Workouts are work. There’s no way around that. Whenever you move matter through space and time, whether you’re displacing your own body weight or a barbell or a kettle bell, you’re doing work. It’s just physics. But there’s another meaning of “work”: an unpleasant but necessary activity that helps you achieve a desired outcome. Far too many of our workouts end up embodying this second definition. They’re chores, strains. That’s why so many people—all of whom know they should be exercising on a regular basis—remain sedentary, unfit, weak individuals. Physical activity is no longer required to survive. We don’t “have” to do it anymore. If it feels like a miserable experience, why would we?
There are ways to escape this mindset, though. There are ways to make your workouts feel more likely play and less like work. Let’s look at a few today, and I hope you’ll share what works for you in the comment section. Btw, I’ve included a video of me doing one of my favorites below.
Find an Activity That’s Intrinsically Rewarding
When training, extrinsic rewards are always going to be present. You’re always trying to look better naked, lose weight, hit a PR, get better health markers. But if your training is also intrinsically rewarding—if you derive satisfaction, pleasure, and meaning from the act of training itself— you’ll have no problems sticking with it. Only the hardest of hard core will maintain a training regimen they hate. Everyone will keep a training regimen they love. Find something you enjoy doing , that you’d do even if it provided no health or aesthetic benefits, and make that at least part of your training regimen.
If You Hate Something, Try Something Else
This is the most fundamental mindset shift. Don’t do things that you hate.
A workout doesn’t have to be a walk in the park . Not everything is going to leave you bursting with joy. But if your training regimen is leaving you miserable, if you dread it and find every excuse to skip it, that’s worth heeding.
Maybe you hate back squats, but front squats are downright enjoyable. Maybe you hate spin class, but hill sprints are fun. Maybe you hate dedicated cardio or HIIT sessions, but pickup basketball twice a week does the trick. Find an alternative that accomplishes the same thing.
Try Competing Against Other Entities
I enjoy competing against myself. I like beating my own records, surpassing my own achievements, improving on my former self. I also like competition against other humans. That’s why I ran marathons and competed in triathlon for so long—I liked beating the other guys. It’s also why I love Ultimate Frisbee. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of competition to make you forget about how hard you’re working and how great of a workout you’re getting.
Get Better Goals
Me? My goal is to play better:
- I want to be able to play Ultimate every weekend with guys 3o years younger (and keep up).
- I want to go out for a paddling session whenever I want and not have it feel like work.
- I want to hit the slopes all weekend and be able to drive home without my quads cramping up every time I hit the brake.
- And I want to do all that while staying injury-free.
My training focus, then, is to maintain: my fitness, my muscle mass, the viability of my connective tissue , my bone mineral density. I’m not going for PRs anymore because it’s too risky at this stage while bringing me no closer to my goals. But that’s fine. I’ve found what works for me and my goals. And it makes the more “boring” training that much more enjoyable, because I’m working toward something that I love and frankly need to be healthy and happy.
Half my training is play. The other half is training that supports the other half, the play, and gets me closer to it. I know what and I’m doing and why . Do you?
Integrate Training Into Your Work Day
When you’re plugging away behind the computer, take ten minutes to go for a walk , run some sprints in the stairwell, do a few sets of pushups and squats, or swing the kettlebell you keep in your office when you feel like a break. You’re still working, but it’s different. You’ve switched from the mental to the physical, and that change is everything. Suddenly you want to train, because it’s not filling out a report or writing another email.
The added benefit is that taking fitness breaks will make you more eager to get back to work and, thanks to better blood flow to the brain , more productive when you do.
A ten-minute break to move or train every hour is the sweet spot, I find.
Take Up a Martial Art
Humans have a predilection for violence . Human history is in many respects a history of violence. We all need to acknowledge that and integrate it. That doesn’t mean we should be violent. It means there’s nothing wrong—and perhaps a lot right—with developing our capacity for physical conflict in a controlled, safe environment. Sparring, not street fighting. Staying calm in tense situations, not freaking out and escalating. Roughhousing, not brawling.
One of my big regrets is not learning a martial art. I have been learning a bit with an experienced friend, who’s shown me a few things and runs drills with me, and that’s only made me realize how much I’ve missed out on. Don’t make that mistake.
Set a Few Rules
Making rules that “force” you to exercise can be liberating .
One rule I’ve been following lately is “exercise when Shanti (our dog) exercises.” I’ll take the ball or frisbee out to the park, and every time I throw it I’ll exercise until she brings it back. I’ll do as many pushups or bodyweight squats as I can. I’ll hold a plank. Maybe I’ll even bring a kettlebell along and do swings or overhead presses or cleans or goblet squats. Depending on how far you throw the ball and how fast your dog  is, you can end up doing short or long sets. This has ended up being one or two of my workouts each week.
Another example is people who hang pullup bars in a doorway and have the rule that they must do five (or however many) pullups each time they pass through. Without fail. If it’s a heavily trafficked part of the house, you might accumulate 30 or 40 pullups on an average day. Those add up.
Maybe you do squats while brushing your teeth. Or “sprint every hill you see.” Or “walk after every meal.” The point is to repeat these rules and stick to them until they’re part of you, and you find yourself training without making the decision to do it. What begins as an arbitrary rule (what rule doesn’t?) will eventually become sacrosanct.
If you have kids, this is a great way to spend some awesome family time. Have everyone hang out in the kitchen as you prep dinner. Throw on some music. Dance . Get silly. Try something new, don’t be afraid to really move. A Spotify (or similar service) account works well here, because you can create playlists and just throw them on when needed.
I’m partial to the “A to Z of African Dance ” YouTube video. Great beat, great dancing, and it’ll give you some good ideas to try that provide a good workout.
Go Creek Walking
Don’t have a creek at hand? Apologies. If you do, however, I want you to visit it at least once a week for the next month—and spend at least an hour during each visit traveling up and down it, jumping from rock to rock, balancing on logs, wading through the water, squatting down to look for crawdads (or crayfish) and frogs and salamanders (but definitely not newts), sprinting up banks, crawling, lifting heavy rocks and logs. It’s a great opportunity to get a variety of movement patterns, expose yourself to nature, and get some barefoot  time.
Make the World Your Playground
No matter where you live, the environment offers a wide variety of options for movement, play, and exercise.
Trees: Climb them, do pull-ups on the branches, do handstand pushups against the trunk.
Stairs: Run them, jump them, bear crawl up and down them.
Park Benches: Jump over them, crawl on the back, balance on the back.
Hills: Roll down them then sprint back up.
Traffic Lights: pull-ups, sprint across intersections (when green).
Curbs: Treat like balance beams, do calf raises (or stretches) off the edge, single leg hops up and down.
Target (Store): Hurdle and climb those big red balls they have at the entrance (beware of dirty looks from parents whose kids try to emulate you).
Everything is an opportunity for movement and exercise. You just have to be willing to stand out.
I’d say make the local playground your playground, but certain cities have strict laws against adults using playgrounds without children. Too bad.
Still, know you can always add workout “toys” to your own the backyard (or a willing friend’s if you don’t have one yourself). The slackline has been one such piece of play equipment for me. Check it out.