2013-10-04

The Three Letter Word That Makes Or Breaks A Workout

Russ Roberts decided to get fit. Today, he updates us on his progress. Here's an excerpt:
...I altered my diet (drastically reducing my carb intake inspired by De Vany) and began exercising six days a week, four days of stationary bike (with some high intensity intervals) and two days of weight lifting...
The first year of that regime was very successful. I chronicled my six month progress here. I had lost about 18 pounds, felt better, and fitter. Then I went to California for the summer and instead of working out, I walked a lot. No weightlifting.
After relapsing into a more unhealthy lifestyle, Roberts discovered another approach:
Then I read Body by Science. The authors argue that there are two problems with most workout regimens, particular as we get older. People struggle to find the time to work out (I could relate to that) and they get hurt, whether it’s from tennis or CrossFit. They argue that high intensity weight lifting produces the cardio benefits of aerobic exercise, makes you stronger, and improves your metabolism. The standard workout they recommend is a set of five different weightlifting exercises each using multiple muscles–pull down, seated row, leg press, chest press, and overhead press. But instead of doing the standard 30 or so reps in sets of three, they argue for the benefits of slow reps, lifting to failure for roughly two minutes. Each rep takes about 20 seconds. The idea is to choose a weight that you can only lift for two minutes. If you can do it for three minutes or more, you’re weights too light. If you can only lift for 30 seconds, the weights too heavy. 
I really like the fact that Russ Roberts is willing to try multiple approaches, experiment with his exercise regimen, compensate for a change in one area with additional exercises in another area, and so on. The playful, inquisitive spirit that has served him well as an academic economist has also proved fruitful for him in the physical fitness sphere as well. (Can you see now why my blog is dedicated to economics and fitness? There is intellectual parity here.)

One word conspicuously absent from Roberts' blog post, however, is fun.

Fun is vitally important to any change in lifestyle, and especially important for adopting a healthier lifestyle. The reasons for this should surprise no one. After all, fun is a powerful motivating factor. As Roberts mentions, we all lead busy lives. Even so, almost no one dedicates every waking hour to working. No matter how busy our lives are, we all find time to entertain ourselves somehow. Imagine how much healthier you'd be if all your major sources of entertainment were forms of physical exercise. Obviously, that's not realistic either, but assuming you like to spend 2 hours a day watching some TV before bed, you could potentially improve your health by spending, say 1 hour watching TV and 1 hour exercising.

Invariably, these kinds of trade-offs are posed as costs. Pick up any fitness magazine or talk to any personal trainer, and you'll hear the same advice: Give up some of the time you spend reading or watching TV, and exercise instead. That's all well and good, but if you consider working out a chore then this advice really boils down to giving up your last remaining hours of relaxation time for the sake of... more work! Who wants to do that?

But imagine what it would be like if you saw fitness as a form of entertainment, rather than a chore. You'd be in a situation in which you couldn't wait to hit the gym or head out for a five-mile run. You'd be in a situation where you would look for opportunities to do more of it on the weekends. You'd talk about it with your friends, read about it over your lunch hour, and so on. In short, you'd be living exactly the kind of lifestyle that you associate with "those crazy health nuts."

Granted, not everyone is going to be enthusiastic about lycra-spandex clothing and elliptical machines. Not everyone is going to go out and get a Gold Membership at GNC. Luckily, you don't have to. If you're not particularly interested in gym culture and if the thought of running seven miles for pleasure gives you a headache, all that means is that you haven't yet found a form of exercise that you consider entertaining.

So, find one. Most people enjoy hiking. Many of us forget how much fun it is to ride a bicycle. Nearly everyone has spent some time in their lives playing a sport that they wish they could go back to playing, years later. There is every manner of racquetball club, running group, intramural basketball team, community soccer league, natural hiking trail, and so on out there. The only thing stopping you from doing something really fun - that also happens to be a great form of exercise - is the fact that you haven't considered it yet.

Once you find that thoroughly entertaining form of exercise that appeals to you, you'll get a lot more out of your workouts. You won't be so worried about whether you're doing it properly or whether you're going to injure yourself. You'll also have a tendency to throw yourself into it with full abandon. These aspects of enjoying your exercise means that during any given workout, you'll be getting much more out of it than if you were dragging yourself to the gym to do something that really don't like much. And because you won't find it a chore to get yourself out there every day - or almost every day, or however often you like - you'll be much more consistent and committed to your regular workouts.

Any way you cook it, fun is the best secret to working out hard and sticking with it for the long haul. If you find fitness a chore, maybe you just haven't found your passion yet.