Mind and Body

Workout plans for every excuse

Is a little voice inside your head insisting that your obstacles to exercising are stronger than you are? Psych it out with a few ingenious strategies that overcome just about every excuse.

The Obstacle: I Don’t Have the Time

How to Overcome It
You don’t need to spend a lot of time actually exercising to get (or stay) fit. “Too many people think that unless they go to the gym seven days a week for an hour a day, they’re not doing anything,” says Michelle Cleere, a psychologist in Oakland who specializes in sports performance. “That’s not the case.” You just need a small pocket of time, which most people can find in a day or a week, if they look for it.

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Plan of Attack
Make those minutes count with these strategies.

Exercise in intervals. Recent research has found that shorter workouts can be just as effective as longer ones if they include intervals—small bursts of intense exercise followed by short periods of recovery. Researchers at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, had a group of cyclists do four to six repetitions of short sprints (30 seconds at full throttle) followed by periods of recovery (four minutes of easy cycling). After just six sessions, they saw that the sprinters got the same boost in fitness after their 18- to 26-minute workouts as did people who cycled at a moderate pace for 90 to 120 minutes.

Choose your workout wisely. If you’re not up for intervals but you want to burn the maximum number of calories in a minimal amount of time, head for the right machine. “The most effective calorie burners are machines that require you to move the majority of your weight yourself,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. That means using the stepmill (the machine with the revolving stairs) or ramping up the treadmill to a challenging incline (say, 5 percent—but increase the number if that’s too easy), as opposed to riding a stationary bike or using the rower. Or change your terrain and walk uphill or up and down stairs.

The Obstacle: I’m Excruciatingly Bored

How to Overcome It
It’s tempting to try to make a workout go faster by zoning out and flipping through a magazine or just letting your mind wander. But the real way to break through a wall of boredom is to give your workout a purpose and some variety.

Plan of Attack
Pay more attention to what you’re doing, not less.

Turn your workout into a challenge. Determine what you want to push your body to do. This approach puts you on a mission, which gives your workout focus. (Think of the difference between the endless “I don’t know—what do you want to eat?” conversation and “Let’s perfect that salmon recipe tonight.” The first can leave you drained; the second, energized.) Then put your session on a path that helps you get there. Can you build leg strength by changing your bike route to include a few hills? Or can you push your aerobic potential on the elliptical by moving your legs very fast for 30 seconds every two minutes or so?

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Do frequent check-ins in which you think about your form, breathing, posture, and anything else that keeps you in the moment. Notice the bracing wind on your face, whether your core is engaged, what your mind is doing. “Are you thinking about your grocery list or focusing on your breathing?” asks Lucy Smith, a coach to amateur and professional athletes at LifeSport Coaching, in Victoria, British Columbia. If you’ve strayed, count your steps or pedal strokes, hit a new song on your iPod, and move to the rhythm—anything to get you back in the moment.

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The Obstacle: My Workout Buddy Dropped Out

How to Overcome It
You need someone to hold you accountable, but that person doesn’t have to be walking right beside you. Technology makes it possible to check in with and compete against workout partners all over the country.

Plan of Attack
These apps and web sites can keep you honest and offer a little camaraderie along with the fun of gaming. (And unlike real-life friends, your virtual buddies will never coerce you into a post-workout glass of wine.)

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If you want to put your money where your mouth is: At 21habit.com, you pay $21 to set a workout goal that you commit to doing for three weeks—for example, “I will take the stairs every day this week.” For every day that you succeed, you get $1 back. (You’re on the honor system here.) If you don’t follow through, the $1 goes to nonprofits, such as the American Cancer Society and Amnesty International. You can tweet your successes as you rack them up or get a thumbs-down on the site calendar—and lose a dollar—if you fail. At the end of three weeks, you collect your money. (Hopefully all of it.)

If you love competition and social interaction: Try Fitocracy.com, which is like Facebook for fitness enthusiasts. This exercise tracker with a gaming spin lets you earn points for workouts, sends you on quests (challenges that can earn you bonus points), catapults you to different levels, and compliments your progress (“How does it feel to be awesome?”). You can also track the progress of other people, earn badges, and give and get props.

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