How to Make Exercise Easier—Even When You Don't Want to Work Out
A good workout should never feel easy—the whole point of exercise is to challenge yourself enough so your body has to adapt to get stronger, faster, fitter. But no matter how tough any workout is, there's always a subjective element to it, depending on your mood and mindset at the time, exercise can feel harder or easier than it should.
This winter, it's not just the colder, darker days that make it hard to push yourself through a workout. After nearly a year of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are dealing with serious mental fatigue—something that negatively affects performance by making exercise feel harder, according to a review of 11 studies published in the journal Sports Medicine.
Here's the good news: Even when you're pushing yourself to the limit, working out doesn't have to feel like work. These seven simple tips can make any sweat session feel easier. Even better, the easier your workout feels, the harder and longer you'll be able to push yourself—and the more benefits you'll get.
Commit to shorter workouts
Instead of feeling like you have to slog through 45- or 60-minute workouts at a time, your main goal (according to the government's updated exercise guidelines) is to get up to 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week (or some combo of the two).
Rather than a scheduling an hour-long workout, go for shorter ones throughout the day or week, and your exercise minutes will add up. "What do you do when you work out for an hour? You do five minutes of core, five minutes of arms, five minutes of legs," exercise physiologist Tom Holland tells Health. "The research is there: You don't have to do that continuously. Break up those workouts, and you're more likely to do them and do them at the required effort level to get the benefits."
Play the right jams
Listening to upbeat, fast-paced songs with a tempo of 170 to 190 beats per minute reduced the perceived effort associated with endurance exercise and increased the overall benefits of a workout, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. That's likely because the music, an external stimulus, blocks inner stimuli, like fatigue.
A good song acts as a distraction because it elicits an emotional response, Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, tells Health. For example, motivational lyrics can inspire you, and a good memory associated with a tune can excite you. And when your body syncs up with the rhythm and matches the energy that comes from a song, you naturally become more engaged in the workout—which creates a positive feedback loop where exercise feels easier, so you can work out harder.
Smile (or at least fake it)
Sure it's hard to paste a grin on your face when you're sweating, wheezing, and generally working your ass off. But runners who smiled used less oxygen, ran more efficiently, and reported a lower rate of perceived exertion (or RPE) compared to those who frowned during their run in a study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
That does mean you should force yourself to grin through the duration of your workout. But "smiling during the grueling parts will have physiological effects like reducing muscle tension," exercise physiologist Tom Holland tells Health. Everything in your body is connected, so tensing even your face can affect the rest of your muscles and make a workout feel harder. It's really about embracing the "fake it 'til you make it" mentality: "Smiling sends a message to your brain that you're enjoying yourself, and—as a result—you're more likely to enjoy yourself," he explains.
Hype yourself up
Negative self-talk is essentially self-sabotage. "The pain will be there, but if we magnify it, then it will consume us," says Cauthen. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, was shown to boost athletic endurance in a scientific review of more than 100 sources published in the journal Sports Medicine.
"Positive self-talk connects us to our self-belief, our self-worth, our motivation as to why we're doing a workout," Cauthen explains. "It really targets what we believe in, and if we believe we can accomplish something, then we're going to work towards it and have more energy to reach that goal." But instead of telling yourself "I can do this," try saying "you can do this"—a recent study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that athletes who used the second person were faster and generated more power.
Work out with a dedicated friend
People who exercised with someone they thought was better than them worked out up to 200% harder and longer than others, a study conducted at Kansas State University found, and those who worked out with people had double the pain tolerance compared to when they worked out solo, according to Oxford University research. Basically, you can push yourself harder without making it feel harder if you have a partner in sweat.
FYI: You don't have to physically exercise with someone to reap the benefits. says Holland. "With Zoom workouts and all these connected machines and apps, it's so easy to work out with someone remotely and get those same benefits," he explains. Not only will a workout buddy make you more accountable (it's easier to convince yourself to bail on a 6 a.m. workout than to flake on someone else), but exercising with someone you enjoy being with—even virtually—makes the time pass even faster.
When people practiced mindfulness techniques for 30 minutes twice a week, they were able to work out longer without feeling exhausted, according to a recent study published in Neural Plasticity. The authors suggested that may be due to improved breathing and posture. Being mindful is easier said than done, but practicing outside of your workout will make it easier for you to reach that state when you are breaking a sweat.
And "if you're focused on breath, what you're currently experiencing or how your body feels, or finding rhythm and the movement, that can increase your focus and make it easier for you to go into that flow state that makes exercise more enjoyable," says Cauthen. That flow state—aka, being in the zone—doesn't actually change the difficulty of your workout, but it puts you in a more positive mental space to enjoy the challenge.
Keep your gaze focused
It's tempting to look around for distractions while you're working out, but narrowing your gaze can help you move faster and lower your rate of perceived exertion, reported a study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. "You know how you're driving, and as soon as you pull into your driveway, you can't remember the last 10 miles?" says Holland. "That's because you've narrowed your focus."
It's the same thing in exercise: A narrowed focus helps you stay more present and in the moment. Basically, "you're shutting out any external cues that aren't making you feel good—you're not listening to your brain, you're not checking the clock, you're just moving," he explains. Instead, you're completely dialed in to your workout, which may help induce that elusive flow state.
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