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: Drink a large cup of coffee before exercising.
The evidence: According to research in Appetite, cyclists who consumed a caffeine supplement an hour before biking ranked their workout session as more pleasurable than did those in a noncaffeinated control group. The 90-minute workout also felt harder to the riders who didn’t take the supplements. Caffeine doses depended on the weight of the participants. A 154-pound person, for instance, consumed roughly 420 milligrams—about the amount in a 20-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee or in three large McDonald’s coffees.
The explanation: “Caffeine seems to lead to more positive feelings, less sense of exertion, less pain and better performance, meaning that you are able to exercise longer and harder,” says study author Stuart Biddle, PhD, professor of physical activity and health at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.
Do it yourself: Although study participants downed the equivalent of several cups of coffee, researchers say one to two cups can yield the same feel-good effect.

Take-it-easier strategy: Watch yourself in a mirror while using cardio equipment.
The evidence: In an experiment reported in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, people who ran on a treadmill while facing a mirror expended less mental energy and moved with a more stable gait than they did while facing a static image such as a wall or a picture. Seeing themselves helped the runners exercise with less effort.
The explanation: “People have a tendency to synchronize their actions with the actions of people around them; for instance, they may adopt the same step pattern as their friends when walking together,” says study author Daniel L. Eaves, senior lecturer in motor behavior and sport psychology at Teesside University in the U.K. “In this case, being in sync with the visual image of themselves caused the study participants to unconsciously stabilize their movement pattern, which helped them run more efficiently.”
Do it yourself: Choose a workout machine in front of a mirror. Not a gym goer? You’ll achieve the same effort-lowering effect by running or walking in rhythmic time with a friend who’s moving at your pace, say the U.K. researchers.

Take-it-easier strategy: Stock up on beetroot juice (aka beet juice).
The evidence: Scientists at the University of Exeter in the U.K. discovered that when people swigged a half liter of beetroot juice two and a half hours before a workout, their bodies required less oxygen during exercise, which enabled them to run or bike 15 to 20 percent longer before tuckering out.
The explanation: Beetroot juice contains a high concentration of nitrate, which the body converts to nitric oxide, a compound that increases blood flow in the body. “Our research has shown that beetroot juice reduces the energy required to contract the muscles during exercise,” says study coauthor Stephen Bailey, PhD, lecturer in exercise physiology at the university. “This helps sustain the energy reserves, allowing people to train longer before fatiguing.”
Do it yourself: Beetroot juice is available at health food stores. If you don’t like the earthy taste, mix it with some apple juice (as the researchers did) or tart cherry juice, which has been shown to speed muscle recovery. Or don’t drink—eat. Veggies such as lettuce, radishes and spinach are nitrate rich. If you add more of these foods to your diet, even day-to-day activities may not feel as hard, says Bailey.

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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