REMEMBER WHEN YOU USED to leap out of bed to tackle your morning run, but now you just do it because the alarm went off? Or when you savored each delicious bite of those new granola bars you bought in bulk, but now – many months later – they taste bland? You may know the feeling best when thinking about certain relationships that once made you giddy but now feel stale and unstimulating.
What you’re experiencing is simply human nature: From an evolutionary perspective, we get accustomed to the things we see and do regularly, which frees up our attention to other, more novel things. The problem with this phenomenon, however, is boredom. And when it comes to exercise, experiencing it can lead you to stop working out altogether, which, of course, is not recommended.
Fortunately, there’s a surprisingly simple way to combat that in-a-rut feeling: Do the same thing in a new way. According to a study out of The Ohio State University, for example, people who ate popcorn using chopsticks reported that the popcorn was tastier and the experience more enjoyable than those who ate it normally – aka with their hands. That’s because eating popcorn with chopsticks is novel, unfamiliar and unusual, which forced the participants to focus more on what they were actually eating, intensified their senses and left them more satisfied. In other words, using unconventional methods to do something conventional makes an old experience feel brand new.
The same could be said for exercise. While sticking to a routine that’s working is valuable in maintaining health, if your workouts are starting to lose their luster, think about changing it up, even slightly. Here’s how:
1. Change the order of exercises.
This suggestion, as with others, may seem trivial and inconsequential. But putting it into action won’t only keep you engaged, it will also improve your fitness. That’s because when you follow nearly identical fitness routines for more than even two months, your body gets accustomed to certain sequences and begins to anticipate what’s next. As a result of too much predictability, your engagement drops – and so does your effort level. Your muscles are less challenged, which may make sustaining growth more difficult.
But by constantly surprising your body with new and unfamiliar movement patterns – even just by switching the order of when you do biceps curls versus overhead presses, for example – your body is forced into variation. And with more exposure to change, your body becomes better at handling it. As a bonus, you’ll also eliminate whatever monotony may have arisen from doing the same thing over and over again.
2. Pick a different treadmill.
A new location for your aerobic exercise provides new scenery and an opportunity to jog alongside new people. And that’s important because research shows whom you exercise near can influence your own workout. A 2010 study in the Journal of Social Sciences, for example, found that participants who biked next to more fit people pushed themselves harder, while those who biked next to weaker riders were more likely to slack off. So choose a treadmill near someone doing intense interval sprint training – as opposed to a casual walk – and get moving.
3. Wear a new outfit.
There’s an established relationship between clothing and mood, which is why psychologists suggest we wear clothing that we associate with the “right” kinds of gym moods like happiness, excitement and confidence. A new outfit can affect how you feel, which ultimately affects how you exercise – you may be more eager to cut your workout short, for instance, if you don’t feel like you “belong” at the gym. A new sporty top can make you feel more athletic than an old T-shirt, just like a tuxedo makes us guys feel more suave than a pair of ripped sweatpants.
4. Go from group to solo workouts (or vice versa).
If you rely on another person to lead a workout, challenge your ability to self-motivate. Follow an identical routine on your own. Your sense of accomplishment – that you can claim all for yourself – may motivate you to exercise solo more often. If you work out individually, lead a buddy through your workout – teaching someone forces you to focus on a familiar routine differently. Rather than simply going through the motions, you must take a rudimentary approach yourself.
5. Go from inside to outdoors (or vice versa).
Change your surroundings. If you’re a gym rat, the outdoors may bring tougher terrain, which can challenge your strength and endurance in new ways. It can also bring more visual stimulation, which can make the workout seem shorter. If you’re a vehement outdoor exerciser, on the other hand, you may dread running on treadmills, but going inside can boost your mental stamina. Just as added resistance on the bar increases the difficulty of the bench press (and therefore its benefit), so too does the mental resistance of working out in less-than-ideal environments. Once you return to your familiar surroundings, rather than feeling bored, you’ll likely feel grateful and relieved.
6. Listen to a new type of music, or switch from music to a podcast (or vice versa).
Research abounds on how influential the right kind of music can be on our strength output, endurance and willingness to push through discomfort. While we claim to know what our “favorite” genre of music is, surely we haven’t tested them all. Experiment with different styles of music or changes in tempo, or revisit a playlist you haven’t listened to in decades. Or, try a podcast: For some, the intellectual stimulation can act as a helpful distraction from muscle burn or fatigue.
7. Think about something different.
Instead of letting your mind wander, try placing your attention differently. Practice mindful exercise – focusing exactly on how the muscle is lengthening, how your stomach expands from a deep inhalation before each rep or how your feet hit the pavement. Thinking of your focus like a flashlight, you can shine the light in different places to create the feeling of newness. Performing a barbell squat with your attention on your breathing, for instance, feels different than that same squat but with attention on the strength of your fingers gripped around the bar.