3 Ways to Get Your Workout Off Autopilot

Whether you’re ready to get off the couch or upgrade your exercise routine, these expert-recommended tips will engage your mind while keeping you in tune with your body’s capabilities.

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People might have had to get creative, but throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve found ways to bike, walk, or work out, and it’s offered something that felt comfortingly close to normal. One survey conducted during the pandemic found that 70% of the participants reported doing the same amount of exercise, if not more.

But exercise can be hard, not just for people who are new to it, but also for those who do it regularly. It takes effort and self-regulation. And that can be tiring, especially over the last year, when there was so much to be disciplined about. Sometimes, we just want to get on our walking route or do our program. Exercise becomes the escape from all the “musts” in life. In other words, “Exercise planning is one less thing that you have to think and worry about,” says Kathleen Martin Ginis, professor of health and exercise sciences at the University of British Columbia.

When you permanently go on autopilot, the body and mind eventually become bored.

There’s a relief in that worry-free space, but when you permanently go on autopilot, the body and mind eventually become bored. Exercise that once challenged you or relieved stress turns into “checking a box,” says Stuart Phillips, professor of kinesiology and director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence at McMaster University. If you’re just going through the motions, you could stop seeing results, or you could get injured; regardless, when you lose focus on the present, you might quit exercising altogether, and then feel none of the benefits.

Re-engaging your body—and your mind— requires shaking up your routine, but it doesn’t necessarily require an overhaul. It could be injecting some variety, a change in mindset, or just a new setting. Between the novelty and a set of options, you’ll discover a renewed need to concentrate and strengthen not just your muscles, but also your body-mind connection.

1. Recruit Some Help

The most direct, obvious way of reinvigorating your program is to start doing new exercises. If you lift weights, even light ones, try working with resistance bands or change the order of your program, Ginis says.

If you want to take it a step further, you can hire a personal trainer for a few sessions, either virtually or in person, making your intent clear from the start: You want more options to choose from for each workout. When you go back to working out on your own, you have a menu to pick and choose from. You’re essentially creating a program each time, if you desire—and, by having to regularly decide what you want to do, you’re focused and present, says Robert Linkul, owner of Be STRONGER Fitness in Sacramento, California.

2. Connect Mind and Body

It’s sometimes easier to make a change when you’re working with a trainer. That person has expertise, and you have confidence that their suggestions will pay off. On your own, you may find there’s enough stress involved with making the change that you don’t want to do it.

One way to remove this psychological hurdle is to think about your goal with exercise. If you’re preparing for a 10K, being strict is probably wise. But for many people the intent is to be outside, stay active, and/or chase your kids around. Since you’re not training for an event, there’s little downside to occasionally trying something new. You can experiment and do what you want to do rather than what you have to do, since there really aren’t any have-to-dos.

It can be as simple as varying your mindset. Phillips says that one recommendation when lifting weights is to say “Focus” to yourself as you lift. The word keeps you on track and locked in for those 8 or 10 repetitions. “It becomes second nature,” he says. It also helps to concentrate your attention on the muscle that you’re working for each exercise. Research has shown that it builds the mind-body connection and can lead to an increase in strength.

You can also play with your perceived level of exertion. Think of it as a scale of 1 to 10. Some days, you’re doing a 3, just to work your range of motion or enjoy the scenery as you walk outside. Some days, try for a 6 or 7. It’s not necessary or recommended to go to 9 or 10 out of 10. “You don’t have to drain the tank,” Phillips says. But by occasionally pushing yourself, you’ll have a new motivation, and what was once your baseline will increase a little more. “You’ll know where your ceiling is and how far you can go,” he says.

3. Bring in Some Novelty

Change your setting. If you’re doing yoga or lifting weights in one room of your house, go
to another. If you’re inside, go outside. There are new sounds and smells. There’s sunshine. There’s an overall openness, a feeling of possibilities. “It prompts blue-sky thinking,” Ginis says. Phillips adds that being by water, if possible, particularly helps. Studies have suggested a positive link between greater exposure to blue spaces and mental well-being and levels of physical activity.

Change the route that you normally run, bike, or walk, or do it in the opposite direction. If there are hills on your route, add them in occasionally, where you walk or run up the incline and then easily come back down. As with weights, play with your exertion level by increasing your overall pace. Or you can add in intervals, where you do a time of intense effort followed by a resting pace, and alternate that for a series. When walking, for example, use a watch and speed up for 15-60 seconds, depending on your experience and fitness level, followed by the same time at an easier pace. You could also use landmarks, such as light poles or trees, and do the same rotation, says Ginis, adding that using a visual marker rather than time can feel less tedious and more motivating.

If you usually exercise alone, sometimes do it with others, for support and friendly peer pressure. And if you don’t usually listen to music, give it a try. Research from Ginis’s lab shows that listening to music (not podcasts) can increase performance and enjoyment. It also serves as a distraction by reducing an aversion to doing higher-intensity exercise. In other words, listening to music can take you out of the moment—which can be helpful, she suggests, on a day when you push a little harder than usual. It can make your workout feel like less effort. On more moderate days, when you want to enjoy your surroundings or focus on form, don’t listen to music, so you can fully concentrate and be present. As for the type or tempo of music, Ginis says it’s all personal preference. “It’s totally what works for you and what motivates you,” she says.

Ginis says that a simple way to focus is to consciously take in new stimuli. Try the 3-3-3 activity: Notice three things you hear, three you see, three you feel. You can do this while you walk or even before each set at the gym. “It takes you out of your head and brings you into the present. It quiets your mind,” she says.

There’s really no one ultimate solution—it’s just about making a change, and the upside is that you’ll find something to add to your program. Your mind and your body will be focused, working as one. “You can’t go wrong because you can always go back to what you used to do,” Ginis says. “It opens you up to feeling the exhilaration that can happen when you try something new. You can become excited again about your exercise.”

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