues, recreational activities like kayaking and active games like Frisbee might appeal to your friend more than hitting the gym.
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