An athlete training for an event or performance goal is likely focused on every second of a workout. The rest of us? We tend to get comfortable, wonder what's for dinner, stop engaging our muscles, twist an ankle.
But get the brain engaged and it's a different story, fitness experts say. This explains why sports like rock climbing and mixed martial arts are gaining momentum – because, so are we.
Complex workouts not only deliver a bigger brain boost, they tend to sustain our interest (so we hit the gym more often) and keep us focused (so our effort level stays high, even past dinner time). Challenge your mind, it seems, and the fit body will follow.
Strategy and Technique Stave Off Boredom
"I'm terrible at a gym," George Hanshaw, a performance consultant, tells me. "If I get on a bike or treadmill, in five to 10 minutes I'm done – whether I'm sweating or not."
In a way, it seems intuitive: If you're not really into your workout, go try something else. But a lot of people "suck it up" because they think exercise is inherently boring. (Doesn't the word "exercise" seem inextricably linked with "tedious"?) A watched clock or calorie monitor rarely produces stellar fitness results, though.
That's why Hanshaw, who studied exercise attrition while earning a Ph.D. in sport and performance psychology, turned to kickboxing and taekwondo. He's been practicing martial arts since he was 11, and opened a mixed martial arts studio in Apple Valley, Calif., that attracts youth who have typically been labeled as having ADHD.
He explains: Mixed martial arts demand strategy and technique from start to finish – they "get inside you." Unlike leg- and arm-pumping on an elliptical for 45 minutes (if you make it that long), they grip your focus and, in turn, prolong your exertion.
Rock climbing is another of Hanshaw's favorites for that reason. "The focus is going from point A to point B, handhold to foothold, looking for a crack – you always have to be in control of your next move," he says. "There is no room for distraction."
We can find the same forced focus in activities like surfing, fencing, tennis, dancing, even parkour. "It's not left-right-left. It's constantly moving and adjusting, preparing for what an opponent brings or navigating unfamiliar terrain," he says. And time flies when there's a lunging blade, roundhouse kick or tango dip around every corner.
What Muscle Ache?
Sometimes it isn't boredom that causes us to flee a workout too soon. It's spinelessness. "Whether it's aerobic or resistance activity, if your focus is on pain, your mind and body are going to tell you to stop," Hanshaw explains.
It's not that we should ignore warning signs of injury or over-exercise; rather, that our perceived limitations are often lower than our actual limitations. While we jog or count bicep curls, we await the first cue that our body is tapped out, and that's when we quit.
In mentally demanding activities, Hanshaw says he constantly sees people physically achieve more than they thought they could. We simply take little notice of minor discomfort, fatigue or hunger, and as a result get closer to our real threshold.
I can attest to that. In eight months of rock climbing, I've gained more strength than I did through years of lifting with free weights. I've "sent" problems I never would've attempted had I not been too absorbed in the moment to second-guess myself.
We can turn any exercise into a mental puzzle by stepping up our game, according to Shaun Wehle, an ACE-certified personal trainer and ACE-certified health coach. "Focus and intention, having proper nutrition before and after, training to become better – if you can make that connection, it changes how you interact with it," he says. It's the difference between jogging around the park and training for a marathon.
Not only does a workout challenge keep us engaged, it continually enhances our ability to strategize, Hanshaw says – and this might be the clincher. That growing prowess is addicting. While it's hard to reflect on a stair-stepper session with triumphant glee, there's something about a perfectly-timed jab and hook that keeps us coming back for more.
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Chelsea Bush is a journalist on a mission to tap the secrets of psychology to end laziness, cheeseburger addictions and other annoying habits that keep us flabby. Join the cause here, at @chelseawriting and at her blog, Survival of the Realist.