When Darryl Edwards hit the gym to get fit, he went all in, progressing from self-described couch potato to physical powerhouse. He grew ever stronger, leaner, healthier.
There was just one problem: He was bored silly.
“I had a strong work ethic from my job in investment banking, which I transferred to my experience in the gym. No pain, no gain, right? But I didn’t enjoy the process,” he says. “I only looked forward to the end result, watching the clock rather than staying in the moment.”
As a kid, Edwards lived for physical activity, eschewing video games to play outside for hours. His adult workouts, on the other hand, felt like sheer drudgery.
“I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with exercise — but I’ve always loved to ‘play,’” he explains.
Channeling his passion, Edwards got certified as a personal trainer and nutritionist, and then designed a fitness program infused with the energy of a children’s playground at recess. The approach, which he termed Primal Play, pairs functional movement with repurposed childhood games.
Enjoy the Process
It’s easy to think of exercise as a chore — or as tedious torture — if you only look forward to the endgame. But Thomas Raedeke, PhD, professor of kinesiology at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., asserts that if your workout is fun, you’re not only more likely to keep it up, you’ll also experience better effects along the way.
In his 2007 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Raedeke asked participants to evaluate their mental state before and after exercise. The more they enjoyed the activity, the better their mood and the more energized they felt afterward.
“It’s ironic to me that when people talk about exercise, they say, ‘We’re going to go work out.’ But when we talk about kids exercising, we tell them, ‘Go out and play,’” Raedeke says. “The way we exercise is outcome oriented. We lose sight that the process — just enjoying the experience — is so important.”
The challenge: Discovering what turns your fitness crank. Whether it’s a friendly soccer match or a solo walk in the park, finding the movement style you love is integral to making exercise a habit.
Read on for some pointers on finding what works for you. And remember: While there’s no one-size-fits-all fitness solution for the masses, there really is an enjoyable physical activity for just about every body.
1. Be True To Character
Choosing a workout that jibes with your personality reduces resistance, ramps up your perceived fun factor, and increases the likelihood that you’ll come back for more.
“When people exercise, they often pick out the quickest, most convenient activity,” says Raedeke. “But it’s really important to find an activity that’s a good fit for you personally and that connects you to the joy of moving. That sounds so simple, but it’s often overlooked.”
To help us do that, James Gavin, PhD, a professor of applied human sciences at Montreal’s Concordia University who has studied exercise psychology for more than 30 years, developed the Fitness Personality Profile (see “Finding Your Fitness Fit,” below).
“For people who are new to exercise, finding an activity that parallels the way they live can be important, because it doesn’t throw them out of their comfort zone,” says Gavin. So, while an aggressive, type A personality could feel at home on the racquetball court, someone with a mellower temperament might feel most at peace in a yoga studio.
There are ways to tailor a single activity to the needs of various personalities, too. Take running. A quiet, introspective person could thrive running long distances alone. Someone more social may appreciate group training or community fun runs. And a particularly spontaneous personality could benefit from mixing things up — exploring new routes, interval training, or trail running.
Tree climbing, piggyback rides, tag, tug of war, and animal movements (think bunny hops and bear crawls) all bring joy to strength-, cardio-, and coordination-building drills. Participants tell Edwards that they’re having such a good time, it doesn’t feel like exercise.
“If you want physical activity to be integrated into your life, it must be enjoyable,” says Edwards, who authored a related book, Paleo Fitness. “That’s the only way to make it long term and sustainable.”
Edwards is part of a growing fitness trend — from Frank Forencich’s “Exuberant Animal” workouts to hip-hop fitness dance classes — that emphasize fun as much as physical challenge. Here’s how you can get some of that fun for yourself.
2. Know Your Motivation
What drives you to exercise? For some, it’s doctor’s orders. For others, it’s physical appearance. For primal-living expert Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, it’s participating in activities he absolutely loves — like hiking or playing ultimate Frisbee.
“Enjoyment is its own intrinsic reward, and intrinsic rewards are essential,” says Sisson. Unlike extrinsic rewards (those designed to impress others or achieve a secondary goal), intrinsic rewards originate from within, he explains. They’re driven by authentic values and desires. As a result, he notes, “they’re more reliable sources of motivation and more likely to endure over time.”
New research suggests that doing physical activities we experience as rewarding on their own merits can also help us conserve our willpower, empowering us to make healthier choices in other areas. In a 2014 study at French and American universities, women who went on a 30-minute walk for “fun” were less likely to choose sugary sodas and desserts afterward than those who went on the same walk for “exercise.”
Overall, the more positive the motivation, the better. Margaret Schneider, PhD, research professor at the University of California at Irvine, discovered that some people are motivated by rewards, while others want to avoid punishment. Those spurred on by reward are more likely to enjoy exercise. The key, Schneider says, is understanding what motivates you and tailoring your activity to build on that.
3. Value Variety
Choosing a workout that meshes with your personality can be helpful, but don’t stop your search with a single good match — especially if you’re already active. “Being introduced to different movement forms excites us and wakes us up,” Gavin says.
Structured change can also increase exercise adherence, according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior. Participants in the eight-week study were divided into three groups: One group switched their exercise regimen every two weeks for eight weeks, another group followed the same plan for eight weeks, and the third group did whatever they wanted.
The group that changed their routines every two weeks better adhered to the regimen than those who designed their own exercise programs. Researchers believe the spike could be due to an increase in exercise enjoyment.
Unfortunately, most of us are not naturally inclined to seek out such novelty and variety on our own, says Jennifer Huberty, PhD, associate professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University. “The barrier lies in getting people to explore,” she says.
Huberty suggests that we go on “dates” with activities, test-driving them to discover what makes us happy. “If you were on the Internet looking to go on a date, you would review all the profiles, email someone to find out more about him or her, then go on a few different dates until you found the person you have the most chemistry with,” she explains. “People should take the time to do that with fitness.”
And don’t limit yourself to traditional exercise, Huberty says. Check out a hula-hooping class. Take a long walk to go bird watching. Or try a free-movement experience like Qoya, which is drawn from elements of dance and yoga. You never know where you’ll find your fitness bliss.
4. Click With Community
Walk into the Tuesday morning Studio Cycle class at Life Time Fitness in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn., and you’ll be hard-pressed to ride without making a new friend or two. Newbies are greeted with smiles, old friends reach across the bikes for sweaty hugs, and partner stretches bookend the heart-pumping class.
The convivial social environment, combined with dim lights and upbeat music, lend the morning a decidedly partylike atmosphere. And that’s exactly the intent.
“We all want to feel like we’re part of something bigger — even at the club,” says Kimberly Spreen-Glick, director of group fitness at Life Time. “People have an innate need to feel connected. Group fitness classes offer that.”
When your gym feels like the bar in Cheers, where everybody knows your name, workout sessions become the new happy hour. Data backs up the benefits, whether your fitness tribe is a team of two or 20: A 2013 British study shows that women train longer and more often when working out with a friend. Sixty-four percent of the study participants pushed themselves harder than when training alone, and 31 percent said their fitness partners provided the main motivation for working out.
Workout buddies also provide accountability. “If you don’t show up, someone is going to miss you,” says Spreen-Glick. Partners can help get you back on track, cheer on your accomplishments, and empathize with your setbacks, making the journey more meaningful — and more fun.
“It’s hard for anyone to make a sustainable lifestyle change without social support,” says Mark Fisher, whose Manhattan gym, Mark Fisher Fitness, is built on group fitness and creating deep-seated connections. “Having a fitness community means exercise is no longer just about the training — it’s about spending time with your friends.”
5. Consider Competition
Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool noncompetitor, don’t be too quick to dismiss the power of a spirited pickleball match or rough-and-tumble football game. A little competitive spirit can raise your energy level and amplify your fun quotient at the same time.
“In our society, we tend to say that recreational sports are for kids, and adults should exercise by working out,” says Raedeke. “But if we did more to promote recreational sports for all ages, I think we’d be more active as a society.”
The way we think about playing sports is very different from the way we think about exercising, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of American College Health. When asked why they play sports, participants listed such motivations as enjoyment, challenge, and competition. When asked why they exercise, reasons often involved appearance and weight management.
For those of us with a competitive streak, motivation doesn’t have to happen on the sports field. Healthy competition can be found in group fitness classes, running and cycling clubs, powerlifting and strongman meets, and other arenas where opponents bring out your best.
Just be sure to keep the competition friendly. When examining Division 1 soccer players, authors of a 2007 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research learned that levels of anxiety and the stress hormone cortisol rose when players competed in a serious match. But when they engaged in regular soccer practice, their salivary cortisol levels didn’t change significantly.
6. Master Your Mindset
A negative, self-critical perspective can suck the joy out of any fitness pursuit. Doubting your physical abilities or making unkind mental comments about your body is a great way to ruin your workout.
On the other hand, using positive imagery and encouraging self-talk can go a long way toward boosting both your enjoyment and your willingness to work out.
According to a 2014 study from the University of New Hampshire, recalling good memories can be a powerful motivator, too. When participants thought about a positive memory associated with physical activity — perhaps hitting a home run or finishing their first 5K — they exercised more often the following week.
To maximize your fitness mindset, Huberty suggests three practices: First, be mindful and present. “Think about what you’re doing with your body, while you’re doing it,” she says.
Second, focus on the things you enjoy about what you’re doing. And, third, recognize the things you’re grateful for, in the moment.
“You might be walking on a treadmill, thinking, This is really boring. But you can change your perspective to focus on the things you appreciate,” says Huberty. “Like, I’m grateful for my legs moving on this treadmill; I’m grateful for the time I have for myself. Gratefulness takes the focus away from the barriers and lets us focus on feeling good about where we are.”
And, if the power of positive thinking fails, just get off the treadmill. Try the elliptical trainer or a kettlebell class, or go for a walk outside instead. Don’t settle for less than you enjoy, and soon you’ll be enjoying the level of fitness you deserve.