5 Keys to Putting the Fun in Fitness
Physical activity can be a chore—or the best minutes of your day. It's all about how you look at it
Do you view exercise with the same enthusiasm usually reserved for preparing your taxes? Perhaps you work out to maintain your weight and blood glucose levels, but you’ve never experienced anything near a runner’s high and have beaten yourself up for letting more than a few gym memberships go unused. You’re hardly alone. According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, about 26 percent of Americans don’t participate in leisure time physical activity. At all.
A Matter of Mindset
One unexpected culprit may be the things we tell ourselves about exercise before we even lace up our sneakers. Being active reduces your risk for heart disease, promotes lower blood pressure, contributes to weight loss, and can help keep your blood glucose in check—all important. But seeing exercise as something you need to do solely to meet long-term health goals can make you miss out on its other, more immediate benefits, such as having fun (yes, really!) or feeling less stressed and more energetic, says Michelle Segar, PhD, director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.
Segar, who focuses her research on how people can learn and sustain healthy habits, says many people are not able to achieve these short-term perks because their mind and body are perceiving exercise as a chore. In a yearlong study of more than 200 middle-aged women, published in 2011 in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, Segar found that even though the women valued good health, it was the goal of improving their daily quality of life—including sleeping better, experiencing less stress, and feeling more centered—that made them work out more. They wanted to spend their leisure time doing things they found enjoyable.
Exercise, Segar and her team of researchers concluded, had a branding problem. It’s often recommended prescription-style, not suggested as a fun part of life. “Must-do messages [about physical activity], regardless of their validity, do not lead most people to sustain exercise,” Segar says. “Reframing physical activity helps people view it as a friend, instead of an enemy, and embrace it when they do it, instead of feeling like they are suffering.”
Reframing exercise also helps shed light on its less-obvious benefits. For instance, we know it will help our bodies in the long run but might fail to appreciate that it can boost our mood, too. A survey of health information campaigns published in 2019 in the journal Health Promotion Practice found that more than 64 percent of the messages health organizations used to promote exercise emphasized its physical health benefits, while only 19 percent talked about its mental health benefits, such as feeling more focused and alert.
Define and Redefine
We may also have a rigid idea of what counts as exercise. In another study, published in 2017 in BMC Public Health, Segar conducted focus groups among women to find out how physical activity fit in with their daily goals and priorities. Many who were less active said they associated only certain types of exercise, such as sweaty gym workouts, with achieving fitness goals. Yet simply choosing an activity that you enjoy—whether it’s an advanced spin class or a walk at the mall—makes it far more likely that you’ll move more. A study of about 450 sedentary people published in 2016 in Psychology & Health found that enjoying a particular physical activity was associated with doing more of it over a year on average.
In terms of sticking with an exercise plan, “it helps if a patient feels like they have some control over how exercise works toward their goals and how it would benefit them mentally, physically, socially, or spiritually,” says Gareth Dutton, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Alabama who studies lifestyle interventions for diabetes management.
The key is to look at exercise in terms of what it can do for you right now, not down the road. “That shift in thinking could also reduce stress and increase positive emotions—things that we know promote health,” says Segar.
Ready to add some fun to your exercise plan? Here are five ways.
1. Redefine “Exercise.”
Exercise doesn’t have to be an hour-long run that leaves you sweaty and winded, Segar says. Even 10 minutes per week of a leisure activity such as gardening or dancing can lower your risk for early death from cardiovascular disease, among other conditions, by 18 percent, suggests a study of more than 88,000 American adults published in 2019 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The point is to find pleasure in the activity you’ve chosen. Our brains prompt us to seek and repeat experiences we’ve enjoyed in the past, and a number of studies suggest that if people like doing a physical activity, they’re far more likely to repeat it.
2. Get Social.
Enlisting a fitness buddy not only makes you accountable, it ups the fun factor, too. Taking a class or working out in a group also multiplies the benefits of exercise: Medical students who took an exercise class reported more mental and physical benefits as well as lower stress levels than their peers who worked out alone, found a study published in 2017 in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Check your local YMCA or community recreation center to see what’s available. Many have programs geared to seniors, such as water aerobics, low-impact cardio workouts, and light weight training. Or take part in one of the American Diabetes Association’s cycling or walking events; find them at diabetes.org/community/calendar-events.
3. Make Exercise an Adventure.
Learning something new can be an effective motivator for exercise, Segar says. It can help you discover new activities you enjoy, stimulate your interest, and reveal skills you may not even know you have. (Perhaps you’re an ace at fencing!) Predictable, repetitive experiences are also prime causes of boredom, which can sap the best of intentions. Instead of logging half an hour on your stationary bike five times a week, as you’ve done for years, swap a few of those sessions for something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Take a salsa dancing class, try kayaking, rock climbing, or kickboxing.
4. Add the Fun Factor.
Experts often suggest choosing activities you enjoy. But what if you just don’t like working out? Dutton suggests pairing exercise with something you already like doing: Lift light weights while watching your favorite cooking show or play Frisbee in the park while spending time with your grandkids.
5. Turn Up the Tunes.
Feeling blah about your workout? Turn on some music. Studies suggest that listening to tunes while exercising can help distract you from fatigue and discomfort, motivate you to work harder, and put you in a better mood. In a study published in 2017 in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 24 women with diabetes enjoyed working out on a treadmill or stationary cycle more when they listened to music or watched music videos. In another study, published in 2019 in Psychology of Sport & Exercise, participants who worked out to music, not only exercised harder than when listening to a podcast or silence—they also enjoyed their workouts more.