By Richard M. Weil, MEd, CDE
Just about everyone knows that exercise is a healthy thing to do. Regular exercise helps control blood glucose levels, reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke, helps control high blood pressure, strengthens and tones muscles, improves balance, burns calories, helps maintain body weight, alleviates the symptoms of depression, and helps you feel better about yourself. But in spite of all of these benefits, more than 50% of American adults are sedentary, meaning they spend the majority of their time sitting, reclining, or lying down during waking hours. In fact, many people burn only a few more calories during the day than they would if they stayed in bed all day!
Why don’t more people exercise? There are many reasons, but for some people, it’s because they don’t enjoy it: Exercise simply isn’t fun.
Interestingly, research shows that the main reason kids like to exercise is that it’s fun. So is it possible to make exercise more fun for adults (and kids) who don’t currently enjoy it? This article offers some suggestions to help you find the “kid inside you” and to find the fun in exercise.
Admittedly, walking or jogging on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bike is not usually a barrel of laughs. But if going to a gym or using home exercise equipment is your only or most convenient option, can it be made more enjoyable so that you’ll do it more often or spend more time working out? Here are some ideas:
Distraction works well with kids, so why not try it on yourself? For instance, try listening to music you like, a comedy CD, a book on tape, or even a college course lecture on CD while you walk, jog, or pedal. If audio alone doesn’t take your mind off what you’re doing, try watching movies, music videos, or a TV show as you work out.
One technique that’s often effective is to watch a movie you’ve chosen only while exercising. If you exercise for 30 minutes, you only permit yourself to watch the movie for 30 minutes. That means you’ll need three more half-hour sessions to watch an entire two-hour movie. Discipline yourself to follow this technique, and you might even look forward to your next workout.
If distracting yourself with music or other entertainment isn’t an option or isn’t enough, try some interval training. Interval training simply involves increasing your speed or the intensity of the activity for an interval of time (anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes), then going at a slower speed or lower intensity for another interval. On a treadmill, try altering the incline so you work harder at times and easier at other times. On many machines, you can select a program that will automatically alter the incline, speed, or resistance over the course of your workout, but by doing it yourself, you keep your mind engaged with what your body is doing and how you feel.
Some other ways to keep things more interesting at the gym include using different aerobic machines on different days, and doing some resistance exercises in addition to your aerobics. You’ll build different muscles and give your mind and body a new challenge.
Another option for gym workouts is circuit training. First, pick out up to 15 resistance exercises to do. You can use weight machines, dumbbells, resistance bands, other equipment, or a combination of these for your exercises. You can also include exercises that use your own body weight for resistance, such as abdominal crunches, pushups, and squat thrusts. And you can include jump rope stations between exercises to keep your heart rate up, if you wish. Perform each exercise at a moderately difficult resistance for 45 seconds, then move briskly to the next machine or station. (If someone else is using the machine you want to use next, just skip it, move on to the following exercise, and come back later.) Fifteen exercise stations should take about 30 minutes if you do the circuit twice. The benefit of circuit training is that as long as you keep moving briskly around the circuit and keep your heart rate elevated, you’ll get a great aerobic and resistance exercise workout at the same time.
If all else fails, try thinking about the payoff of exercise as you do it. Imagine your muscles getting stronger and firmer and your blood pressure and blood glucose levels decreasing. Or consider your gym efforts training for more enjoyable activities; think about what a strong hiker or kayaker you’ll be with your gym-strengthened muscles.
How long has it been since you played a recreational sport? Do you remember enjoying volleyball, kickball, softball, golf, tennis, croquet, swimming, bike riding, or bowling in your younger days? If so, why not give it another try now? Or why not try a sport you’ve never played but have always wanted to? So what if it’s been 40 years since you’ve participated? Recreational activities are an opportunity to be active, meet new people, make new friends, and of course, have fun!
Check out your local recreation department to see what’s available. Keep in mind that if it has been 40 years since you’ve played a sport, you’ll need to start slowly and build up your strength and stamina gradually. (See “Tips for Getting Started” for guidelines on getting your body back in shape for all sorts of activities.)
Joining a team isn’t the only way to benefit from the camaraderie of exercising with others: Walking, biking, hiking, and paddling clubs regularly schedule group outings that allow participants to exercise and socialize simultaneously. Such outings additionally offer the opportunity to see new places and to be outside, in nature.
When joining an activity club, be sure to read any literature the club provides to be sure you know the rules and guidelines. For example, many clubs offer beginner, intermediate, and advanced-level outings, and you’ll want to know which are which so you’re neither straggling behind nor spending a lot of time waiting for others to catch up.
Walking is the most popular form of exercise in the United States: It’s easy, it’s convenient, it requires almost no equipment, but it can get boring. How to make it less boring and possibly even fun? Here are some ideas:
Vary your route. Make your walks an opportunity to get to know your neighborhood or your town.
Walk to a destination. Make your walks useful by walking to the store, the library, or somewhere else you need or would like to go. If you have heavy packages to carry back to your starting place, use public transportation or have someone pick you up.
Join a group, or walk with friends. Conversation and good company make the miles fly by.
Get a dog. Dogs need to be walked every day, often more than once a day, and most dogs love to walk. Let the reward of a happy dog smile be your motivation to take a walk.
Make it a competition. Setting up a friendly competition between teams of coworkers or family members can be a way of making walking more fun and keeping people motivated and moving. To get the rivalry going, divide your participants up into two teams, and make sure everyone has a pedometer. Pedometers are simple, inexpensive devices worn on your hip that measure how many steps you take each day. Instruct your competitors to wear their pedometers from the moment they get dressed in the morning to the moment they get into bed at night. Each morning, have everyone report in with their number of steps for the previous day, either by phone, e-mail, or in person, if you all live or work in the same place. The daily team tallies can be recorded on poster board and hung in a conspicuous place if the competition is based in the workplace. The winning team is the one with more cumulative steps over a week or even up to a month.
As an incentive, you can offer a prize for the winning team members. One idea is to have everyone contribute a nominal amount of money — up to five dollars, say — and the winning team members divide the winnings evenly.
Research shows that parents have a powerful influence on what their kids eat and how they exercise. When was the last time your family went on a bike ride or hike, took a walk in the park, or tossed around a Frisbee or a football? It’s true that soccer moms (and soccer dads) are busy shuttling their kids from one league sport to another and hardly have time for anything else, but perhaps on weekends when there are no activities scheduled, you could spend some time with your family doing something active.
If your kids are not active in sports, all the more reason to be active as a family. Set up your own evening and weekend schedule, with shorter sessions during the week and longer active outings on the weekends. Vary the activities so your kids don’t get bored: Go play at the park one day, run through the sprinkler in the backyard the next, set up a badminton net, go to a community swimming pool, play croquet, kick a soccer ball around, etc. Some cities offer family-oriented fitness classes in parks and recreation centers, and they’re often free. When your family is active, be sure to participate and not just watch your kids ride their bikes or their scooters. And remember that being active is supposed to be fun, so don’t worry about how well you or your kids perform any given activity. Doing it at all is what’s most important.
Alternatively, if your kids are overscheduled with activities already, use your kids’ sports time for your own physical activity time. Drop them off at soccer or ballet class, then take a long walk or get in a quick gym workout or an exercise class of your own before it’s time to pick them up again. If you can’t leave the soccer field for your own workout, at least walk around the field, jump rope, and do some pushups. Seeing you take your own physical fitness seriously will influence your children in the years ahead, when they are adults.
Setting up an exercise routine and varying it enough to keep it interesting is hard work, so why not pay a teacher to do the work for you? Check out the class schedule at your local health club, YMCA, dance studio, or recreation center. Pick something that fits your schedule, looks like fun, and fits your level of energy and ability. Call and ask about trying a sample class if you’re not sure a class will be right for you.
Following an exercise video is another way to let someone else do the thinking for you, but be sure to take any video (or class) at your own pace. It’s OK to build up to doing an entire routine.
If you enjoy using modern technology for communication and entertainment, why not use it for exercise, too? Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) was one of the first exercise video games, and it’s still popular today. DDR is a music video game that you watch on your TV. To play, you stand on a platform that has colored arrows on it, and you hit the arrows with your feet to the beat of the music and visual cues on the video. You get a score based on how well you time your steps and how accurate you are. It’s lots of fun and lots of exercise!
In a similar vein, a video game console that’s taken the country by storm is Wii, a system that plugs into your TV. Wii, and other similar systems, wirelessly detects motion in three dimensions. You can play all sorts of sports games against opponents on the TV or against another real person in your own living room. The basic Wii comes with tennis, baseball, boxing, golf, and bowling. It feels real when you swing the tennis racket and hit the ball, line up your golf shot, box with your opponent, and swing the baseball bat. It’s motivating and fun at the same time!
Another addition to the world of Wii games is Wii Fit Plus. It’s an interactive fitness program that includes a balance platform you stand on, which allows you to do aerobic dance, yoga, balance games, and strength training. The software measures your performance and gives you points based on your progress, which you can compare against yourself or other players. Wii is a great way to challenge yourself, get a workout, and have some fun.
Even free games that are not specifically exercise-oriented, such as the Pokémon Go app, can help you burn some calories while walking from place to place as you play.
Ultimately, having fun during exercise may come down to your attitude. If you think of physical activity as a chore, it won’t be fun. But if you think of the 30–45 minutes you set aside for exercise as a break from your daily cares, it will be a lot more appealing. So challenge yourself to reframe your activity time with a positive spin:
Call it “me time,” time to spend on your needs alone.
Think of it as an opportunity to spend time with people you enjoy, in a class or group activity.
Rather than be resentful that you have to exercise, decide to be grateful that you can, then embrace every step or movement that you make.
Pay attention to the physical changes happening in your body: lower blood glucose, lower blood pressure, firmer muscles, more stamina, etc. Focus on these changes taking place when a workout feels boring.
Remember to give yourself credit for moving at all, even if your progress seems slow or you don’t see obvious gains. Keeping a journal or simply marking your calendar with a big X or check mark for every day you exercise will help you appreciate your accomplishments.
Use your gym-acquired fitness to participate in an activity you really enjoy. For example, go hiking, biking, or walking outdoors on weekends, or plan an active, outdoor vacation.
Exercise is beneficial for your health and fitness, and anything you can do to make it more enjoyable is a positive thing. So get out there, try some new things, and figure out how to make exercise fun for you!
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