You’re more likely to stick with an exercise routine if you genuinely love it. But for a confirmed exercise hater, that sounds as improbable as saying you’re more likely to floss if you really have a passion for it.
Compared to flossing, however, exercising has more to commend it: For one thing, exercising for fun probably came naturally at least at one point in your life. Remember when you thought of jumping a rope or riding a bike as play?
Also, there are innumerable ways to exercise, and that vastly improves the odds of finding a few you like. The research-based strategies below can help maximize your enjoyment. Before long, you might actually look forward to exercising (even if you still have no enthusiasm for flossing).
1. Approach Exercise Mindfully
A recent study from Utrecht University in the Netherlands looked at the relationship between mindfulness and physical activity in nearly 400 exercisers. The more these exercisers became fully absorbed in the moment during physical activity, the greater satisfaction they felt. In those who didn’t already have a strong exercise habit, the combination of mindfulness and satisfaction was linked to becoming more active.
Mindfulness involves deliberately noticing moment-to-moment changes in your sensations, feelings and thoughts. During exercise, that might mean noticing that you’re breathing harder than before, your heart is beating faster, or a trickle of sweat is running down your back. For someone unused to these sensations, they can feel weird, unpleasant, or even alarming. So focusing on them might seem like the last thing you would want to do.
One key to mindfulness, however, is accepting your experience of the present moment nonjudgmentally—and then moving on to the next moment. This helps you focus calmly on how you’re feeling right now without being self-critical or letting a single thought (“I’m breathing hard”) set off a cascade of overly negative thinking. (“I’m breathing hard. Something is terribly wrong. I’m having a heart attack!”) It also helps you become aware of positive aspects of the experience. For example, as you walk, pedal, or swim, you might note a gratifying sense of power and grace when you settle into a steady rhythm.
2. Manage the Intensity Level
Adults can meet CDC guidelines for physical activity with either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week. Halving the workout time by revving up the intensity may sound like a terrific idea. But there’s a catch: Although even new exercisers often report feeling pleasure during moderate-intensity activity, that feeling frequently takes a nosedive when they move into more vigorous territory. If you’re getting so winded that you can’t say more than a few words without gulping for air—and if you’re really not loving that feeling—dial back the intensity a bit.
3. Take Your Workout Outside
Physical activity is a proven mood booster and stress reliever. These benefits may be further enhanced when exercise is done outdoors in nature, compared to indoors in a gym. In a review of 11 studies, the reported advantages of outdoor exercise included greater feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, positive engagement, revitalization and energy. Exercising in an outdoor setting also strengthened people’s intention to repeat the activity.
4. Tell Yourself It’s a Treat
The way you talk to yourself about exercise shapes your attitude toward it. To reframe exercise in more positive terms, tell yourself it’s playtime (not a workout), a well-deserved break (not another obligation) or a scenic hike (not a fitness walk). You might discover a nice side effect: In one study, when people thought of physical activity as a treat rather than a chore, they ate less dessert and snacks afterward. The likely explanation: Those who viewed exercise as its own reward didn’t feel the need to reward themselves later with junk food.