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4 Ways to Stick to Your Exercise Regimen

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Once upon a time, just surviving on planet Earth was strenuous enough that human beings didn't need formal exercise to stay in shape. In the distant past, mammoth-hunting was a real calorie-burner; and until very recently, even office jobs required people to occasionally stand up and walk down the hall to hand-deliver a memo.

Now, thanks in large part to the digital economy and a dwindling pedestrian culture in the U.S., pretty much none of us move as much as we should—and studies repeatedly show that it's not good for us, particularly as we get older. But despite being well-versed in the importance of getting more exercise, many people struggle to make it a part of their daily lives, let alone a part they enjoy.

Here's how you can start transforming your workouts from a miserable requirement into something you actually look forward to.

1. MAKE IT SOCIAL. 

Studies show that workout buddies can be a powerful asset for those with couch potato inclinations (because everything is more fun with friends). But what if you can't find someone who wants to be your date to the gym four times a week? Actually, there's an app for that.

But you don't need a designated "buddy" to tap into the magic of social motivation. From connecting with your friends on MyFitnessPal to joining fitness challenges on Instagram, there are dozens of ways to make exercise a social event. And offline, the people you run into every week at the squat rack or in your favorite group exercise class are a built-in community. Befriend them, and voila! A new reason to look forward to your workouts.

2. THINK OUTSIDE THE TREADMILL. 

The best exercise program is one you enjoy sticking to. So if you enjoy legging out five miles on an elliptical while watching Real Housewives on the gym TV, then hey, more power to you. But if not, then realize that exercise doesn't have to happen in the gym, or even to be billed as "a workout," to be worthwhile. Maybe you'd prefer to get moving at your local dance studio, with a ballet, hip-hop, or ballroom class. Martial arts like Krav Maga or Brazilian jiu jitsu will give you an incredible workout and a useful new set of skills; so will circus arts like aerial silks or acrobatics. An hour a day of free jump at the trampoline park? Yep, that counts. And at this time of year, just about anything you do outside—from skiing to skating to shoveling snow—doubles as serious exercise.

3. MAKE YOUR EXERCISE TANGIBLY REWARDING—NOT JUST THEORETICALLY "HEALTHY."

Personal trainer Dick Talens explains that the most important element of any workout program is a "positive feedback loop." In other words, an ideal exercise regimen should show progress, making you want to keep going for the sake of seeing more progress. Knowing intellectually that it's good to lift weights three times a week won't motivate you to hit the gym when you're tired and sore and don't feel like leaving the comfort of your couch—but looking back at your records from two weeks ago and seeing yourself getting stronger? That'll do it. 

In practice, this means finding a way to exercise that lets you see how you improve, especially if you don't enjoy exercising for its own sake. So whatever you're doing, give yourself small, achievable goals to strive for: setting a new deadlift personal record; finally lifting your feet off the ground and balancing in crow pose; or seeing yourself log new distances in a structured program like Couch to 5K.

4. REMEMBER: THE BEST TIME TO EXERCISE IS ANYTIME.

Many experts recommend working out in the morning, simply for consistency's sake: Exercising first thing means it's done before you can put it off. But unless you're a hardcore athlete who's experimenting with fasted workouts and nutrient timing, the most important thing about exercise is simply that you do it—anytime, anywhere, any way that works for you. And the best workout is one that you not only enjoy, but are awake enough to put real effort into. So if you're not the type to get up at the crack of dawn for Zumba, but you are the type to sling kettlebells around your living room at midnight to a steady soundtrack of disco hits, then there's absolutely no reason to do what doesn't come naturally.

All images courtesy of iStock

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Smiling Could Improve Your Athletic Performance—But Your Grins Can't Be Fake
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Athletes obviously enjoy breaking a sweat, but it’s not often that you’ll see one break into a smile while in the throes of competition. Yet that’s exactly what many coaches instruct them to do: Grinning mid-race has been said to relax muscles and boost physical performance. Recently, a group of researchers put this theory to the test, according to The New York Times. Their findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales instructed a group of 24 non-professional runners—both men and women—to shift between smiles and scowls while running on a treadmill. The volunteers were told that the experiment would measure how certain factors affected the amount of oxygen they used while jogging at various running speeds.

For the experiment’s first stage, runners wore face masks that measured their breathing. As they exercised until fatigue, researchers asked them to rate how they felt and report their coping strategies—for example, whether were they ignoring their pain or embracing it.

The study’s second segment required volunteers to engage in four individual runs, each lasting for six minutes. Mid-run, they were told to smile both genuinely and continuously, to scowl, to relax their torsos using a visualization technique, or to simply fall back on their usual endurance mindsets.

Smiles didn’t always improve runners’ performances. A few subjects picked up the pace while grimacing, possibly because these “game faces” made them ultra-determined to beat their personal records. But overall, runners with smiles were nearly 3 percent more efficient than normal. While seemingly insignificant, this difference is large enough to affect someone’s race performance, experts say.

Keeping in mind the study’s small size, the authors conclude that exercising while smiling might reduce muscular tension and thus amp up performance. But in order to gain this positive effect, athletes must beam genuinely. Fake smiles, like the kind you’ll see in school pictures, don’t work as many facial muscles, and therefore result in lower levels of relaxation.

Since it’s hard for anyone (let alone a focused athlete) to maintain an authentic smile during prolonged periods of strenuous activity, scientists suggest smiling near a race’s end, in 30-second intervals.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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