zen habits : breathe

Top 42 Exercise Hacks

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

You’ve read and enjoyed the Top 20 Motivation Hacks and Top 10 Productivity Hacks and the Top 15 Diet Hacks… and now you’ve asked for exercise hacks. You want ‘em, you got ‘em.

These hacks will make you healthier, slimmer, and yes, sexier. Rrrowrr!

Just to note, I’m not a certified trainer. I’m just sharing stuff that’s worked for me. Also, some of this stuff is contradictory. That’s because you’re not supposed to implement all of them — just pick the ones you think will work for you, and give them a try. Good luck!

Top 42 Exercise Hacks

  1. Start slow. The biggest mistake that people make when starting an exercise plan is starting too fast or too hard. Trust me, I’ve done it many times. I’ve learned to take it easy, start as small as possible, and worry about endurance or intensity later. The key in the beginning is to make it enjoyable and accomplishable. That’s probably not a word, but it should be. And it is now. Zen Habits are ones that are accomplishable.
  2. Increase but gradually. After getting used to a certain level of exercise, you’ll want to increase it. Don’t just run two miles or walk 20 minutes three times a week for a year. Your body adjusts to the stress you’re giving it, so you need to increase the level once you’ve adjusted. But do it gradually, and only every two weeks or so.
  3. Crank it up. Once you’ve gotten used to exercise, you’ll want to do some higher intensity ones for better fitness and fat-burning. For example, instead of running slowly and steadily, for a long time, try doing shorter bursts of fast running, with periods of rest in between. You can do this for any exercise. Higher intensity increases the calorie burn, and improves performance. But you can’t do it as long, and you shouldn’t do it every workout. Mix it in with endurance workouts.
  4. Schedule workouts. Make appointments with yourself to workout, at a specific time and place, just as you would with any other appointment. And make it the most important appointment on your calendar — more important than a doctor’s visit or even the manicurist.
  5. Make it a habit. If you can do exercise at the same time, every single day for a month, you are more likely to make it a habit. Consistency makes habits more ingrained. Once it’s a habit (and start easy in the beginning!), then you can step up the intensity a bit.
  6. Forget about weight loss. Yeah, many of us would like to lose some weight. But if you’re motivated solely by weight loss, exercise will be a tough proposition. The reason is that you might not lose weight right away. Oh, it’ll come, if you can keep it up over time, but in the beginning you might be disappointed (especially if you haven’t changed your eating habits). Just get into the habit of exercise, and worry about the weight later. First things first.
  7. Forget the gym. The gym can be horribly convenient, but it can also be intimidating for beginners, and confusing if you don’t know how to use the equipment. Sure, you can get a trainer to teach you, but if the cost or the confusion stops you from exercising … well, skip the gym and do it at home or at the park or somewhere less intimidating. You can do pushups and crunches and dumb bell exercises at home very easily, workout to a DVD, or go walking or jogging in your neighborhood. Cheap and simple is my motto.
  8. Reward yourself. Self-explanatory, but rewards are best if they are frequent in the beginning. Be self-indulgent! Even sweets are good rewards — remember, get into the habit of exercise, and you can worry about weight loss later.
  9. Do a 30-day Challenge. Challenge yourself, and see if you can rise to the occasion. Do it with a group or your significant other. Put in rewards. Tell everyone you’re doing it. Motivate the hell out of yourself.
  10. Join an online group. One of the best motivators is having to report successes and failures to a group of people. Check out some online groups (there are groups for every type of exercise), introduce yourself, see which ones you’re comfortable with. Once you’ve gotten established (after a couple of days) see if you can post your results every day — you won’t go wrong once you start doing that.
  11. Post your results on your blog. There’s nothing more motivating than positive public pressure (short of a gun to your head). Step it up by making a promise to your blog readers that you will commit to this goal for a month, and post your results every day. Even if your mom is your only blog reader, it’ll really help.
  12. Do a journal. If you don’t post your results on your blog, write it in a journal, either online or on paper. However you set it up, make it a habit to post to your journal or log right away, as soon as you’re done with your log. It will motivate you to see your progress over time, and it’s a good way to see what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.
  13. Make it fun! Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. I love doing a morning run, with the sun coming up, the world so quiet, my mind left to its own devices. Enjoy yourself and you will actually look forward to your workouts.
  14. Fuel up. If your workout is more than 30 minutes, you really should have some energy in you. You shouldn’t work out on an empty stomach — but you also shouldn’t eat right before you work out. Eat a banana or some peanut butter toast or a ClifBar an hour or two before your workout, and you’re good to go.
  15. Hydrate. Also an hour or two before you workout. Water is best. Use a sports drink during your workout (and after) only if you’re going to go an hour or more. If you’re going to do a tough workout, stay hydrated throughout the day. In fact, go ahead and do this whether you work out or not.
  16. Get a workout buddy. Find someone at your level, and commit to working out a certain number of times a week together, at a certain time. This will make you more likely to keep that workout appointment, and workouts can be a lot of fun if you spend them chatting with your buddy. Just be sure to actually work out, and not just chat, Chatty McChatterson!
  17. Get good clothes. Actually, you don’t need anything fancy to get started. But once you do start working out, it’s nice to get yourself some nice workout clothes, with breathable and comfortable fabrics, ones that look good on you. It’s motivating, and pleasurable. Make it so.
  18. Put a cover model on your fridge. Not literally, of course, as that may be illegal, but find a good magazine photo of a model with the body you want, and post it up somewhere visible. You may never look like that model (heck, that model probably never really looks like that), but it’s motivating. Don’t pick a model that’s too good looking, or you may question your sexuality.
  19. Change it up. Sure, walking or running every day can be a lot of fun. But getting some swimming or biking or strength workouts or aerobics or kickboxing into the mix can be a lot of fun, and can also help you get into better shape. They work out different muscles, and step up the metabolism. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
  20. Do it early in the morning. My favorite time to work out is between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. Plus, I know that if I work out at this time, nothing will get in the way of the workout later in the day. It’s a beautiful time of day, not too hot, and there’s nothing like showering and going to work knowing that I’ve put in a great exercise (and it allows me to feel superior and look down my nose at those lazy bums I work with).
  21. Squeeze it in during lunch. OK, you’re not a morning person. You’re busy. You don’t have time to work out. Well, suck it up, buster, and sacrifice your lunch hour to the gods of fitness. Bring your workout clothes, do a quickie nooner, and be back at work ready to tackle the afternoon.
  22. First thing after work. None of those options work for you? Not a problem, my friend. Make it a daily appointment to work out as soon as you get off work. This will also motivate you to finish your work on time so you can get out on time for your workout. It’s great to stop somewhere to do your workout before you even get home, because once you get home you’ll probably want to relax on the couch, fall asleep at the kitchen table, or rush to the computer to read the latest Zen Habits post.
  23. A little and often. You don’t need to work out long, and you certainly don’t need to be a weekend warrior. Just 20-30 minutes every day. Who doesn’t have 20 minutes on their schedule. You? Well, scratch “Walker Texas Ranger rerun” off the schedule and make room for this instead.
  24. Just lace up. Yeah, you’re dreading the upcoming workout. But don’t even think about it. Just lace up and head out the door. That’s all. After that, let nature take its course. Just relax and do what comes naturally. Which is exercise.
  25. Join a race. Signing up for a 5K or a triathlon are my favorite motivators. It really gets me to do my workouts because if I don’t, I will look like a dork by collapsing 5 minutes after the starting gun goes off. But don’t worry about how you look — just go and have fun at these races — everyone else is worrying about themselves too much to notice you.
  26. Get good gear. As a reward, get yourself some nice little gadgets — a sports mp3 player, a Polar heart rate monitor, a pedometer, a scale, a bike computer, whatever. Something cool that will make you look forward to your workouts.
  27. Forget about the gear. Having said that, you don’t need any of that to actually work out. Just put on some cheap clothes and get out the door. Don’t let your lack of gear stop you, and for criminy’s sake, don’t go and buy all the gear before you actually start working out.
  28. The 10 percent rule. Don’t increase your workout time or distance by more than 10 percent a week. This is a very conservative rule, and it can be broken by the best of the best, who know what they’re doing, but for the rest of us, stick with this to prevent burnout or injury.
  29. Rest. It’s important. This is a commonly overlooked factor. If you don’t give your body some rest, you will burn out and get injured. Rest is just as important as the workouts in improving performance and fitness. As long as you’re doing the workouts too and not just the rest!
  30. Hard, then easy. If you do a hard workout today, rest or go easy tomorrow. Don’t do two hard workouts in a row. The hard-easy approach can also work within a workout itself — run hard, then run slow, then run hard … you get the idea. This allows you to burn more fat than if you just run medium the whole time.
  31. Listen to your body. This is extremely important — if you feel like you’re overdoing it, you probably are. Rest and allow your body to recover. And though you can run through some slight soreness or aches, you should stop as soon as you feel sharp pain or pain in the joints. You’ll just make it worse.
  32. Strength is good. If you’re a walker or runner or cyclist or swimmer or something like that, you should also fit some strength training into your schedule. Nothing too intense, but just some core-strengthening exercises that will help your main sport as well as make you healthier and yes, more attractive.
  33. Set goals. What are you trying to get out of your exercise? It’s good to know if you’re trying to build muscle or burn fat — because these are two competing goals. There are other goals, of course, but you should be clear what they are. Also, set goals for each week — what do you want to accomplish this week? Write it down, post it up, and see if you can meet them!
  34. Take photos of yourself. Before and after photos. The best way to see your progress over time. But do it once a month, not every hour, you narcissist!
  35. Workout first, diet later. If you’re just starting a workout plan, it’s best not to start a diet at the same time. Well, I don’t like diets in the first place, but still — one thing at a time. I’d prefer the workout first, and then worry about the diet after about a month of working out. You didn’t get fat overnight and you’re not getting skinny overnight either!
  36. Star chart. Yeah, you know what these are. But they’re very motivating. Do a workout, put up a star. Fun!
  37. Get a coach. You certainly don’t need one, but there’s nothing more motivating than a coach. Almost like a workout buddy, in that you are very likely to make the appointment, but less chatty and more knowledgeable. And if you’re going to learn swimming, a coach is a must. Yes, you can get a coach — there are master’s swimming classes at your local pool. Just sign up — they’re usually not that expensive.
  38. Join the club. In my area, there is a great running club and a great cycling federation and triathlon federation. All of them sponsor races and Sunday rides and things like that where you can workout with a group and talk to more knowledgeable people. Well worth the small membership fee!
  39. No pain … that’s good. Forget the old rule of “no pain, no gain”. You don’t need pain to get in shape. Just take it easy, progress gradually, and enjoy yourself.
  40. Warm up. If you’re going to do any kind of exercise, don’t do it with your muscles cold. Gradually get your heart pumping and blood flowing. You’re less likely to injure yourself, and your workout will be more enjoyable.
  41. On stretching. Sure, flexibility is important. But stretching out cold is a good way to get injured. If you’re going to stretch out before a workout, be sure to do so only after your warmup. Also, do not bounce. That’s another good way to tear your muscles. Do slow stretches and hold them without bouncing. Best of all: stretch after a workout, when your muscles are nice and loose.
  42. Go for the long haul. Most of all, don’t think that you will become fit and healthy and sexy in one month. Think of exercise as a life-long habit, and your goals will come to you eventually. You’ll get there, my friend!

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