You don’t need to spend a lot of time actually exercising to get (or stay) fit. “Too many people think that unless they go to the gym seven days a week for an hour a day, they’re not doing anything,” says Michelle Cleere, Ph.D., a psychologist in Oakland who specializes in sports performance. “That’s not the case.” You just need a small pocket of time, which most people can find in a day or a week, if they look for it. “There’s a huge difference between a true lack of time and a perceived lack of time,” says Cleere.
Plan of Attack
Make those minutes count with these strategies.
Exercise in intervals. Recent research has found that shorter workouts can be just as effective as longer ones if they include intervals—small bursts of intense exercise followed by short periods of recovery. Researchers at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, had a group of cyclists do four to six repetitions of short sprints (30 seconds at full throttle) followed by periods of recovery (four minutes of easy cycling). After just six sessions, they saw that the sprinters got the same boost in fitness after their 18- to 26-minute workouts as did people who cycled at a moderate pace for 90 to 120 minutes.
This strategy is also effective for those who aren’t Tour de France types. In a follow-up study, some of the researchers tested a more moderate interval routine that lasted longer. The routine alternated one minute of intensity at a level of at least 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is on the couch and 10 is lungs burning) and one minute of recovery. Just 20 to 30 minutes of this interval work brought subjects the same gains as people who had pedaled at level 6 for 90 to 120 minutes straight. Research has shown that the trick is pushing yourself to that intensity of 8—the point where you’re breathing so hard that it makes having a conversation difficult.
Choose your workout wisely. If you’re not up for intervals but you want to burn the maximum number of calories in a minimal amount of time, head for the right machine. “The most effective calorie burners are machines that require you to move the majority of your weight yourself,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. That means using the stepmill (the machine with the revolving stairs) or ramping up the treadmill to a challenging incline (say, 5 percent—but increase the number if that’s too easy), as opposed to riding a stationary bike or using the rower. Or change your terrain and walk uphill or up and down stairs.
2 of 6Ivan Brunetti
The Obstacle: I’m Excruciatingly Bored
How to Overcome It
It’s tempting to try to make a workout go faster by zoning out and flipping through a magazine or just letting your mind wander. But the real way to break through a wall of boredom is to give your workout a purpose and some variety.
Plan of Attack
Pay more attention to what you’re doing, not less.
Turn your workout into a challenge. Determine what you want to push your body to do. This approach puts you on a mission, which gives your workout focus. (Think of the difference between the endless “I don’t know—what do you want to eat?” conversation and “Let’s perfect that salmon recipe tonight.” The first can leave you drained; the second, energized.) Then put your session on a path that helps you get there. Can you build leg strength by changing your bike route to include a few hills? Or can you push your aerobic potential on the elliptical by moving your legs very fast for 30 seconds every two minutes or so?
Stay in the game. Instead of tuning out, try tuning in. The more you stay with your mission, the more interesting it gets, because you’ll eventually open the door to that magic state that psychologists call “flow,” in which you’re completely engaged in what you’re doing, not ruminating on the events of the day or constantly checking the time (“I’m 20 percent done. I’m 37.5 percent done…”). You’ve probably experienced this state of meditative absorption at some point when you were doing an activity that required undivided attention (painting, knitting, playing an instrument), and it’s possible to attain it in a workout.
Do frequent check-ins in which you think about your form, breathing, posture, and anything else that keeps you in the moment. Notice the bracing wind on your face, whether your core is engaged, what your mind is doing. “Are you thinking about your grocery list or focusing on your breathing?” asks Lucy Smith, a coach to amateur and professional athletes at LifeSport Coaching, in Victoria, British Columbia. If you’ve strayed, count your steps or pedal strokes, hit a new song on your iPod, and move to the rhythm—anything to get you back in the moment.
3 of 6Ivan Brunetti
The Obstacle: My Workout Buddy Dropped Out
How to Overcome It
You need someone to hold you accountable, but that person doesn’t have to be walking right beside you. Technology makes it possible to check in with and compete against workout partners all over the country.
Plan of Attack
These apps and websites can keep you honest and offer a little camaraderie along with the fun of gaming. (And unlike real-life friends, your virtual buddies will never coerce you into a post-workout glass of wine.)
If you want to put your money where your mouth is: At 21habit.com, you pay $21 to set a workout goal that you commit to doing for three weeks—for example, “I will take the stairs every day this week.” For every day that you succeed, you get $1 back. (You’re on the honor system here.) If you don’t follow through, the $1 goes to nonprofits, such as the American Cancer Society and Amnesty International. You can tweet your successes as you rack them up or get a thumbs-down on the site calendar—and lose a dollar—if you fail. At the end of three weeks, you collect your money. (Hopefully all of it.)
If you hate to let other people down:Healthywage.com sponsors a weight-loss competition, called the Matchup, in which teams of five people pay $75 a person to compete for three months to win $10,000 in cash. (The team that loses the greatest percentage of weight wins; weight verifications are required at a health club or doctor’s office, via YouTube, or through Weight Watchers.) You can form your own team or the site can match you with one. Other challenges are more solo-oriented but still have a cash incentive. In one, you bet $150 that you can lose 10 percent of your body weight over six months. If you do, you earn $300.
If you love competition and social interaction: Try Fitocracy.com, which is like Facebook for fitness enthusiasts. This exercise tracker with a gaming spin lets you earn points for workouts, sends you on quests (challenges that can earn you bonus points), catapults you to different levels, and compliments your progress (“How does it feel to be awesome?”). You can also track the progress of other people, earn badges, and give and get props.
4 of 6Ivan Brunetti
The Obstacle: It’s Too Cold/Hot/Rainy/Snowy
How to Overcome It
To get over a little personal discomfort, you need a truly powerful motivator. When most people explain why they want to exercise, says Carol Frazey, M.S., the owner of the Fit School, in Bellingham, Washington, “I often hear, ‘I want to tone my legs’ or ‘I want a smaller waistline.’ But that doesn’t spark something on an emotional level.” And it probably won’t be enough to get you out of bed on a wet Monday morning.
Plan of Attack
Write down the real reasons behind your desire to exercise, says Frazey. For instance: My dad had a heart attack at age 59, and I don’t want to live in fear like he did; I don’t want my kids to think that their half-marathon–running uncle is more fun than I am; I want to take a five-day bike tour in Italy and not be the one everybody has to wait for. “You need reasons that are so compelling that you don’t second-guess yourself when it’s time to exercise,” she says, adding that she encourages clients to put those reasons on their nightstands, bathroom mirrors, and computers. “Extrinsic motivators, like wanting to look good for someone else or losing weight, are temporary and fickle,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., a sports-psychology consultant and a professor at West Virginia University, in Morgantown. Intrinsic reasons that are about feeling competent and empowered “stay with you for the rest of your life,” she says, because the reward comes from the activity itself, not just from the results you get when you’re done.
Once you have your reasons, stay on the path by setting smaller, tangible goals. According to psychologists, these goals should be SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely—and they should build on one another. For example, if you’ve fallen into a sedentary lifestyle, a SMART goal would be to go for a 10-minute walk four days a week to start creating a routine. When you hit that goal, up the ante to 15-minute walks. “The right goals let you taste success, which motivates you to keep going,” says Cleere. On days that you’re not sure you can stick to your goal, take at least one step. For instance, put on your clothes and go to the gym; you don’t even have to work out. When you get there, chances are that you’ll do something, if not a whole routine. According to experts, even elite athletes say that the workouts they didn’t want to do were the best ones that they ever did, because they proved that a person can overcome her own inertia.
5 of 6Ivan Brunetti
The Obstacle: I’m Not Seeing Results
How to Overcome It
Just because you’re not getting visibly firmer or smaller doesn’t mean that changes aren’t happening. Instead of relying on a scale or the fit of your jeans, gauge your progress in a different way.
Plan of Attack
Try these three alternative ways to measure results.
Do a strength and cardio assessment every six weeks. Take a strength move that you’ve been working on, like push-ups, and see how many you can do in a minute, or record how fast you can walk or run a mile. The next time that you check in, you’ll be amazed at your leaps-and-bounds improvement. “After six weeks of regular strength training, you can expect to be at least 5 to 10 percent stronger,” says McCall, “in some cases up to 15 percent stronger. And if you are consistent with cardio, you can generally see about a 5 percent improvement weekly, meaning you can go a little harder or farther than you could the week before.”
Keep a record of your workouts. A visual representation of your commitment can strengthen your resolve on days when you’re feeling wishy-washy, whether you chronicle every detail (ran four miles in 40 minutes; cranked intensity when P!nk raised a glass to me) or just draw a star on your planner on days when you get it done. “Seeing all those stars is pretty fulfilling,” says Cleere. And if you fall off for a spell, don’t assume that you’re doomed, she says: “Figure out what went wrong. Were you overscheduled? Not feeling well? Not interested in the workout? Then adjust accordingly.” Cleere had one client who began by putting X’s on a calendar to mark workouts, and she loved seeing more X’s each week. After a few months, the client realized that including notes about sleep, food, and her emotions helped her see how those things affected the workouts. “She developed an awareness of what got in the way and what strengthened her motivation,” says Cleere. “She finally felt that she was in control and was able to see the connection between her workouts, lifestyle, and energy levels.”
List the changes. At the beginning of each week, write down a few ways that last week’s workouts made you feel better. Maybe you’re sleeping more soundly, you have more patience, or you’re more productive at work. Maybe you’re just feeling more positive overall. “Writing the benefits down reinforces how important they are,” says Dieffenbach. And on days when you’re wavering about working out, that long list of great feelings can help you overcome any internal resistance, get out there, and do it.
6 of 6Ivan Brunetti
Are You Having Fun Yet?
One of the key predictors of whether you’ll work out again isn’t how many calories you burned. It’s how much fun you had.
Choosing a workout that you don’t dread sounds obvious, but not everyone gives herself permission to do it, as you know if you’ve ever slogged through a long run when you would rather be doing Zumba. “There are now several studies showing that the amount of pleasure or displeasure someone reports during a bout of physical activity can predict the amount of activity performed three, six, or even 12 months later,” says Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at Iowa State University, in Ames, who has studied what makes people stick to working out. What can make a workout a little more fun? Try these tricks.
Get Out of the Gym
If nothing at the gym excites you, consider doing something challenging but within reach, like a hike, or something a little offbeat, like tap dancing or canoeing. No matter what you choose, focus on the pleasant feeling you have during exercise, which is what really brings you back for more, says Ekkekakis.
Choose Your Own Intensity
When researchers in Ekkekakis’s lab asked people to change their workout intensity every five minutes, they gradually made their workouts harder, until they reached a comfortable intensity, and reported feeling better during and after the activity. But when the researchers secretly pushed them to go 10 percent faster, they felt progressively worse. So putting yourself— rather than an expensive trainer—in control is key.
Let Music Help
Tunes can help you work out a little longer and make exercise feel easier when you’re at a comfortably challenging pace. But no playlist will turn you into an Olympic hopeful: Research has shown that when you push to 80 to 90 percent of your maximum intensity, music doesn’t have the same effect.