How I Overcame Exercise Boredom

Couple_lifting_dumbbellsWhat is fun about doing push-ups or squats? How about weightlifting? These days, gyms are full of big machines, where people exercise in front of big mirrors and multi-channel TV screens. I tried them all, and I didn’t find any fun there. Only sweat and faces with an expression of pain. And yet, it is hard to ignore the benefits of physical activity, especially when we are constantly reminded of them by the media.

Gym

Modern gym: machines, mirrors, TVs

Exercising sounds like something wise to do, but how can I reap the benefits of exercise without forcing myself to do something I don’t feel like doing? I know willpower is very precious and a very limited resource. I don’t want to deplete it even before I start my work. How about exercising after work? After many months of good intentions I learned that, like the other 80 percent of gym membership owners, after spending all day in meetings and intellectual work, I chose rest at home over a gym workout. At this time of the day, all my willpower is gone. So what can I do?

I was lucky enough to find the answer where I didn’t expect it. It is in the way I take a rest.

I love traveling! I am always excited about the prospect of seeing new places and meeting new people. And once I go to an interesting place, all I want is to enjoy the experience. I never make too many plans, and I don’t rush. I like to have time to observe and sync with the surroundings, whether I’m hiking or having tea in the town’s cafe. This is how I rest – by sensing the world around me, by my own rules and at my own pace. This inspired me to take a new approach to regular exercising where I can recreate my active travel experiences.

It was a game-changing discovery! It is very simple, yet very effective and exciting. What I did is I bought myself an elliptical cross trainer that I put in front of my 40-inch HD TV, next to my bed in the bedroom. Then I searched for high-definition videos presenting people walking and cycling in exotic places, with a stabilized camera in front of them (I call them “travel videos”). I play these videos while I exercise and they work perfectly for simulating the experience of hiking or cycling.

Cape Point, South Africa

Cape Point, South Africa

Now, the very first thing I think about right after I wake up is, “Where will I travel today?” I can’t imagine a more exciting way of starting a day! Yesterday I had a virtual walk across Red Rock Canyon in the U.S.; today, maybe I’ll visit Chapman’s Peak Drive in South Africa? This is the kind of dilemma I solve with pleasure. It makes waking up much easier, and I never considered myself to be an early-bird. I also replaced my alarm clock with an audio player that starts my workout playlist in front of my elliptical. So once I wake up to the music, all I have to do is select the place I want to visit and start walking.

After practicing this new routine for a few months now, I identified two main principles to maximize pleasure from virtual travels:

  1. Provide the most immersive travel video experience, that won’t require too much cognitive effort (no lector, no subtitles, no maps, no other distractions), but will arouse positive emotions like curiosity, joy, awe, etc.
  2. Engage in simple and comfortable physical activity that will simulate walking (or cycling) moves, with a challenging fitness goal.

I would like to make it clear here: I don’t suggest anyone watch a TV travel channel while exercising using dumbbells. No! I am talking about watching a very specific type of video recording while using a very specific exercise machine. When you apply these two rules together, you should be able to watch the video with your natural traveler’s curiosity, while performing moves like you are walking (or cycling) in the place you see on the screen. And with some practice, you should be able to enter the state of flow, just like me, which basically turns this experience into pure joy.

If you can achieve this just with a TV channel and dumbbells, I guess you can skip this article and save some time. But if you are like me – quickly getting bored with repetition, looking for fun and excitement, and most of all, if you love traveling – I believe there is very high chance that virtual travels will work for you too.

flow4

The perfect video will allow you to easily immerse yourself into the place you are virtually visiting. The only effort you will be making is related to your physical activity. The camera will show you the scenery from the perspective of a person walking (or running, or cycling) smoothly forward in the same pace, without stopping. There is no traffic, and no distractions. You will be naturally focused on the traveling motion, moving your legs or arms according to your exercise machine specification, enjoying the scenery and noticing its various details. After a few minutes you will enter the state of flow, when you will feel so engaged in the activity that you will no longer perceive the passing of time. You will be curious about what you will see after the next turn, and what new views will unfold before you after you reach the top of the mountain. Since exercising will be your main energy-consuming activity, you will stay aware of how your body feels and reacts to the workout. You will feel body warmth and muscle fatigue, like during a real trip. Depending on your exercise goal, you might choose to just finish the trip’s route or to stick to your workout plan. In the first scenario you will feel like you’re perfectly capable of getting to the end of video, simply because you will have full control over your exercise tempo and the machine’s resistance or stride. In the second scenario, you will be extra motivated to carry on, because you will be in the flow, feeling the desire to stay in this state and to get to the end, where your satisfaction both from the workout and the virtual trip will be complete and well earned.

There is also a motivational aspect included in the second principle: set fitness goals that will allow you to notice, with time, physical improvement. I find it’s very important to make a new habit stick. My long-term goal is very simple: to go through all the workout programs provided with the elliptical I bought. Since some programs are still too demanding for me, I estimate that it will take me months (or even years) to complete them all. But my everyday goal is even simpler. After workout music wakes me up, I 1) play a travel video, 2) stand on the elliptical, and 3) take a few steps. That is all. Notice that I will achieve my daily goal within the first minutes of the first song. When a more difficult morning comes, when the gravitational force of the bed is strong, the only thought that comes to my mind is: “1, 2, 3 – and I can turn it off!” And I start the video, stand on the machine, start walking, and… I keep walking. Because once I am up, already walking to my favourite music in beautiful and sunny scenery, it is much easier to continue.

This is the power of making goals as simple and specific as they can be, especially useful in moments when you don’t think straight (like in the moment right after waking up).

This is the benefit of having an elliptical right next to my bed instead of planning to go to a gym that’s 30 minutes away from home (no, thank you). This is the advantage of committing myself to “just start”, instead of, “just do it”. And after I start walking, the fear of losing the pleasure of sleep, which makes many people use the “snooze” function, is already gone.

Thanks to the machine’s various resistance and stride, each day is different, even when I go through a place I’ve seen before. Now I can observe how I become more fit each week, which makes me even more motivated to keep going. I can see the progress I am making towards my long-term fitness goal. This gives me a sense of control over my physical development, and sense of satisfaction: I made a decision to regularly exercise (again), but this time I am doing it! With 100 percent success. Viva virtual travels!

Photo: gigijin CC BY-SA
Photo: Jonathan Cohen CC BY-NC
Author: Tom Steck
Professional coach and mentor in London startup scene. Enthusiast of new technologies that improve the quality of our lives.

What do you do to make your workout exciting and fun? Have you tried virtual travels? Share your experiences!