Make Exercise Feel Easier: New Science

The older you become, the harder it can be to get yourself to workout. A spate of new studies has turned up innovative ways to make exercise more enjoyable—so you can torch additional calories without feeling the extra burn

by Karen Asp
bench press light weight picture
Photograph: Levi Brown

Take-it-easier strategy: In hot weather, cool down before you warm up.
The evidence: A variety of new studies indicate that taking a cold shower or a cold bath or ingesting an ice slurry (like eight ounces of a 7-Eleven Slurpee or a DIY frozen fruit drink) before exercising can make your workout feel easier, especially when temperatures are above 77 degrees. And cooling off can translate to performance benefits. In one study, men running in 93-degree heat were able to last 10 minutes longer after drinking an ice slurry than after downing a cold (but not frozen) beverage.
The explanation: When your core temperature increases, as it does if you exercise in the heat, your body directs more blood to your skin to cool you. That can negatively affect performance, because it lessens the amount of oxygen-rich blood being sent to the gut and other organs and conceivably your working muscles. “By precooling, you lower your core temperature and your skin temperature, which reduces blood flow to the skin, possibly sparing it for your working muscles,” says Gordon Sleivert, PhD, vice president of Canadian Sport Centre Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
Do it yourself: About 30 to 40 minutes before your workout, try one of the following strategies: Drink a mixture of crushed ice and water; take a cold shower for five minutes (or alternate between 30 seconds under cold water and 10 seconds out of the cold water); or soak in a cold bath (at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees) for 10 to 15 minutes. Another possible tactic: After finishing your warm-up activity, immerse your hands in cold water for five to 10 minutes.

Take-it-easier strategy: Distract yourself.
The evidence: Many gym-goers scoff at the exercisers who pore over magazines or watch TV while they work out. But recent studies show that these multitaskers are on to something. Researchers from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, asked women to complete two 30-minute stationary bike workouts, one while reading and another while not. The women cycled more vigorously while perusing a magazine but had no idea that they were working harder. In a separate study, Brazilian researchers found that women who listened to music while walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes moved faster but rated their experience as more enjoyable than those who did a similar routine in silence. Counterintuitive as it seems, both studies indicate that having a distraction produces better results.
The explanation: “Distractions help people focus on something other than their workout, making a harder exercise session as pleasant as a lighter one,”notes Brazilian lead author Sergio G. DaSilva, PhD, professor of health and physical activity at the Federal University of Parana in Curitiba. “Although this strategy tends to work against elite athletes, who want to be in tune with their bodies, it helps average exercisers ignore the pain they’re feeling so they can go faster and harder,” says St. Catherine University study coauthor Mark Blegen, PhD, associate professor of exercise and sport science and codirector of the university’s Women’s Health Integrative Research Center. Over the course of a 30-minute workout, the right diversion could help you increase your intensity by five to 10 percent, upping your heart rate and helping you torch additional calories.
Do it yourself: Books, music, TV—the kind of diversion you choose doesn’t matter, as long as it’s engaging enough to keep your mind off the clock.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue

Share Your Thoughts!


Ellen Wood04.07.2012

Excellent article! Thank you, More and Karen Asp. One of my daily exercises is doing the Tibetan Rites of Rejuvenation. Often I tune in and stay in the present moment while doing them. But some days I don't feel like doing them because I'm eager to get started on a project, so I coax myself with a treat: I get to listen to an inspirational teleseminar I've recorded and put on my iPod. Before I know it, I've done 21 of each and feel FAR better and more energized for the project ahead.

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