Hacks to Become a Better Exerciser

When it comes to exercise, do you ever cheat just a little?  It's something we all may do at one point or another, maybe without even realizing it.

Cheating can involve any number of things - Mindlessly going through a workout without paying attention, not lifting enough weight to really challenge you, never breaking a sweat or even just doing the same workouts day after day without a single change.

Sometimes a cheat here or there is fine, but if you do these kinds of things all the time, you really are cheating yourself out of something critical for fitness and weight loss:  Getting the absolute most out of your exercise time. 

It's not just about burning calories, it's about knowing your body's limits so that you can challenge those limits.

So, how can you become a better exerciser?  Here are 5 hacks to keep you on the straight and narrow.

Use a Heart Rate Monitor

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When you workout, what's the single most important thing you need to do?  If you said, "Show up," that's a good answer.  Another good one is this:  Monitor your exercise intensity.

Intensity is where you get the most bang for your buck if you're trying to lose weight because the harder you work, the more calories you burn.

If you don't monitor your intensity, your workouts may be a little hit or miss without you even realizing it.  It's easy to slack off when there's no accountability.  That translates to workouts that don't give you the results you're looking for.

While there are subjective tools you can use, like Perceived Exertion and the Talk Test You need something more objective, something that won't let you lie to yourself about how hard you're really working.  You need a heart rate monitor.

A Heart Rate Monitor for Better Exercise

A heart rate monitor (HRM) is one of the best ways to maximize your workout time for a variety of reasons. An HRM offers:

  • An objective measurement of your exercise intensity.  By figuring out your target heart rate zones and making sure you work in those zones, you can maximize your workout time and avoid the frustration of weight loss plateaus. More about calculating your heart rate zones and how to find your target heart rate.
  • No More 'Easy' Workouts - It's easy to fudge things when you're using a Perceived Exertion Scale - if you get a little breathless you may think, "Man, I'm working hard!" But, pair that with an actual heart rate and you can actually see how hard you're working. If you look down and see your heart rate is only, say, 110 beats per minute, which falls in the easy warm up phase for most of us, you realize you can bump up the intensity.
  • No More Second-Guessing Yourself - Using your heart rate, you can actually plan out your workouts each week, choosing workouts or settings that put you in different areas of your target heart rate zones. For example: Maybe Monday, you want to work hard with some high intensity interval training, so you'll try to get your heart rate into the high end of your zone during your work intervals. Tuesday may be a good day for a recovery workout, maybe steady state training at a moderate intensity. Using your heart rate monitor, you can insure you're working all of your energy systems and working at a variety of intensities, which is the best way to burn more fat, avoid overtraining and keep your body and mind interested.
  • A New Way to Track Your Fitness Level and Health- You may not realize this, but your heart rate can actually be a measure of fitness. There are two things you can track with your heart rate monitor: How your heart rate changes over subsequent workouts and how quickly your heart rate recovers during high intensity workouts. If you realize you have to work harder and harder to reach the same heart rate, that's a sign you're getting stronger and more fit. However, if your heart rate is higher than usual, even doing the same activities you normally do, that could be a sign of overtraining.

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Listen to the Right Music

Woman exercising with music
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Most of us probably know that working out without music is like eating without food - Impossible.  And there are some very good reasons to list to music when you exercise.

Why Music Makes You a Better Exerciser

One study, published in The Sport Journal, suggests that music can distract your mind from fatigue, which lowers the perception of effort.  Not only that, it can lift your mood and reduce feelings of tension, depression and anger.

Of course, the right music is the music you love, so that's always the best place to start.  However, studies shows that synchronizing your music with rhythmic exercise like running, walking or cycling is associated with increased levels of work output. 

The best way to do that?  With an App.

Find the Perfect Music App

  • Motion Traxx - This app offers a variety of guided workouts on everything from the treadmill or elliptical to a stationary bike, all with funky house music.  This is perfect for when you want to do intense interval training.  There's also a free Motion Traxx Podcast (Deekron the Fitness DJ no longer runs it), but you can get tons of music at a variety of BPMs.
  • Fit Radio - This app doesn't offer music at a certain BPM, but you can choose your playlist by genre and you get a free trial before you have to pay.
  • Rock My Run -This collection of music mixes build in BPMs during your workout and it also has Body Driven Music™ to adjust the tempo to match your steps or goal cadence.
  • PaceDJ - This awesome website helps you find music and entire playlists that fit your perfect workout pace.

Update Your Playlists

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Add Intervals to Your Workout

Stairs Exercise
Stairs Exervise. Cameron Spencer / Staff / Getty Images

Interval training is nothing new and, in fact, it's become the new 'It' way of training.  Why?  Because these workouts are short, intense and effective. 

For the record, interval training simply involves adding intensity for a short period of time and then recovering, repeating that for the length of your workout. Yes, that's a very broad definition, but I've got more specifics for you.

Why Interval Training Makes You a Better Exerciser

  • If you're doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), you can build endurance more quickly than with steady state training.
  • Anyone can do HIIT since it's based on each person's perceived exertion.  That means you only have to work at a level that feels intense to you - That may be walking up a few stairs, if you're a beginner, or sprinting all out if you're advancedThat may be sprinting all out or it may be walking very fast.
  • Interval training is great if you're easily bored
  • Interval training can increase the afterburn, which helps you burn more calories even after your workout
  • Interval workouts save time - Because they're intense, they're shorter, giving you more time to do other things.

Do It Yourself Interval Training

Aerobic Interval Training - If you're not into all out intensity yet, don't worry.  You can start with aerobic interval training.  This involves working just a little harder than your baseline (or comfortable) pace for a period of time and then going back to a moderate intensity. Here's an Aerobic Interval Workout that gives you an idea of what I'm talking about.

Anaerobic Interval Training - This is a form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) that frankly, takes you to a level of 'Killer' on the 'how hard am I working?' scale. That means you're going all out, hitting a level 9 or 10 on this Perceived Exertion Scale during your intervals. That means you leave nothing in the fuel tank, making this a very tough and advanced workout.

The Simplest 7-Minute Interval Workout

  • Warm up by marching in place or around the house for about 2 minutes
  • 30 seconds: Step touches with big arms
  • 30 seconds: Puddle jumpers
  • 30 seconds: Step touches with big arms
  • 30 seconds: Jumping Knee Smashes
  • 30 seconds: Jog or March in Place
  • 30 seconds: High Knee Jogs
  • 30 seconds: Jog or March in Place
  • 30 seconds: Bear crawls
  • 30 seconds: Step touches with big arms
  • 30 seconds: Burpees

Go through and repeat the workout as many times as you like. Make sure you cool down and stretch at the end.

Interval Training Apps

  • Interval Timer for HIIT Training and Workouts
  • Seconds Pro - This one is $4.99, but I really like it because you can use it for regular interval training, Tabata Training, Circuit Training and more.
  • 7 Minute Workout - This app is based on a scientific study published in the ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal stating that short, high intensity workouts are a great choice for busy, stressed out people.
  • Workouts + - This isn't necessarily just for interval training, but it's a fun way to create any kind of workout you want with your own music.

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Don't Just Exercise - Have Some Fun

Woman with a med ball
Getty Images/Ruth Jenkinson

Sometimes, we cheat ourselves by not working hard enough, skipping workouts or just phoning it in when we know we could be working harder.

Other ways we cheat ourselves?  By only doing structured workouts.  You may forget that too much structure can suffocate you, making you feel burned out and bored with your workouts.

One cure for that is to give yourself some free time and do something fun.

Why Having Fun Can Make You a Better Exerciser

You know why we exercise?  A big reason is because we're supposed to.  We know we sit too much and we need to lose weight and we need to stay healthy as we age and blah blah blah, but what we forget is this:  Moving our bodies doesn't always have to about that. 

Moving our bodies can be a simple pleasure that all those structured workouts allow us to enjoy.

Having fun with your body now and then reminds you of what's important - Feeling good.

How to Ditch the Boredom

  • Leave your watch or activity monitor at home - Pick a day when you don't have to worry about time (if you can do that) and go out for a walk or run.  Pay attention to your surroundings and forget about calories or intensity or time.  Smell a rose!
  • Play - Play with the dog, with the kids, with your spouse - Toss a Frisbee, throw a ball, wrestle with your dog...just forgot about life for awhile and pretend like you've got nothing to worry about.
  • Hula Hoop - It's fun, once you remember how to do it, and it's a great core exercise.
  • Go ice skating - Falling down burns calories too.
  • Get out your jump rope - Try this Jump Rope Circuit or put on some music and jump however you want.  It's a great workout and it's different than the usual.
  • Swim like a kid - Get in the pool and see how far you can swim while holding your breath.  Do front flips and back flips.  Stand on your hands.  Do the things you used to do when you were a kid.  Sure, people will stare, but at least you're having fun!

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Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Woman swinging kettlebell
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I love my comfort zone.  It's just so...well...comfortable there.  Strolling at a nice easy pace, feeling like you could go at that pace forever. 

It's hard to let go of that sweet, happy place, I know.

Why Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone Makes You a Better Exerciser

Getting out of that happy place serves a number of purposes.  First, it forces you to challenge your body and that's really the only way to make real, lasting changes.

Second, it builds confidence.  No matter how much we exercise, there's always a little fear at the beginning if a workout.  Maybe it will hurt, maybe we won't make it, maybe we'll die. 

But, once you practice going there, you'll know that you can challenge yourself and you can do more than you think.  You're stronger than you think.

How to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

  • Go faster- Add short pick ups to your walks, runs or bike rides.  See how fast you can go before you have to slow down.
  • Add plyometric exercises to your workouts - If you're on a machine, every few minutes get off and do a series of plyo jacks or a burpees
  • Lift heavier - Don't be afraid of the heavy weights!  Go heavier than normal and see how much you can lift.  Use good form, of course.
  • Try a different kind of training - Try a spin class or aerial yoga.  If you usually take a class, try working out solo and see how that feels.
  • Change your strength workouts - Try different types of equipment - bands instead of dumbbells or machines instead of free weights.
  • Reverse your workout - One of my favorite ways of training is to turn my strength workouts upside and start with the last exercise, working my way up.  It completely changes how the workout feels.

Sources:

Foster, Carl, Ph.D., Courtney V. Farland, and Flavia Guidotti, Ph.D. "ACE-SPONSORED RESEARCH: HIIT vs. Steady-State Training." The American Council on Exercise. The American Council on Exercise. Web. 2 Mar. 2016. <https://www.acefitness.org/prosourcearticle/5793/ace-sponsored-research-hiit-vs-steady-state>.

U.S. Sports Academy. "Music in Sport and Exercise : An Update on Research and Application." The Sport Journal. United States Sports Academy. Web. 02 Mar. 2016. <http://thesportjournal.org/article/music-sport-and-exercise-update-research-and-application/>.

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