Even with gyms reopening at limited capacity, it’s still safer to exercise at home or outdoors. So, we’re dubbing this September Muscle Month to help you keep up your fitness, power, and health in socially distant times.
If you’ve been finding it hard to pump up the intensity of your workouts lately, we hear you. Listening to fast-paced music and lying to yourself (“I’m only running for 10 minutes, that’s it”) may work once or twice, but you’re probably smart enough to see through your own ruses.
Instead of trying to trick yourself into longer runs and heavier bench presses, do what magicians do and distract your brain.
“Dissociation involves directing someone’s attention away from bodily sensations like pain and fatigue,” says MK Huffman, a Ph.D. candidate in Purdue University’s exercise psychology program. “This may increase their levels of fun and enjoyment of the activity.”
This is why people listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts when working out. But pushing play on something can only take you so far. If you want to go even further, you may have to make your workout a bit more social by letting someone else do the distracting for you.
Exercise isn’t just about your muscles
The effort you put in at the gym is just as mental as it is physical, and you’re even more reliant on your mind when you’re trying to push yourself.
“Gyms and personal trainers mostly concentrate on the physical aspects of exercising, but we now know exercising is much more psychological in terms of the need for motivation, the emotional aspect of it, the body issues, etc,” says Hila Sharon-David, a behavioral psychologist at Florida State University’s sport psychology lab.
To go even further—whether that’s an extra lap around your block or stretching a 10K into a full marathon—Sharon-David suggests distracting yourself with some socio-emotional support, which, in plain English, just means: “Bring a buddy.”
With a friend by your side, you’ll find it harder to focus on the pressure of exercising or the worry that you don’t have the strength to continue. You’ll get a more intense workout simply because you’ll be able to keep going longer, she says.
How to make it social
Sure, you can work out with your partner, friend, or roommate. But if you want to do things alone, you can always get a little help from technology.
Harder workouts are just a phone call away
Last year, phone calls may have seemed like a dated concept, but they’ve seen a resurgence in the midst of the pandemic. No matter what workout you’re planning, if you feel you can keep your breathing steady and talk at the same time (impressive!), make a call while you’re exercising and see how you feel. Maybe you haven’t called your mom in a while, or perhaps it’s time to ask your friend how their last date went.
Don’t call your partner to break the news that you actually don’t like their mother, though. It’s crucial that it’s a feel-good call. “It’s very important we have positive feelings to the person we’re talking to, and not make it into something that will reduce your energy,” Sharon-David says.
If you find the call too straining, you might want to look for an alternative—like any of the following tips.
At home? Hop on a video call
Yes, you can technically open a face-to-face call from anywhere with your phone, but it’s simply more comfortable to do so from your laptop while not having to worry about dropping your phone all the time.
Sharing your workout on a video call will allow you to have a socially-distant workout buddy or maybe your own personal cheerleader. Just as with a phone call, the main idea here is to have a conversation or develop some other engaging dynamic—like a trivia competition, sing-along, or even a bit of truth or dare—with the other person, so your brain can concentrate on the interaction rather than those last five burpees.
Talk to a personal trainer
If you’ve paid someone to make you work out, get your money’s worth and keep them talking. Sharon-David says some personal trainers will use the time you’re doing pushups to make personal calls or take care of something else.
Those trainers are missing a chance to increase the intensity of your exercise, not only by verbal encouragement, but also by talking about things that will distract you from your effort and transport you to a zone where you can work harder without realizing it, she explains.
If you want to try this approach, have your trainer talk to you or take control by asking questions. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you can demand answers. This is just a distraction, so keep it light—talk about a TV show or your favorite book.
Schedule a distant workout
Let’s say you’re not that talkative, or maybe talking and moving isn’t your thing. That’s ok—you can work out by yourself at the same time as somebody else. Even if you can’t see them, knowing that another person is doing the same thing you are at the same time will make you feel less alone, and it’ll be easier for you to push yourself.
For this approach, sharing your pre-workout routine and results are very important. Tell your workout buddy what you plan to do and your goal, text them while you stretch, or send them a selfie in full gear. When you’re done, tell them how it went—send them a report if you’re using a tracking app. On good days, celebrate your successes, and when things don’t go well, discuss your challenges and vent if you want. This will make you feel connected even if you’re hundreds of miles apart.
Play a game
There’s a drinking game in which you listen to “Roxanne” by The Police and take a shot whenever they say the word “Roxanne.” Perhaps you have fuzzy memories of it. When it comes to exercise, you can do your liver a favor by swapping that shot for a burpee, a situp, or a pushup. Choose a song you and your workout buddies like, pick a trigger word, and go at it.
This technique not only distracts you from the physical effort by making you focus on the song, but also entails something sports psychologists call “validation support.” This is that feeling you get when you see somebody going through the same thing you are—the desire to high-five the stranger running several steps behind you for an entire mile uphill, or that “good job” nod you give to the biker pedaling alongside you.
Sharon-David conducted a study on this and found that synchronicity strengthens the feeling of intimacy with other people, even if they’re strangers.
“We’re not aware of it but when we’re doing similar movements with another person, we feel much more connected,” she says. Together, you can push each other a little harder or go a little longer.