FFor most of my adult life, exercise was an ordeal. Even light workouts felt exhausting and I left the gym in a worse mood than when I arrived. The very idea of the corridor’s euphoria seemed like a cruel joke.
However, as a science writer investigating the mind-body connection, I was surprised to discover many psychological tricks that can turn pain into pleasure. Putting these simple tips to the test, I now happily burn 6,000-7,000 calories a week with high-intensity interval training, 5K runs, and yoga. What was once a torment is now the highlight of my day.
Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the science behind the five strategies I found most transformative.
1. Let music be your pacemaker
Choosing the right music for a workout can be just as important as choosing the right playlist for a party, with ramifications for your enjoyment and performance.
The benefits aren’t just found in motivational lyrics, although there’s no doubt that upbeat tracks can instill positive feelings in you that can help drown out feelings of fatigue; when you’re lost in music, you just forget how hard you’re working.
There are also some physical benefits. Loud, high-octane music also increases our “physiological arousal,” resulting in a faster heart rate that will deliver more oxygen to our muscles. And research by Costas Karageorghis, professor of sport and exercise physiology at Brunel University London, shows that we naturally synchronize our body’s movement with the underlying rhythm. This reduces any energy-wasting irregularities in our movements and results in more efficient use of our muscles.
If you want to take full advantage of the pacing effect, the tempo of the music should match the type of exercise you’re trying to do. If you’re taking a step per beat, around 170-180bpm (like Katy Perry’s Roar) would be adequate for a high-intensity run. For spirited cycling, you may want something slower, like David Guetta’s Dangerous with Sam Martin, at 92 bpm.
2. Ignore #fitspo posts
Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, you’ll come across countless “fitspiration” accounts featuring images of perfect pecs and tight torsos — a portrait of what could be possible if you just follow the right regimen. These images may seem like a sensible source of motivation, a way to focus your mind on what you want to achieve. But a study led by Ivanka Prichard at Flinders University, Australia, suggests these accounts may lead to a less rewarding workout.
Participants first scrolled through a set of 18 images. Some saw purportedly motivational photos related to fitness, such as before-and-after shots showing a body transformation. Others saw travel photos of attractive places. They then headed to the treadmill for a 10-minute workout. Far from encouraging athletes, the #fitspo images had a negative effect on their mood and increased their “perceived exertion” rating, so they found the activity more strenuous than people who had viewed the travel snaps. This seemed to be related to lower-body satisfaction: the sight of fitness gurus had left them feeling less attractive and more concerned about their weight and shape, depressing the whole experience.
3. Reframe the pain
Whether you’re just starting a new exercise regimen or just having a bad day, it’s all too easy to interpret feelings of fatigue as a sign of failure. The pounding heart in her chest, the burning in her lungs, the aches in her limbs—his body seems to be screaming at her to stop exercising. The sensations can even trigger cycles of catastrophic thoughts, in which you start to exaggerate your discomfort: “this is horrible”, “I can’t stand it”, “I will never get in shape”.
Psychological science suggests that these thoughts will only amplify your distress, which of course may discourage you from continuing your workouts in the future. To avoid this fate, he can practice “cognitive appraisal.” This might involve taking a deliberately dispassionate point of view that avoids negative interpretation; he may try to passively observe the feelings without judging them. He might even try to see the discomfort as a sign of progress, that you’re successfully pushing his body to the max.
Studies show that these small shifts in mindset can ease feelings of physical distress and the perceived exertion of exercise. Through the mind-body connection, they might even activate a beneficial “waiting effect,” similar to the placebo effect, that alters the physiological response to exercise. An experiment conducted by Professor Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin found that reframing muscle pain as a positive signal can increase the brain’s production of endogenous cannabinoids and opioids, natural pain relievers that could mask tension.
4. Unleash your imagination
Many athletes swear by the power of visualization. American swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, imagined each event in exquisite detail. “I can see the beginning, the lines, the walls, the turns, the ending, the strategy, everything,” he wrote in his autobiography. Unlimited. “Visualizing like this is like programming a race in my head, and that programming sometimes seems to make it happen just the way I imagined it.”
Sports science seems to back this up: Using mental imagery can improve the accuracy of our movements and even our overall strength. Studies show that people who spend a few minutes each day visualizing lifting heavy weights see greater strength gains than those who don’t engage in imaginary training. Mental rehearsal is believed to enhance the nerve signals sent from the brain to the muscles, increasing the strength you can exert when you finally hit the gym. This technique can be especially helpful in minimizing loss of strength while recovering from injury.
5. Use temptation packs
For many of us, the biggest battle is getting to the gym in the first place when there are so many other activities competing for our time and attention. It’s much harder to muster the willpower to put on your sneakers when you could be curled up on the couch with a junk novel.
If this is a problem, you can try bundling temptations, which involves bundling the things you don’t want to do with one of your guilty pleasures. The technique was developed by Professor Katy Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania, who gave people iPods loaded with four addictive audiobooks to enjoy while exercising. The simple strategy increased their gym attendance by 29% over the next seven weeks.
So dust off your sneakers. With each of these strategies pushing you toward your fitness goals, you may soon find yourself making substantial gains with very little pain.
The Expectation Effect: How Your Thinking Can Transform Your Life by David Robson is published by Canongate (£18.99). to support the guardian Y Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply