When was the last time you tested your fitness boundaries? When was the last time you tried something completely new? If it’s been more than a few months since you’ve changed much of anything, it’s probably time to take things up a notch. And if you’ve been depending on the same old fitness activities for years, broadening your fitness horizons could do you, and your body, a world of good.
Remember the first time you successfully pedaled a bike without training wheels? Or the first time you did a cartwheel, or skated backward, or hiked to the very top of a great big hill, or ran your first mile? That, my friends, is how fitness should always make you feel. Excited. Engaged. Heart-poundingly proud.
And yet, somehow, the thrilling newness of a first-time challenge has a vexing way of morphing into the blandness of a been-there-done-that routine. If you do it enough, virtually anything that once seemed tough eventually becomes easy, and then – sometimes with astonishing speed – it becomes boring.
Feeling lukewarm about your workout is the first slippery step toward abandoning it altogether. To turn the heat back on, you’ve got two options: Raise your degree of difficulty; or apply your fitness skills in a whole new way. Either way, you get a double benefit. Boredom is banished and an upgraded fitness level comes within reach.
Whether you take your indoor cycling skills on the road, test your inline-skating balance in a martial arts class, or apply your marathon sensibilities to a multisport adventure race, unfamiliar and intensified fitness activities amplify your workout in ways that invigorate both body and mind.
Ready to get started? Here are some ideas to get you going – and growing – in a good direction.
Ways to Grow
1. Reach for distance
Ten years ago, when Mary Louise Schmalz got serious about triathlon training, she hired a coach to train her for the open-water swims. That was a new experience for her, and her first time off the shore she didn’t make it very far. The second time, though, something clicked.
“I was moving slowly, but I was feeling good and having a great time,” says Schmalz, 57, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif. Swimming long distances in the bay has since become her favorite activity. She’s done five one-way and two there-and-back crossings to Alcatraz – and her zest for exercise has skyrocketed. “The round-trip swim to Alcatraz has shown me I can go the distance,” she says.
Something to Try: Get more mileage out of your workouts by gradually extending the distances you cover. If you’ve been doing a three-mile run, extend your cool-down so you cover an additional half mile, or add in a couple of sprints toward the end of your run and see how much additional distance you cover as the result of your increased pace. If you’ve been pedaling the same 10 miles on the recumbent bike at the gym, sign up for an overland cycling event while raising money for charity. One to try: the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (800-955-4572, www.teamintraining.org).
2. Think on your feet
Joanne Watson, MD, a 37-year-old mother of three and a family physician in Baltimore, Md., had long struggled to find and stick with a fitness routine. “I hated exercise because it wasn’t fun,” she says. But fun or not, she knew she needed to boost her activity level. Then she saw a newspaper ad for fencing lessons. It sparked her memories of practicing the sport during college, so she decided to take it up again.
“Fencing has made moving enjoyable for me again,” she says. “I’ve realized that I prefer exercise that requires focused thinking.” Along with developing greater aerobic capacity, strengthening muscles she says she’d forgotten she had, and introducing her to new friends, fencing has made Watson more confident, happy and relaxed.
Something to Try: Climbing, yoga, kayaking, tennis, golf, martial arts and dance are multisensory fitness experiences that engage both mind and body skill sets. Grab a friend and sign up for lessons, whether you’re sampling one of these activities for the first time, or reaching back into your past to reconnect with a once-beloved sport.
3. Take it on the road
In Atlanta in 2001, you could often find 39-year-old Edward Lee wheeling around town on Rollerblades with his buddies. That was also the year that Lee decided to stretch his horizons by taking an action-oriented trip to Switzerland through Zephyr Adventures (www.zephyradventures.com), a touring company that hosts active vacations around the world.
That trip sparked a passion for Lee, who has since been on six more Zephyr adventures, including a hiking and biking tour through China and a Rollerblading tour through the Netherlands.
“The best way to prevent boredom is to vary your workouts, and this kind of destination experience definitely offers variety,” says Lee, an anesthesiologist. “Staying active and planning for trips like the Zephyr tours have also helped me diffuse stress from work.”
Something to Try: Check with local sport-specialty stores or fitness clubs to find out about one- or two-day excursions organized around your activity or destination of choice. For instance, REI, which has stores in 25 states, organizes a wide variety of weekend trips around the country (www.rei.com/adventures). Find regional, national and international outdoor adventures (by destination or activity) at http://gorp.away.com. Not the outdoor-destination type? Resorts like Golden Door in Escondido, Calif. (800-424-0777, www.goldendoor.com) offer weeklong programs that pair you with a personal trainer who designs a fitness schedule for your needs and interests, including activities such as cardio classes, archery, swimming and spinning.
4. Be artful
When Karen Canfield moved to Philadelphia in 2003, she had two goals: Lose the weight she had gained in college and prepare for a 10-day backpacking trip to Patagonia, the region in South America that lies in southern Chile and Argentina. Conventional fitness routines bored her, so she went in search of an antidote. She found it in capoeira, a Brazilian practice that combines martial arts, music and dance.
Three years later, Canfield says capoeira has changed her life. “Not only am I in the greatest shape ever, but I also have great friends. I speak some Portuguese. I play new instruments. I dare to sing in class. I relieve stress on a regular basis, and I look forward to working out every day,” says the 26-year-old. “Capoeira is a feeling and a way of life. You work out, you perform and you play to have fun.”
Something to Try: Looking to get centered and build core strength? Try karate or kung fu. Longing for a little elegance and style? Try ballroom dancing. Craving a funky beat? Venture into a hip-hop class. Once the purview of specialized studios and dojos, classes like swing dancing and kickboxing are now offered at many health clubs and community centers. Interested in capoeira? Visit www.capoeira.com to learn more.
5. Take a risk
Nothing builds intensity and focus like doing something that scares you a little. When 32-year-old Emma Freedman of Tribeca, N.Y., became bored with her workout schedule, she booked a class with the Trapeze School New York (www.trapezeschool.com), which offers lessons in New York, Boston and Baltimore.
Some 200 classes later, Freedman is still taking three to four classes a week, and her enthusiasm for working out continues to gain momentum. That emotional boost is grounded in the gains she’s experienced in both her physical and mental strength. “My body is stronger than it’s ever been,” she says. More important, she’s mastered a new confidence about life: “When you do things you never thought possible, it’s such a triumph. I think I’ve carried that sense of achievement into my job.”
Something to Try: When your fitness attitude has reached the been-there-done-that breaking point, stoke your thrill-seeking spirit: Beyond the trapeze, other feels-like-flying pursuits include luge (www.usaluge.org), snowboarding (www.travel-of-snowboard ing.com), trampolining (www.usa-gymnastics.org) and downhill mountain biking (www.imba.com). Or take your own city by storm with parkour (www.parkour.com), an urban, self-directed adventure that will have you jumping, climbing, crawling – running around, over and under manmade and natural objects. Live for challenge? Test your physical limits with a multisport or multiday race such as AdventureXstream’s 24-hour race in Breckenridge, Colo., or the Xstream Expedition in Moab, Utah, featured at www.gravity play.com/axs.
Kicking off any good fitness growth spurt requires knowing just how intensely to challenge yourself. Take on something too difficult or scary and you could get mired in frustration or risk getting injured. Take it too easy, and you’ll find yourself backsliding into boredom.
If you’re in need of guidance, reach out to a trainer, instructor or training group. You might also consider an online fitness-coaching program. For instance, www.iTrain .com offers workouts that you can download to your MP3 player – including walking, cycling, strength training, stretching and hip-hop plans – created by certified fitness professionals. And by email, phone and fax, www.heartzones.com provides heart-rate-based fitness coaching and periodization plans for most cardio activities.
Getting some expert input may help you establish logical benchmarks and a safe progression plan. But finding the perfect starting point for your next fitness evolution will probably also require some good old-fashioned soul searching: What compels you? What might capture your attention and challenge your body? What makes you excited or envious when you watch others partake? What fitness limit would you like to bust through?
Design your expansion plans around the answers that get your heart beating and your mind racing. “You have to decide what it is that you want this growth spurt to do for you – both physically and mentally,” notes Mark Verstegen, coauthor of Core Performance Essentials (Rodale, 2005) and founder of www.coreperformance.com, an interactive Web site that offers customized training programs for all fitness levels and goals.
Whatever you decide to do, resolve to do something this year that pushes your fitness frontier upward and onward. Set your sights on a new horizon, and then go – before your “been-there-done-that” fitness experience feels like something you’d just as soon not do at all.
Explore New Tools
While prepping for a 405-mile cycling trip through Colorado, Daren Williams used technology to take his fitness level up a notch: He started training with the Garmin Forerunner 301, a wrist unit that calculates heart rate, speed, distance, pace and calories burned, and includes an embedded GPS sensor and virtual training partner.
“I’d download my training rides to the computer and compare my heart rate with what I was doing at the time, like climbing a hill or sprinting on a straightaway,” says the 41-year-old from Olathe, Kan. “I also tracked the time I spent training in different heart-rate zones, which was critical to improving my endurance.”
Now the Forerunner (www.garmin.com/products/forerunner301) is an integral part of Williams’s training as he prepares for a half–Iron Man distance triathlon. “I like tracking speed and distance, competing against the virtual training partner, and then going online to replay events, compare workouts and track improvements in performance,” he says.
Something to Try: The market is packed with affordable new tools for fitness enthusiasts. Boost cardio and strength with kettlebells, (www.dragondoor.com). Available in various sizes and weights, these irons balls — equipped with a handle bar — will make you never want to lift another dumbbell. Spice up your walking workouts with Nordic Walking poles (www.nordicwalking.com). For a high-energy fitness class, Cardio Tennis (www.cardiotennis) morphs tennis drills with cardio and can be adapted to any fitness level.
Mind Your Fitness
Yoga and martial arts have always fascinated 36-year-old Maura Barclay. So when she recently discovered Budokon, which fuses martial arts, yoga and meditation, she found a new passion.
While taking classes two to three times, Barclay noticed that combining her yoga and martial arts skills boosted her range of motion and improved her overall strength. “Every day that I take Budokon, I’m challenged,” says Barclay, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif. “And I’ve honed my spiritual focus even more by learning how to honor myself.” Now a Budokon (www.budokon.com) instructor, Barclay teaches six classes a week.
Something to Try: Regardless of activity level or favorite workout, mind-body awareness can deepen your physical focus and intensity. Yoga and Pilates are classic mind-body practices, and classes are easy to find. Other mind-body boosters include qigong, tai chi, meditation and karate.