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 her closest friends shared a problem. They all wanted to lose weight and stick to an exercise program, but they were finding it difficult. Though they were scattered across two different states (half 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 the group — which included four of the women’s husbands — created a motivational strategy called the Indiana/Florida Challenge.

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 quickly moved into full swing, and months later it’s still generating enthusiasm and results. Perhaps most important, the competition keeps all the participants focused and motivated enough to stick with their respective programs.

“Every Sunday, all of us report our weight and the number of times we’ve exercised,” explains Hughes. “Five points are given for 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 group keeps in touch by phone, building moral support between teams and team members. At the end of the challenge, the losing team buys the winners dinner.

Hughes and her friends 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. (For more on the exercise approaches at the leading edge of that trend, see “Welcome to the Fitness Revolution,” available in the October 2008 archives.)

What separates a fun and effective exercise regimen from a boring and ineffective one? Lots of things — and, naturally, very different things for different people. While folks like Hughes and her friends found that a little competitive steam and structure did 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 help upgrading your fitness-fun factor? Start with the following pointers.

Pace Yourself

One of the biggest barriers to designing an enjoyable, sustainable program is 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, lift weights and work your core to the core. The result? Days of aches and pains and a newfound animosity toward the gym.

“Instead of starting out with really intense exercises, begin with low intensities and work your way up,” says Joseph M. Gonzalez, a sports-medicine program coordinator at the Center for Athletic Medicine at USC University Hospital in Los Angeles.

Working too hard is also a symptom of another mistake that can suck the fun 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 that claim to 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 Busting Your Gut and Butt (Basic Health, 2008). “It’s habits first, results later.”

No matter how motivated you are initially, 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 Grand Rapids, Mich. “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, finding the easiest way not to expend energy.”

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. Some people may do better meeting new people at the gym, while others recruit a friend or significant other. Group camaraderie kept Betsy Conlin, a Life Time Fitness member from Chicago, motivated enough to train for a marathon: “I always thought of running as a solo sport in my younger years, but working out in a group 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 one-on-one or in a group-training situation. A skilled, experienced trainer makes things fun by inventing new games and suggesting new challenges — and ideally giving you reason to laugh, or at least smile occasionally. Group-fitness classes are another great way to get a sense of social camaraderie and support.

You may also want to seek some nutritional counsel. While a good trainer can also help you with a basic nutritional plan and make sure you’re eating enough to keep you from running out of steam, a more personalized nutritional analysis can help you identify deficiencies or habits that could otherwise undermine your fitness progress or derail your weight-loss efforts.

Make a Plan

Things like goals, schedules and progress tracking may sound very serious and businesslike, but for many people, they form the core components of exercise fun. That’s because they are simply the best way to stay motivated, focused and invested in what you’re doing. (For more on goals and planning, see “The Can-Do Fitness Plan” in the April 2009 archives.)

You can develop your own training plan, but if you don’t have much fitness experience, this is another area where a good trainer can be a godsend. By evaluating your current weaknesses and strengths — or advising you to get the fitness assessments you need to train smarter — a savvy trainer can set you on the right path with only a handful of one-on-one sessions.

But whether or not you get expert advice, do take some time to decide where and when you will exercise, how often — and what specific types of activity you will do to build cardiovascular capacity, strength, flexibility and balance. Experimenting with a few different group-fitness classes can be a great way to get this sort of variety. For example, you might try a group-cycling class on Mondays, yoga on Wednesdays and a core conditioning class on Fridays. If there’s a class you don’t enjoy, just swap it for something else that appeals to you more.

Bust Out of Your Rut

Maybe you’ve never liked exercise before. 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 stay interested. Regardless of your fitness experience, it pays to think about what makes — or could make — exercise fun and rewarding for you now. Merely acknowledging that you don’t currently know but are willing to learn and experiment may be the very best place to start. (For exercise ideas, see “Your Fitness Personality” in the November 2008 archives.)

Ask the questions. Seek the answers. Get the help you need to design a life that moves and breathes and sweats. Most important, refuse to think of exercise as a cruddy dead-end job you have to do every day. Rather, think of it as a rewarding, creative, lifelong project that deserves your best thought and attention, one that will naturally evolve and change as you do. Because, given half a chance, it will.

I Don’t Wanna Grow Up

Although there are plenty of fun and challenging classes at your local club, you can also boost your activity level and regain your childhood enthusiasm by trying out the following not-just-for-kids activities:

  • Swing on a swing set. You’ll work your shoulders and arms.
  • Play hopscotch. Hopping on one leg improves balance and proprioception.
  • Jump rope. Just 15 minutes of this can be killer cardio, and it’s a great way to target your glutes, arms and legs.
  • Play tag. During a 20-minute tag session, you’ll run, jump, squat and lunge — plus you’ll blow off nervous energy, too. Try tag in the pool for some extra exertion.
  • Organize a ball game. Touch football, softball, kickball and soccer burn plenty of calories and get your heart rate up, too. Remember to warm up before you hit the field. (A pulled muscle could leave you crying like a baby!)

Exercise Your Options

Fitness clubs today have far more to offer than a sea of treadmills. Choose from an eclectic array of group-fitness and movement classes, including dance, kickboxing, cycling, strength, yoga and more. There are also custom-tailored training programs based not only on your personal fitness goals, but also on scientific factors such as your personal resting heart rate, anaerobic threshold and VO2 max.

“In the old days, much of the fitness-testing and human-performance technology was only available to top-caliber athletes or people willing to pay big dollars — but these days, it’s a viable option for anyone,” says Tom Manella, senior director of personal training at Life Time Fitness. “As a result, a lot more people can easily figure out how to get the most efficient, effective workouts out of the time they’re willing to spend exercising. We’ve incorporated that science into many of our group-training programs, too, including T.E.A.M. Weight Loss, which combines fitness technology and group-training dynamics in a way that makes working out a lot more fun, even for beginners.”

Small-group training has become increasingly popular in health clubs in recent years. Essentially, it’s like one-on-one personal training — with a few extra people along for the ride. So you still get the personalized information and attention from a fitness professional, but at a fraction of the cost of one-on-one training. And you reap the benefits of positive peer pressure.

“When a group of people who share the same goals and similar fitness levels gets together, everything becomes more doable. You do things you normally wouldn’t think of doing because the people around you are doing it,” says Manella. “In addition, there is a higher level of commitment that supersedes yourself — you don’t want to let your teammates down, so you work harder. Compared with one-on-one training, we find attendance and intensity shoots way up with group training.”

Those two factors — accountability and intensity — are key to achieving your fitness goals. See if your health club offers team-oriented programming.

Some additional tips for creating a blissful — and productive — group-exercise experience:

    • Shop for a class like you would a new car. Ask other club members what they think. Do they like the instructor? Do exercises vary, or are they the same every week? Is the music to your liking? What kind of warm-up and cool-down does the class include?
    • Check out the instructor or personal trainer. Ask what kind of training and certification he or she has. Find out what kind of fitness philosophy he or she subscribes to. During class, observe the instructor’s motivational style and notice whether or not it works for you.
    • Arrive a few minutes early to claim a spot and introduce yourself to the instructor. Resist the urge to stand in the back. Instead, stand toward the front of the room so you have a clear line of sight and can avoid being confused by others’ 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 something until you’ve tried it. Activities you might dismiss as boring or intimidating can be much more fun than you expect. Surprise yourself by taste-testing new activities.

 

Quick Picker-Uppers (Back to Top)
Been feeling a little ambivalent or ho-hum about your exercise sessions? Here are a few fast fixes to get you moving.

Music: 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. Also, don’t be afraid to mix it up: If you always listen to rock music while you run, try funk or blues some morning just to see if you like the different pace and mood.

Garb: A fabulous workout outfit can help you feel great about yourself and act as a well-deserved reward for workouts past. Other times, though, if you’re feeling sloppy and like nothing is going to look good, remember you can also just say “to heck with it” and don the most loosey-goosey, comfortable thing you own. Above all, be sure your clothes aren’t interfering: Shoes that pinch, shorts that ride up and bras that bind are among the worst offenders. Weed them out of your workout wardrobe.

Fuel: Sometimes feelings of lethargy are due to low blood sugar or dehydration. Be sure you are adequately fueled and hydrated both prior to and throughout your workout. Grab a snack and start sipping a tall glass of water about a half-hour to 45 minutes before you head out, and bring water along for your session. (For more on proper fueling, see “Fresh Thoughts on Fitness Nutrition” in the January/February 2009 archives.)

Pep Talk: If you are seriously dragging, or tempted to forgo your workout altogether, sit down for a minute, collect your thoughts and ask yourself: “OK, what’s up? Why don’t I feel like doing this? What do I need to feel better about it? Is there something else I want to do instead? What, and why?” Listen to what your body has to say, negotiate a little if necessary, and remind yourself that this is something you are doing for yourself. It also sometimes helps to promise yourself that if you exercise for 15 minutes, you’ll decide after that whether or not to continue. For more motivation tips, see “Ready, Set, Go! ” in the November 2006 archives.

Undermining Mind

Someone may be sabotaging your workout efforts. And 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 can thwart your exercise plan before it even gets started, says Ann G. Kramer, EdS, a licensed mental-health counselor in Tampa, Fla., who runs a 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. If you’re struggling with your weight or negative-body-image problems, and these feelings are keeping you from moving forward, she says, 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?
YES__   NO__   SOMETIMES__

Does my mood change depending on how much I weigh on a given day?
YES__   NO__   SOMETIMES__

Do I avoid the gym because I can’t see myself succeeding?
YES__   NO__   SOMETIMES__

Am I sleeping more lately because I feel sad?
YES__   NO__   SOMETIMES__

Am I afraid of what other people might say about me at the gym?
YES__   NO__   SOMETIMES__

Am I making up excuses to avoid exercise?
YES__   NO__   SOMETIMES__

Do I criticize myself every day?
YES__   NO__   SOMETIMES__

If you answer yes to three or more of these questions, you may benefit from talking to a therapist.

More advice on how to overcome excuses in the Web Extra!

WEB EXTRA!

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 ways to help you steer around them. I’m sick. Sure, you might not feel like working out if your nose is running and your throat is sore but, medically, unless you have a fever, body aches or dizziness, you’re still good to go, according to Richard Thirlby, MD, a physician at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. In fact, light aerobic exercise may help your sinuses and lymphatic system drain by increasing your circulation. 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 disinfect all equipment you touch. It’s raining (or snowing or hot). Getting soaked — whether it’s from running from your car to the gym or around the track — might not seem like fun. Yet, 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 what. 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, exercise outside in the morning or after sunset. You might also spray yourself with water or stick your head under the faucet before you leave (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 a day, 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. 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. 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. And think of your exercise time as sacred — your mental and 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 body-weight exercises. If you don’t belong to a gym, you can try talking to an instructor of an adult-education class or coaches at your local college or high school. Pick up a good fitness book (forgo magazines until you have a basic program in place; 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. As a rule, this excuse resolves itself once you start moving. Research shows that exercise produces endorphins that boost energy levels and 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. 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 — use toddlers as weights or play with them in the yard. 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 day or two. In most cases, however, being sore doesn’t mean that you should just stay home and do nothing, says 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 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-repair time).

Karen J. Bannan is a writer based in New York.

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