Structuring the Workout to Optimize Enjoyment
By Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP
There’s lots that goes into crafting an enjoyable workout experience. The significance of this is not small; after all, it’s the joy in an activity that keeps you coming back for more. Simple solutions, like choosing a form of exercise out of excitement and interest rather than obligation, or finding the right partner or group, can help.
The order of things – or how you structure the workout – will also influence your perceived enjoyment of it. This same phenomenon holds true at the dinner table. With an assortment of foods in front of you, you decide (perhaps below the conscious level) what to eat first, how much of one food to eat before switching, and what to save until the very end. While it may seem trivial, these decisions affect how we rate the satisfaction of the meal. Our perception of other activities, like going to the museum or taking a bike ride, also depends on which exhibits we see first and last, or which paths we choose to travel at various points of the trip. And not only the order, but the timing of the workout –morning, afternoon, or evening – manipulates how we view the experience.
Do we reflect on these subtleties when crafting our own workouts? Here are some factors to consider.
- Your classification as an early bird or night owl is largely genetically predetermined, and the success either group has is linked to the timing of the task. According to 2009 research from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a Major League Baseball pitcher’s natural sleep preference might affect how he performs in day and night games. For instance, in early games that started before 7 p.m., the earned run average (ERA) of pitchers who were morning types (3.06) was lower than the average ERA of pitchers who were evening types (3.49). However, in games that started at 7 p.m. or later, pitchers who were evening types performed slightly better (4.07 ERA) than morning types (4.15 ERA). Similarly, night owls who work out early are more prone to less productive workouts. In other words, early birds ought to work out early, and night owls late. Try and align the timing of your workout to your preferences for sleep and wake times. If you don’t have preferences and are simply looking for the optimal time to train, know that vigorous exercise, though it will serve to relax you after experiencing stress, puts your nervous system in a state of arousal. In this state we’re primed for completing mental tasks, but not falling asleep.
- Assuming you are participating in a workout program with a number of unique parts – sets of different individual exercises, for instance – your ordering of those parts matters. But how should you order them to optimize your enjoyment? To start, think of your relationship with gratification as it relates to other activities, like eating dinner. Visualize a recent meal in which you ordered a highly cherished dish, like lobster tail or filet mignon, along with a side or two. When did you choose to dig in to the good stuff? This exercise triggers a memory of my own family’s outings at a fancy seafood restaurant, a special evening we enjoyed biannually when I was a young boy. I recall laboring over the uncracked crab legs, only choosing to eat the pay dirt once I’d extracted every morsel from the shell and finished the sides. My brother, in contrast, would eat chunks of crab as soon as they exited the shell, unable to delay the gratification. A portion of people prefer doing the difficult work first and saving the enjoyable stuff for last – that is, doing the hardest parts of a workout toward the beginning and saving the fun / easy items for the very end – while others have completely opposing preferences.
- More on timing: based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, people tend to judge and remember an experience by its most intense point (the “best” or “worst” moment) and its end. This “peak-end rule” is what we use to summarize a movie we’ve watched, a conversation we’ve had, or a tennis match we’ve played. If the end of a movie was enjoyable, the conversation ended with a brilliant laugh, or a tennis match ended superbly, we’ll judge the event as highly favorable, even if the beginning or middle weren’t all that positive. In other words, the end, or most recently experienced moments, matters a great deal. If the goal is to recall positively your workouts – which makes continuing more likely – consider ending them on a bright note. This may mean a gentle stretch with deep breathing, or the accomplished feeling of collapsing after completing the final grueling set of the day, or a post-workout coffee with a workout buddy. How we define ending on a bright note is based purely on subjective judgment, but finding a way to end positively may be the key to maintaining motivation to keep at it.