What’s not to love about exercise? The endorphin highs? The calories burned? The uncanny feeling that your lungs are seizing up, your legs are falling off and you are melting into a pile of foul-smelling sweat?
Believe it or not, you can learn to have fun in the gym (or on the trail, courts or the yoga studio). Besides being the best way to make your every-now-and-then workouts into a legitimate routine, people who enjoy their workouts reap more of exercise’s mental benefits, including lower stress levels and a decreased risk of depression, says Leah Lagos, a New York City sports psychologist
Enjoy working out as much as you enjoy side stiches and chafed nipples? Here are six ways to trick yourself into loving your next workout.
1. Don’t compare yourself to others Sure, there’s such a thing as healthy competition. But many women use comparisons to get down on themselves. We do it at work, at home and, yes, at the gym. The resulting negative self-talk–“She’s so much thinner than me! I’ll never be that fast!”–can make any experience a negative one, says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. That definitely applies at the gym. For instance, in one Journal of Sport study of 261 exercise class-going women, those who tried to be the “best” in the class enjoyed it less.
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2. Work out with friends While some women prefer to work out solo, a lot of women who haven’t considered exercising fun in the past find that working out with others can make it feel more like a girls’ night out, says Taylor Gainor, certified strength and conditioning specialist, co-founder of LIT Method in Los Angeles. Case in point: In one study of Oxford University rowers, when team members exercised together, their bodies released much more feel-good endorphins than when they worked out solo. Before extending any invitations for a workout date, consider which friends will help to push you along and make exercising a positive experience–and which ones have more of a Debbie Downer approach to exercise, Lombardo says.
3. Play to your workout personality “A lot of people say they hate working out because they haven’t found a routine that matches their personality style,” Lagos says. Take an inventory of your likes and dislikes: Do you like your workouts to be social, or do you really want some alone time? What about fast-paced workouts? Or do you need some Zen in your life? Air conditioning or the outdoors? Use the answers to determine what types of exercise to try next. “As fitness junkie who has tried everything under the sun, I can say the only way to find out what you like is to be open and try new things,” Gainor says.
4. Take advantage of your strengths Whether you’re at home, work or the gym, most people generally like to do things that they’re good at–and express distaste for anything that doesn’t come to them at least somewhat naturally. In fact, a review published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that people’s confidence in their exercise ability is the highest predictor of how often they exercise. So if you have precisely zero eye-hand coordination, maybe joining your company’s softball team isn’t a recipe for fun. But if you boast that awesome “mom strength” that comes from carrying around a 30-pound toddler all of the time, weightlifting might be more up your alley, Gainor says.
5. Name one thing that you like about working out (and the results don’t count) Simply recalling a positive exercise memory can significantly boost your desire to hit your next work out, according to a 2015 University of New Hampshire study. Just make sure that your positive memory is related to the process of working out–laughing through a Color Run or feeling strong during a game of high school sports–rather than to the results of working out, Lagos says. In her work preparing athletes for the Olympic Games, she helps her (obviously performance-focused) clients let go of their preoccupation with achievement to achieve a state of flow. Another word for those “time flies when you’re having fun” moments, flow occurs when you silence your brain’s frontal and prefrontal cortex regions–the areas responsible for internal chatter.
6. Reframe exercise as a reward “If you view exercise as a punishment for that ice cream, you are setting yourself up to approach exercise with a sense of guilt and disappointment,” Lagos says. Hence why one Journal of Health Psychology of 100 women found that the more dissatisfied they were with their bodies, the less likely they were to exercise. “Conversely, if you view exercise as a reward for a hard day of work or as a time for stress relief, you begin to build the mindset for optimal enjoyment,” she says. This one takes practice. But it’s well worth it.
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7. Crank up the tunes This might be the easiest way to give your workout enjoyment an instant boost, says Greg Justice, an exercise physiologist and author of Mind Over Fatter. For example, in one 2015 McMaster University study in which exercisers were tasked with performing sprint-interval workouts both with and without music, 95% of them said they had more fun during the musical workouts. While you need to like the music, research shows that fast-paced music (140 to 160 beats per minute) is often best for boosting moods, energy and workouts. Search for “160 bpm” on Spotify to find songs that fit the bill. Or if you’re trying to time your music to your running, bump things up to 180 bpm, he says.
8. Mix things up Even after you find a workout you enjoy, it’s still important to regularly change things up in order to ensure you keep liking it, Lagos says. Whether that means taking a monthly dance class to break up your rowing workouts or just performing your typical strength workouts as a circuit, it’ll help prevent monotony from taking hold. For instance, in one 2014 study, researchers from the University of British Columbia polled 367 adults over the course of six weeks. Those who felt like their workouts contained the most variety were more likely to also report enjoying their workouts.