Fitness Motivation- Making It Enjoyable

My previous fitness post “Fitness Motivation- Why It’s Important” explained various ways being active prevents declines with aging and promotes health. Many think that this is the best motivation for physical activity, but in modern times we are well aware of all this, and the majority of adults, especially older ones, are still sedentary. I think the main reason is that it is viewed as a duty, rather than a fun part of our lives. This is discussed at length in No Sweat: How The Simple Science Of Motivation Can Bring You A Lifetime Of Fitness, by Dr. Michelle Segar, whose work is specifically on the subject of motivating people to be active. She points out that exercising for an external reason, like losing weight or health benefits, makes people view it as a chore rather than something enjoyable. That is perhaps why 67% of the gym ownerships in the US are not used. People join because they know it’s something they “should” be doing, force themselves to go for a while, then get tired of “taking the pill”. Same thing for all the exercise equipment in homes or garages with cobwebs on it.

It is important to have the “right why” to exercise, according to Dr. Segar (and she gives plenty of evidence in her excellent book to back it up). What is needed is an internal reward, like moving because it is fun or relaxing. I am fortunate enough to have found ways of being active that I enjoy. I look forward to it, and feel more relaxed after doing it. So if you’re not currently physically active, the top priority is for you to find something for yourself to enjoy. Exercising because you like it, because it will relax you, you’ll feel better after, it will clear your brain, etc., are all examples of the right why: internal motivation. Exercising to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, live longer, are all external.

Now imagine you’ve set your alarm a half hour earlier to fit a nice walk in to start your day. The alarm rings and the argument in your head starts.

  • Version 1- “Who needs a walk, I want to sleep another half hour” “But remember this will make us live longer” “Who cares? I don’t want to live longer if it means you’re going to get me up at the crack of dawn every damn day”.
  • Version 2- “Who needs a walk, I want to sleep another half hour”. “We had this conversation yesterday. You were cranky about getting up but remember how much better you felt afterwards.” “I’m still cranky. Oh all right I’ll get up”.

Version 2, based on internal motivation, is more likely to succeed in the long run. One attitude problem that prevent many of us from enjoying being active is the notion that exercise has to be vigorous enough to work up a sweat, or last a long enough amount of time, to “count” [1]. But there’s more and more evidence that accumulating small bouts of movement throughout the day is health promoting. Taking several short walks per day is a lot better than sitting all day.

How Much and What Type?

Before I get to ways to make exercise enjoyable, it’s important to discuss how much activity is currently recommended and what the best type is. Typically you’ll see recommendations like 2½ hours total per week, or “30 minutes per day on most days”. These guidelines are often too generic in that they don’t distinguish between cardio and resistance training, or low and high intensity training.

It turns out, as I’ll discuss in a future post, that there is pretty strong evidence that resistance training and higher intensity cardio (also called high intensity interval training, or HIIT) give the most “bang for the time buck” for anti-aging and metabolic benefits. These can be done in as little as two 30 minute sessions per week on non-consecutive days. That can be supplemented with just moving around more and sitting less on other days, and may be a lot easier to fit into your schedule than 2½ hours. If you don’t enjoy exercise and think of it as “taking a pill”, at least this is a smaller pill to swallow.

But don’t be too quick to assume that you won’t enjoy higher intensity. Look at kids at the playground, they often run around in short bursts, they’re not continuously jogging. Or a dog chasing a ball, that’s a full on sprint. And dogs don’t look like they think it’s a chore. My brother had a great dog, Pete, a lab/border collie mix. I was throwing a ball for him, it seemed like a hundred times or so, until Bill said “you realize, he’ll keep doing that until either he collapses or your arm falls off”. Working up to a fast pace can feel great, like how I imagine it must feel for a frisky colt stretching its legs. I especially enjoy doing HIIT if I’m at a gym, which I find less enjoyable than outdoors. A short 30 minute workout with high intensity thrown in goes by quickly and leaves me feeling energized.

Sneaking in Some NEAT

Physical activity does not mean just exercise. The latest word is NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), with the catchphrase “sitting is the new smoking” [2,3].

Dr. James Levine describes this in detail in his book Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. I remember seeing a fun British documentary (BBC’s “The truth about exercise” by Michael Mosley), where the 24 hour energy expenditure was measured for a waitress in a café compared to a very fit looking young man who worked out hard in the gym but had a desk job. Her 24 hour energy burn beat his hands down, with her chart showing constant movement all day long, while his showed low activity except one spike during his time at the gym.

So the first thing to work on is bumping up NEAT, moving throughout the day and avoiding sitting for too long. I do this with a timer on my computer that pops up every 30 minutes to remind me to get out of the chair and move around. It can seem to do this at inopportune times, but it is worth it to me. Activity trackers on smartphones and watches can do the same thing. I witnessed an amusing example of thisa few weeks ago after a group hike, when we went to lunch. A friend was wearing a Fitbit and it vibrated, the little guy started dancing, and it said “you’ve been sitting for 20 minutes. Time to move!”. She said “I just hiked for 3 hours. Cut me a break!”

There is lots of advice around on how physical activity can be sprinkled throughout the day, by doing things like parking further away, using the stairs instead of the elevator, etc. Stairs are especially good because they provide some higher intensity activity which we normally don’t get in daily living.

 The problem with this approach is that people can dabble at it and not have any idea how much activity they are doing. This was first addressed with pedometers and the 10,000 steps guideline, which, I just found out from good old Wikipedia, originated in Japan in 1965. There’s nothing magic about exactly 10,000 steps. I think the important thing is first just wear the pedometer (or fitness tracker) all day and audit what your steps are for a typical day, then set a goal to bump that up over time.

I believe that using fitness trackers in this manner is one of their best applications. And it’s better not to be constantly looking at them while active, it takes away from mindfulness, which we’ll discuss in an upcoming post. Check out the data later, nerding out on all the graphs you want. Just remember that the accuracy of some of the measurements, plus the formulae used to make some of the estimates, is questionable. For example using a fitness tracker to estimate “calories burned” is not particularly accurate.

Delayed gratification

Exercise can certainly be enjoyable, but not necessarily right away. Like jumping into the swimming pool on a hot day, it’s great once you’re in, but you can be hesitant to take the plunge. If you’re trying to fit your workout in first thing in the morning and have to get up earlier to do that, it’s going to seem like a much better idea to hit the snooze button. Nike had a great commercial illustrating this. A woman is sitting on the side of her bed, bleary-eyed, and the bed starts talking to her in seductive tones- “You want me. You know you want me. I am so warm, so comfortable…”. She shakes off the siren call, grabs her running shoes and leaves. If you are able to be disciplined like her, and just get going you’ll feel better afterwards and all day. If you get in the habit of doing this consistently, it gets easier to fight off the little voice of temptation.

Effortless, not “no pain, no gain”

 “No pain, no gain” is the first thing that has to go from the “it doesn’t count” mentality. Even strolling at a “museum walk” pace is better than sitting. But for me, a brisker but still pleasant pace is the most relaxing. It should feel like you could keep it up all day. The “talk test” is a classic way to tell pace. You should be able to carry on a conversation while doing the activity. If you feel somewhat out of breath it’s too fast. There’s nothing wrong with going fast if you enjoy it, as some people do, but many find a more comfortable pace more relaxing. As for “no pain, no gain”, with the effortless pace you’ll be pleasantly surprised, if you do it consistently, that after a few weeks you’ve “gained” quite a bit. You’ll now be able to go a lot farther, and you may notice that the pace that feels comfortable now is faster than it was a few weeks ago.

But what if I’m trying to lose weight? Won’t I burn a lot less calories at a comfortable pace than if I push myself? This is a point Dr. Segar talks about a lot in her book. Here are two scenarios (which come from an actual case study of one of her clients). In the first you’re fired up with your New Year’s resolution, work out hard, get burned out after 3 weeks, and give up. In the second, you do something you enjoy at a comfortable pace, and are able to keep it going consistently. You’ll burn a lot more calories the second way in a year, than the first way of 3 hard weeks followed by 49 weeks of sitting.

But most importantly, as I’ll discuss in another future post, calorie burn is not the most vital aspect of physical activity for weight loss. Aside from various other health benefits of moving, specifically it has metabolic effects like lowering insulin resistance that help with weight loss. And many of these benefits happen at a comfortable pace.

Or- Go Harder for Shorter

An alternative to the comfortable paced approach is to do higher intensity activities for a shorter amount of time. Dr. Martin Gibala and colleagues have done pioneering research in this area. It’s been known for some time that high intensity interval training is a good way to build fitness in brief sessions. But most training protocols used in studies were really hard, like repeating hard 4 minute intervals 4 times. Speaking from experience, those can hurt towards the end.

Dr. Gibala worked on finding interval training for those of us that wanted a short brisk workout without a lot of discomfort. He’s experimented with it for many years and finally came up with 3×20 seconds (shorthand for go hard for 20 seconds, recover at an easy pace, and repeat 3 times). He calls this “the one minute workout” because the hard part is only for a minute. The whole workout is actually 10 minutes with warmup and cooldown. Doing this just 3 times a week confers good health benefits [4].

As an example of the intense part, you could climb briskly upstairs for 20 seconds, then walk slowly down, and repeat 3 times. Or if you live in a two story house, you could just go briskly up and down the stairs, and keep doing it for one minute (with a warmup before and cooldown after).

The idea originally was to come up with a short session for people who don’t like to exercise to “get it over with”. But surprisingly it’s been found that many people enjoy this type of workout more. The intervals break up any monotony, and 20 seconds is long enough to be challenging at a higher intensity but not long enough to be too uncomfortable.

I do intervals a couple of times a week, and enjoy the short brisk session that leaves me feeling exhilarated afterwards. But I emphasize Dr. Segar’s point that physical activity at a comfortable pace “counts” just as much, just do whichever you like more. If you’re interested in the “short and sweet” approach I recommend Dr. Gibala’s book The One Minute Workout.

Meditation in motion

Any kind of repetitive activity like walking, running, biking, skating, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, etc., can spontaneously get you into a relaxed meditative state. Meditation is a topic all its own, but here I’m referring to letting the relaxation happen by itself by noticing the rhythm of the breath or your footfalls (or cycling cadence, paddle strokes, etc.), or both together.

Hopefully you can also find a nice place to do this, like a park or trail, and get natural relaxation from the scenery. The effortless pace is conducive to the “meditative” feeling. Needless to say, you will not get this feeling if you are fussing with your phone during the activity.

Valid Thoughts And “The Gate At 5 Miles”

When you are first starting an exercise program, you will encounter a lot of mental resistance that I alluded to in the “argument with yourself” above. It helps to keep in mind that this is just mental noise no matter how valid the reasoning seems to you at the time, and will go away if you keep going long enough. When I was going on long runs or bike rides, I’d often notice that I’d feel great once I got into the workout and afterwards I would be nice and mellow and be glad I had gone.

But I would still get the negative mental chatter when starting out: “this is BS. I ran yesterday. Why do I have to run every day. You’re making me run 6 miles are you crazy? I could go on a reasonable run, like 2 miles! Then I could have slept in another half hour”. Finally I came up with the rule that my thoughts weren’t valid until I’d been going at least 15 minutes or so. So during the initial negative period I’d just observe the negativity and think “yeah, whatever”. After about 15 minutes the chatter would die down and I’d get the pleasant, flowing, meditation-in-motion feeling. Now that I practice mindfulness, described in a future post, I can just observe negative thoughts that arise and not get caught up in them. And the chatter seems to go away more quickly.

The other thing is that it gets easier after you become fit enough to do an endurance activity like walking, hiking, running, or biking for at least 30 minutes continuously. I remember reading a book about running where the author introduced the term “the gate at 5 miles”. He said if he asked people who ran why they did it, those who averaged less than 5 miles on their runs would usually answer something like “I’m trying to lose weight” or “I’m trying to stay healthy”. Those who averaged more than 5 miles would say something more like “because I enjoy it”.

This rule of thumb was certainly true for me. I think this generalizes to all endurance activities. The transition from it being something that you are doing because you “should”, to something you do because you enjoy it, starts to occur naturally after you can go consistently for more than 30 minutes or so.

In future posts in the category “Fun Activities”, I’ll talk about how I’ve made particular activities (walking, cycling, running, strength training, etc.) enjoyable for me. And of course none of this is one size fits all, some people love swimming and despise running, or love weight lifting but don’t like any kind of cardio. What’s important is what’s fun for you.

Making Resistance Training Enjoyable

Most of the activities I’ll be describing under “fun activities”contribute to aerobic conditioning. It is important to also supplement that with resistance training to prevent loss of muscle and bone mass with age (described in my previous fitness post). You could optionally not worry about this until you’re well established in an activity you like, that keeps you moving on a regular basis.

My Uncle Din walked vigorously until he died at 92, and didn’t fade until a few months from the end. That was pretty much all he did, except for any upper body activity he got from daily life. He did get slower, and frail in the upper body. But he could do all his activities of daily living just fine.

If you do want to supplement with some upper body work, it’s much better if you can make that enjoyable too. Doing swimming, heavyhands, Nordic walking, paddling, or cross country skiing are all helpful. Otherwise you may need to throw in some resistance training.

In an upcoming post I’ll describe a simple workout with 5 movements, 1 set each, which covers the upper body well, including the core, in only a few minutes. I find it enjoyable if I do these slowly and mindfully, it’s almost like the feeling of doing yoga. It also helps motivate me that there are other activities like cross country skiing and paddling that these keep me in better shape for. With that motivation I enjoy going beyond the basic 5, but I consider that optional unless it’s fun for you.

You can combine resistance training and interval training on the same day, and pretty readily fit both into a 30 minute session, with a warmup, followed by a short interval session, the resistance session, and a cooldown. And since we need recovery after high intensity training, especially as we get older, these should be done only a couple of times a week, on non-consecutive days, with easy (comfortably paced) days or days off in between.

One other thing to point out is that while some activities contribute to upper body strength, it may not be balanced. An example is the double poling motion of cross country skiing, which involves the rear deltoids, lats, and triceps but not the opposing front deltoids, chest muscles, and biceps as much. So It’s still good to throw in some resistance training to work the neglected muscles.


  1. Segar, M, No Sweat: How The Simple Science Of Motivation Can Bring You A Lifetime Of Fitness, HarperCollins, 2015
  2. Diaz, K, et al, “Patterns of Sedentary Behavior and Mortality in U.S. Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A National Cohort Study”, Annals of Internal Medicine, 2017
  3. Levine J, “Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)”, Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab., 2002
  4. Gibala, M, and Shulgan, C, The One Minute Workout, Avery, 2017

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