Does your workout have to be fun to work?

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Does your workout have to be fun to work?

by: Leslie Barker | .
Dallas Morning News | .
published: March 24, 2016

DALLAS -- Some things in life are inherently served with a big scoop of fun: balloons, bubbles, cupcakes to name but a few.

Exercise? Opinions vary.

Avid cyclist Marcia Smith of Dallas says her Saturday bike rides “make me feel like a 12-year-old.”

Sarah Samaan of Frisco, Texas, knows that riding her horse “is super exercise, but I just don’t think of it that way because it is way too much fun.”

Dallas triathlete Scott Cessac says going on a four-hour bike ride and one-hour run alone isn’t fun. “But having friends there with you doing it alongside you makes it more enjoyable.”

Lee Ann Rayburn says exercise in general doesn’t equal fun. But, she adds, “I love nothing more than to hike in the woods. To me, it’s like nature’s gigantic playground.”

Anyone who has stepped foot on a trail knows hiking is indeed exercise. But does calling it fun negate its benefits? Or, looking at fun another way, does exercise have to be fun to get people to do it — and to make it a habit?

“There’s a really small minority of people who are so disciplined that no matter what, they’re going to do it,” says Michelle Segar, author of “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness” (American Management Association, $16.95).

For most of us, that’s not true. Which makes this fun business a topic of intrigue, and one that researchers take seriously. A sampling of their findings:

Think of exercise as fun, and you’re more likely to eat healthfully afterward.

A series of studies confirms this, including one where relay runners were asked after the race about their experience. The more negative their experience, the more unhealthy their snack choices.

Enjoyment is the best motivator for exercise.

“Logic doesn’t motivate us; emotions do,” Segar writes in her book. In other words, people who exercise for enjoyment stick with it more than those who do so for medical reasons.

“The problem is that we’ve turned exercise into a chore,” says Segar, who directs the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “People feel they have to run intensely; they have to sweat; they have to feel uncomfortable. That typically makes, in general, people feel worse and derive less pleasure when the exercise is hard.”

But fun alone is not enough, some experts say.

“Unfortunately, exercise is not really fun,” says Molly Setnick, owner of Crowbar Cario in Lower Greenville, Texas. “Some people are so lucky to have found something they love to do that is exercise, whether it’s dance or running or swimming. But for the majority of the population, it’s a chore.”

Exercise at its optimum is a balance of fun, effectiveness and safety, Setnick says. It makes people feel, “I got something out of this and I want to do it again,” she says.

“The fun aspect has to be in there, but it can’t be the driving force. The driving force is improving health, getting stronger, losing weight, and if you don’t get those, you lose the people anyway.”

Fun is “a touchy subject for me,” she says. “It’s true that people are more likely to stick with something they enjoy, whether exercise or food. That’s driven a lot of the fitness industry: ‘Make it fun and they’ll come. Play music and they’ll come.’”

But the drive to make exercise fun is never ending, she says, and she thinks it can cause people to miss the point. “‘Let’s start bringing giant tractor tires to the gym. Let’s start hip-hop dancing in sync while cycling.’ The problem is, unless someone wants to exercise and is committed to it, putting a bike on a roller coaster wouldn’t keep them committed and coming in.”

The whole make-it-fun idea could be construed as part of our society in general: Keep it interesting so (heaven forbid) we won’t be bored.

“It’s like nobody has an attention span,” Setnick says. “Everything has to be changing. It’s like we’re all looking for the next new thing, and there isn’t always a next new thing.”

Which isn’t to say exercise should be drudgery.

“You have to find something you can at least enjoy, and you’re more likely to stick with it if you’re having a good time,” she says. “But I think sometimes that good time might need to come from a friend going with you as opposed to the class itself.”

Her goal in the seven weekly classes she teaches is that people leave “knowing they had a great workout and hopefully it will be one they enjoyed. If they don’t have a pleasant time, they won’t come back.”

One primary thing to keep in mind, Segar says, is that the reason for exercising “has to be truly compelling. It’s giving you something positive you can immediately experience.”

Maybe it gives you more energy, or helps you manage stress, or gives you time to laugh. Stick with it long enough and — though some days will be tougher than others — the overall enjoyment factor gets ingrained.

Additionally, you’ll begin seeing physical and emotional results.

“Once we know something we do gives us something we like, we keep wanting it again and again,” Segar says. “That’s the neuroscience of reward. That’s why it’s so important that people design their physical activity based on what they want and what feels good to them.”

But even liking exercise is no guarantee people will make it a priority, she says. And that’s the next step — reminding people that spending time in activities we enjoy makes us more positive people.

“It leads to better health, more resilience, more creative and flexible thinking. It leads to more patience with people we love. It’s like feeling good revitalizes us for everything we care about.”

Finding a balance

How can you balance fun with fitness? Author Michelle Segar offers these tips:

Design your own physical activity based on what you want and what feels good to you. Finding that takes “discovery and awareness,” she says. If you don’t like something, you won’t stick to it. And if it doesn’t make you feel good, well, “why would you prioritize things that don’t make you feel good?”

Fun might not be enough to keep you going. Does the workout make you feel centered? Does it relax you? Do you enjoy the social aspect, the results? “If it means we have to run faster, be willing to push ourselves for something that actually isn’t joyful so we can get social cohesion benefits, that’s OK,” she says.

Give yourself permission to discover the ways that moving your body feels joyful. “We have to let people know that walking is OK and it does count,” she says.

Be realistic. “It’s about starting slow and doing it in a way that will eventually lead to institutionalizing it into your life,” she says. “Talk to people who own gyms, and they’ll tell you that those who come in one or two days are much more likely to stick with it than those who go gangbusters. If we don’t work with reality, reality will burst our bubble.”

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