- Fitness Tips -

Making Exercise Fun

Weary of your workouts? Ditch the drudgery and the long face, friend! You’re due for an amusement infusion.

Lynn Hughes and some of her closest friends shared a problem. They all wanted to lose weight and stick to an exercise program, but they weren’t finding it easy. Although she and several of her college friends were scattered across two different states (half of them lived in Florida, the others in Indiana) they shared the same obstacle: Something was always getting in the way of going to the gym. So collectively, the group – which included four of the women’s husbands – created a unique motivational strategy: a game called the Indiana/Florida Challenge.

At the beginning of July, the friends split into two geographically defined teams and set goals, deciding how often they would exercise and how much weight they would lose. The Challenge moved quickly into full swing and now, two months later, is still generating enthusiasm and results. Perhaps most importantly, the competition keeps all the participants focused and motivated enough to stick with their respective programs. “On Sunday of each week, all of us report our weight and the number of times we’ve exercised,” explains Hughes. “Five points are given for any weight loss or if someone
maintains his or her goal weight, and one point is given for each time a person exercises. If you meet your exercise goal, you also get five bonus points.” The groups keep tabs by phone, building moral support between teams and team members. At the end of the challenge, the groups come together, and the losing team buys the winners dinner.

Hughes and her friends, who conducted a similar challenge back in college, are on the cusp of a growing trend – one in which people are moving from boring, ho-hum exercise programs to approaches they can enjoy, not just endure.

What makes the difference between a fun regimen and a befuddling one? Lots of things – and naturally, very different things for different people. While for folks like Hughes and her friends, a little competitive steam and structure might do the trick, for others, the same approach might fall flat or even backfire. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your own personality – weaknesses and strengths, delights and disconnects – when designing an exercise program and constructing interim adjustments.

Need some guidelines? Use the following ideas to upgrade your fitness-fun factor.

Pace Yourself

One of the biggest barriers to designing a fun, enjoyable, sustainable program is overworking – going too fast, too hard, too soon. It’s easy to do: You resolve to get your out-of-condition butt back into the gym, and on your very first day you take two classes, work with weights and do crunches until you’re exhausted. The result? Two days of aches and pains and a newfound resolve to avoid the gym at any cost.

“So many people think that if they’re getting into an exercise program they have to start out with really intense exercises,” says Joseph M. Gonzalez, a sports medicine program coordinator at the Center for Athletic Medicine at USC University Hospital in Los Angeles. “That’s the worst thing you can do. You need to start out at low intensities and gradually work your way up.”

Working too hard is also a symptom of another big mistake that can suck the fun right out of your workouts: the “I-want-it-now” attitude. With infomercials touting pills and creams that promise to deliver immediate miracles, and fitness magazines flaunting diets they say can help you de-flab overnight, why shouldn’t you expect to see instant results – particularly if you’re working out every day?

“It took years to put the pounds on. It’s going to take some time to get them off,” says Marty Tuley, author of Get Off Your Ass!, a book designed to get people moving and into a safe and realistic exercise program. “It’s habits first and results later,” he explains. “But most people want the opposite: Where’s the Hollywood Diet? Where’s the drink that makes me lose 10 pounds in three days?”

Unfortunately, no matter how motivated you are or how much you’re doing in the gym, if you expect instant results and they don’t materialize, it won’t stay fun for long. Nor will it be fun if you insist on sticking with the same program day-in and day-out, month after month, says Joe Stankowski, a personal trainer in Wilmington, Del.

“If you’re doing the same workout day after day, it not only gets boring, it also stops working as well as it used to,” he says. “Your body learns and adapts – it finds the easiest way not to expend energy,” he says.

There are other reasons that your exercise routine goes from fun to flat, of course, such as working with the wrong equipment, exercising the wrong way, or budgeting too little time for your program. And almost everyone falls prey to the “shoulds” and “have-tos” once in a while – relegating exercise to that class of most-dreaded tasks usually reserved for cleaning the bathroom and doing taxes.

So what can you do to counteract these problems? Plenty, says Bonne Marano, a fitness instructor in New York. “Be willing to experiment a little,” she says. “There are literally hundreds of exercise classes and programs you can sample.” New classes include karaoke spinning, salsa and strip aerobics, and hot-box yoga. Try some new equipment, take a crack at the climbing wall. When you start feeling bored or burned out, don’t hesitate to vary one or more elements of your routine (for suggestions, see Break it Up).

Get Support

Only you can make the initial decision to get your body moving, but that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Marano, a size 6 who was a size 16 a few years ago, advocates getting a fitness buddy – or buddies, like Lynn Hughes did.

“Working with a friend, co-worker, or significant other makes it harder to skip exercising and also makes the time that you are at the gym pass more quickly,” says Marano. “When I started my program, I enlisted the help of a friend. We joined a gym together. I drove and she used her checking account for our automatic payments,” she says. “A friend can be a big help.”

Some people may do better meeting new people at the gym, says Betsy Conlin, a Life Time Fitness member from Chicago. Conlin, who ran a marathon for the first time this year, says group camaraderie kept her motivated and made her training fun. “I thought of running as a solo sport in my younger years, but now everything I am doing makes it not a solo event,” she says. “Working out in a group actually turned a lonely sport into an enjoyable group activity for me.”

If you don’t have a friend willing to come to the gym and you’re too shy to meet new people, consider working with a personal trainer. A trainer motivates you but also keeps track of your progress and knows when you’re ready to do more. A good trainer makes things fun by inventing new games and suggesting new challenges—and ideally by giving you reason to laugh, or at least smile occasionally. A good trainer can also help you with a basic nutritional plan and make sure you’re eating correctly to keep you from running out of steam.

Make a Plan

Of course, the other thing trainers are great for is helping you define fitness goals and develop a solid fitness plan. With enough reading and research—or an exceptionally intuitive sense of what your body needs—you can also do this for yourself. But whether you get expert advice and support or not, do not underestimate the importance of good planning.

Things like goals, schedules and progress-tracking may sound very serious and businesslike, but in reality, at least for many people, they form the most solid, core components of exercise fun. That’s because they are hands down the best way to stay motivated, interested and invested in what you are doing.

Focus – gathering and integrating your mental, physical and emotional energy
toward a particular goal or intention – is like a magic elixir: It can help make just about any activity interesting and rewarding. That’s important, because while the results of fitness efforts tend to get the most attention, finding ways to enjoy the experience of exercise is essential to making those results happen.

Maybe you’ve never liked exercising. Maybe you loved it once but lost your taste for it along the way. Maybe you’ve committed to lifelong exercise and know that you need to look for ways to keep interested. Regardless, it pays to think about what makes—or could make—exercise fun and rewarding for you.

Ask the questions. Seek the answers. Get the help you need to design a life that moves and breathes and sweats and bends.

Most importantly, refuse to think of exercise as a crappy dead-end job you have to go to every day. Rather, think of it as a rewarding, creative, lifelong project that deserves your best thought and attention, and that will naturally evolve and change as you do. Because given half a chance, it will.

Quicker Picker-Uppers

Been feeling a little ambivalent or ho-hum about your exercise sessions? Here are a few fast fixes to get you moving.

Music: Make yourself a great mix tape or CD to play while you work out. Can’t quite get out the door to the gym? Put on some energizing dance music to help get your blood pumping and get you into the mood. If you’ve been running or working out with the same Walkman since high school, look into a lighter, more comfortable, higher-tech piece of equipment. Also, don’t be afraid to mix it up: If you always listen to rock music while you run, try classical some morning just to see if you like its different pace and mood.

Garb: A great, snazzy workout outfit can help you feel great about yourself and act as a well-deserved reward for workouts past. Other times, though, if you are feeling sloppy and like nothing is going to look good no matter what, remember you can also just say “to heck with it” and don the most loosy-goosy, comfortable thing you own. Above all, be sure your clothes aren’t interfering: Shoes that pinch, shorts that chafe and jog bras that
bind are among the very worst offenders. Weed them out of your workout wardrobe.

Fuel: Sometimes feelings of lethargy are due to low blood sugar or dehydration. Make sure you have eaten enough nutritious food prior to your workout so that you have energy (but don’t eat right beforehand or your body will bog down from digesting) and that you are adequately hydrated throughout your workout. Start sipping a tall glass of water about a half hour before you head out or begin exercising. As you drink, imagine it as clear, sparkling liquid energy filling and refueling each cell so that it is positively humming with high-vibe power. Avoid overeating, bolting food or gulping liquids, all of which can give you a sick, bloated feeling that is definitely not conducive to building exercise enthusiasm.

Pep Talk: If you are seriously dragging, or tempted to forego your workout altogether, sit down for a minute, collect your thoughts and feelings, and get into a little self-dialogue. Ask yourself: “Okay, what’s up? Why don’t you feel like doing this? What do you need to feel better about it? Is there something else you want to do first, or instead? What, and why?” Listen to what your body has to say, negotiate a little if necessary, remind it that this is something you are doing for it, not against it. It also sometimes helps to promise your body that if it agrees to exercise for 15 minutes, you will let it decide whether or not to continue with that particular activity. Do what you need to do to get your body on your side – and let it know that you respect its right to be heard. – PG

Giving Excuses the Slip

There’s an old saying that excuses are like noses: Everyone has one. When workouts feel like a drag, though, you may suddenly find you have not just one excuse, but a nearly endless supply. Here are a few of the most common ones and some thoughts to help you steer around them.

I’m sick. Sure, you might not feel like working out if your nose is running and you’ve got a sore throat, but medically, unless you’ve got a fever, body aches or dizziness, you’re still good to go, according to Dr. Richard Thirlby, M.D., a physician at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.

As long as you don’t overdo it, you’re not going to make yourself sicker by working out. In fact, light aerobic exercise may help your sinuses and lymphatic system drain by increasing your circulation. It will also help prevent future illnesses. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, working out can help you boost your immune system.

A recent ACSM study says exercise reduces the incidence of colds by more than 24 percent. Of course, working yourself to exhaustion when you’re already depleted is a bad idea. And if you have a cold, flu or infection, keep in mind that during the first two to three days you have symptoms, you may be highly contagious. If you go to the club, be kind to your fellow gym members and wipe down any equipment you touch.

It’s raining (or snowing or too hot). Getting soaked—whether it’s from running from your car to the gym or around the track—might not seem like fun. However, if you think back to when you were a child, you’ll probably remember how much fun it was splashing in puddles and trying to catch raindrops or snowflakes on your tongue. As long as you dress for the weather, you can enjoy working out no matter how inclement it is.

There is one caveat: You should always be cautious when exercising in extreme temperatures. Your body keeps cool by sweating. If it’s too hot—above 90 degrees—and humid, your sweat doesn’t evaporate and cool your body as quickly as it normally does, leaving you at risk for heat stroke. If it is super hot out, be smart: Exercise outside in the morning or after the sun goes down at night. You might also spray yourself with water or stick your head under the faucet before you head out (wet hair makes a big difference).

Likewise, if the weather is below zero or there’s a nasty wind chill, hit the gym or power walk the mall. You risk frostbite or hypothermia when working out in extreme cold.

I don’t have enough time. Ask yourself this: How much time do you spend in front of the television? If you’re like most Americans, it’s nearly four hours, according to A.C. Nielsen Co., the company that compiles television ratings. If you devote even 20 minutes of that time to working out, you’re well ahead of the game.

Still don’t think you have time? You can multitask, riding a stationary bike while watching TV or catching up on the telephone while walking on a treadmill.

Most importantly, remember that the time and energy you spend working out typically pays you back double—or triple—in increased energy, stamina, vitality and health. You’ll have a clearer, faster, more productive mind, better motivation and a sunnier mood if you do your workout instead of putting it off.

Missing one day doesn’t matter. True, taking a single day off won’t destroy your exercise program, but one day can lead to two, which can lead to three and so on.

Make a real effort to set an exercise schedule and stick with it. Write it into your daily planner or mark it on your calendar. If you can’t do your normal workout on a given day, still do something. Also, think of your exercise time as sacred—your mental-emotional break from the rhythm of the day, your gift to yourself—and you’ll be more likely to embrace it as a deep priority, as opposed to just another to-do item.

I don’t know how to get started. Thankfully, this is one of the easiest excuses to debunk. Almost every health club has personal trainers and fitness experts on call for you at all hours of the day and night. Most provide free introductory services to members so you can walk into the club clueless and walk out with a solid exercise plan. They can also show you how to use fitness equipment and do manual exercises such as crunches and lunges correctly.

If you don’t belong to a gym, you can try talking to an instructor of an adult-education class or your local college or high school’s coach. Pick up a good fitness book (forego magazines until you have a basic program in place, or you’re likely to get lost in details and distracted by the pretty pictures). And don’t forget to consult fit friends and family: Most people who are passionate about exercise are usually happy to help.

I’m too tired or I’m depressed.
As a rule, these are two excuses that resolve themselves once you start moving. Research shows that exercise boosts levels of natural brain chemicals called endorphins that make us feel happy, relaxed and pain-free. Thankfully, you don’t have to run a marathon to get this so-called runner’s high. Start slowly—even 10-minute bursts of exercise during the day can get you hooked. As an added benefit, endorphins also reduce fatigue and boost energy levels, according to research.

I don’t have a babysitter.
Most health clubs have childcare facilities that are staffed with qualified, experienced personnel. If yours doesn’t, consider starting a childcare cooperative with a friend. By trading off days you’ll get time alone, as will your friend. And of course you can always bring your kids into your workout. Sharon Craib, a 43-year-old mother, remembers when she used to use her toddlers as weights and play with them in the yard. “You can use your kids as a way to sneak exercise into your day,” she says.

I’m sore from yesterday’s workout. If you’re extremely sore—even pressing on the muscle results in serious pain—you may want to take it easy for a while, and if you are feeling totally debilitated, you should probably evaluate the workout that caused it: There is such a thing as overkill.

In most cases, however, being sore doesn’t mean that you should just stay home and do nothing, says Dr. Thirlby. Walking, bicycling or a low-impact exercise or stretching class will actually assist your muscles’ recovery by increasing circulation and moving out the biochemical byproducts (lactic acid) of muscle strain. You can help the process along by drinking plenty of water, doing some self-massage and getting some extra sleep (i.e., muscle-repairtime). If it’s really bad, you can take a non-prescription pain reliever to
reduce inflammation.

Exercise Your Options

Picking the right exercise class is similar to picking the right career. Unless there’s a perfect fit you’re not likely to stick with it. Follow these guidelines for a blissful—and productive—exercise-class experience.

Shop for a class like you would a new car. Ask other members what they think. Do they like the instructor? Is the class varied or is it the same every week? Is the music too loud? What kind of warm-up and cool-down does it include?

Check out the instructor. Ask your instructor where she went to school and what kind of certification she has. Find out her thoughts about exercise. What’s her motivation style? Does she yell at the students, urge them on, or walk around and help people out?

Arrive a few minutes early so you can get a good spot. If you’re new, resist the urge to stand in the back. Instead, stand toward the front of the room so you can see the instructor and you won’t be confused by other members’ mistakes.

Don’t be afraid to take a break. If you’re overwhelmed, stop what you’re doing and walk or bounce in place. Remember, it takes time to get used to a new class and learn the moves, and no one cares how you look: They’re too busy worrying about their own footwork.

Don’t discount a class until you’ve tried it. Betsy Conlin, a 42-year-old marathon runner, says she thought she would never have tried a water-aerobics class but now that she has, she’s hooked. “A lot of things that I used to think of as boring are now fun to me,” she says. “Surprise yourself by trying new things.”

Undermining Mind

Someone may be sabotaging your workout efforts. That someone may be you. Most exercise-avoidance issues have little to do with physical limitations. Instead, psychological issues such as low self-esteem, clinical depression and unrealistic body expectations thwart your exercise plan before it even gets started, says Ann G. Kramer, Ed.S., a licensed mental health counselor in Tampa, Fla., who runs a self-help Web site and program called LifePuzzle.com.

“Unless you can get past hating yourself and move to loving yourself you’re not going to be able to get on an exercise program without feeling guilt and sadness,” says Kramer. Of course, this is easier said than done. However, if you’re struggling with your weight or negative body-image problems and these feelings are keeping you from moving forward, you may want to consider talking to a therapist. Not sure you fall into this category? Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do I avoid mirrors in the gym or at home?
  • Does my mood change depending on how much I weigh on a given day?
  • Do I avoid the gym because I can’t see myself succeeding?
  • Am I sleeping more lately because I feel sad?
  • Am I afraid of what other people might say about me at the gym?
  • Am I making up excuses to avoid exercise?
  • Do I criticize myself every day?

If you answer yes to three or more of these questions, it may be that you could benefit from talking to a therapist (or trying a self-treatment method like the one described in Instant Healing.)

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