It’s considered an indisputable truism that getting into great shape is hard work. But does it have to be that way? Does exercise really have to be that tough? Even if it’s targeted to be high-intensity training, can you make exercise fun?
Well, yes. Sort of. Exercise by its very nature requires us to push our limits to put enough stress on the body to produce physiological adaptations. If exercise isn’t at least somewhat difficult, it isn’t really exercise.
That’s not to say that harder is always better—as we’ve established before, there is such a thing as overtraining. And it still leaves us with a related question—does exercise have to feel difficult?
Here the answer is more complex. The bad news is that exercise can’t always be easy. The good news, however, is that science offers us several ways to make exercise feel easier, at least most of the time.
To Make Exercise Fun, Use The Peak-End Rule
Logically, you would think that we would judge experiences based on a weighted average of every part of that experience. Psychology says otherwise. According to the peak-end rule, people judge experiences primarily by a combination of the most intense and memorable part of the experience, and the end of the experience, while de-emphasizing the other parts.
With regard to workouts, this means that you’ll primarily remember the most intense or difficult part of the workout, and whatever you do last. Since you know those two parts will be the most memorable, you can take steps to make them fun.
Now, it’s hard to get around the fact that the most “intense” or distinctive part of your workout is going to involve doing something punishingly difficult. What you can do though to make exercise fun, is make the most difficult part of your workout at least somewhat enjoyable. The way to do that is to push yourself hardest on your favorite exercise. Love bicep curls but hate squats? Don’t squat to failure, but do at least one set of brutally difficult bicep curls to failure to make the curls more memorable than the squats.
Manipulating the end of the workout is far more straightforward—just end every workout by doing something you enjoy. This could be a “cool-down” exercise like walking or low-intensity isolation movements, but it could just as easily be something you do immediately after the workout. For instance, I like to spend some time in the sauna and hot tub after my workouts, so that I always remember my workouts as ending with something pleasurable.
Make Exercise Fun: Shorter Workouts, More Often
Workouts get more difficult as they progress. The first five minutes of a workout are usually pretty easy, but the last five minutes of an hour-long workout can be a slog. Simply put, as the workout drags on, you get progressively more fatigued, and have to push yourself harder and harder just to get less work done.
You can therefore train more productively, for greater volume, while making things easier on yourself, simply by splitting your total training volume into more workouts throughout the week.
For instance, if you’re currently training for an hour three days a week, you could instead train for 45 minutes, four days a week. This is the same amount of time, but it will feel easier—and you’ll actually train harder because you’ll spend more time in the productive earlier portion of the workout and less time dragging ass at the end of the workout.
Operating on the same principle, you can also increase the training frequency per muscle group, or per type of training, so that you train individual body parts and energy systems more often for shorter periods.
For instance, suppose you’re lifting weights five days a week, with a traditional body part split—chest, back, arms/shoulders, legs, and abs. If you changed that to an upper-lower body split, you could train each body part more often, for fewer sets per workout, allowing you to train more productively with less localized pain and fatigue in each muscle.
Use Contrasts to Recalibrate Your Sense of Difficulty
Since the goal of this article is to make workouts feel less difficult, let’s take a step back for a moment and ask ourselves what difficulty is. How do we know that something is difficult or easy? How does the mind set the dividing lines between low, average, and high difficulty?
The answer is contrast. There are no objective criteria for what is and isn’t difficult, so our minds label things as difficult or easy compared to other things we’ve experienced. The mind is much better at perceiving contrasts than it is at seeing things in objective, absolute terms.
We call a workout hard if it’s harder than most of our workouts, or easy if it’s easier than most of our workouts. Except, remember the peak-end rule, which states that especially intense or distinctive experiences are easier to call to mind. So a workout can seem easy if it’s easier than your most memorable recent workout, even if it’s not easier than your average workout.
You can hack your sense of difficulty by occasionally doing something much harder than you normally do, which makes the things you normally do seem easier by comparison. Once a month, do a workout that’s twice as long as your usual workouts. Push yourself harder than you normally do, especially toward the end of the workout—run yourself ragged, shorten your rest periods, train to failure, and generally beat yourself up.
This won’t be fun, but you can derive some enjoyment by “embracing the suck” and viewing the challenge as an opportunity for self-improvement. More importantly, as long as this workout stays fresh in your memory, the rest of your workouts will seem easy—almost relaxing even—by comparison.
Exercise can’t be easy and it can’t be painless, but it doesn’t have to be torture either. By using these strategies, you can make your workouts a little easier, and make them feel a lot easier, even while working out longer and harder than ever before.
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