Even if you like exercise, it can be a drudge. But there are plenty of ways to mix up your regime to make it more joyful. Here is what works for readers, athletes and fitness experts.
1. Try a group class
Samantha Clayton (née Davies), who represented Great Britain in athletics at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, admits to “feeling dread” before some workouts. Her remedy? “I fit in group classes at least twice a week. Training alone is so tough, even for the most seasoned exerciser. The best gift you can give yourself is the gift of community.”
While lockdown revolutionised home workouts in a way not seen since the 1980s, a 2017 study found that you will probably work harder and get more out of the experience if you go to an in-person class. Also, synchronicity during exercise, be it movements in an aerobics class or breathing in yoga, has been shown to provide a boost.
Cate Duffy, from west London, attends Quit the Gym at her local park, which has helped her train for a half marathon: “The best bit is the banter and support from the community of all ages, backgrounds and fitness levels,” she says. “I always finish the class smiling. It’s more like playtime.”
Then, of course, there is parkrun. Participants report improved physical and mental health, while volunteers achieve even higher happiness levels. If it becomes a habit, the personal bests and endorphins will keep on coming.
2. Turn up the tunes
A 2019 study by Brunel University found that music increased participants’ enjoyment of exercise by almost one-third. It has also been found to reduce the perception of exertion. Music is better than a podcast or audiobook. Although any music will do, synching movement to a well-curated playlist of your favourite tunes is most uplifting.
The disability activist and inclusive-dance champion Kate Stanforth chooses songs based on beats per minute. “I have playlists divided into tempos, so that, on a day I’m not doing so well, I can still play upbeat songs I love, but at a slower pace. On a day I’m feeling good, I have the option to dance or cycle faster. I also find that getting through a song, or a chorus, is better for me than focusing on calories, time or speed.”
Clayton also uses music to get in the zone. “When I’m trying to find the motivation for a workout, I rely heavily on my playlist and pre-workout drink to get me fired up. Also, a little caffeine can go a long way in energising your body to push through. A drop of peppermint essential oil on my wrist wakes up my brain and improves my focus.”
3. Find your tribe
Lewis Ridley, who lives in Liverpool, was one of the many people who took up running during lockdown. “After initially finding it really difficult, I had a breakthrough after hearing on the radio Jimmy from Running Punks, the online running community,” he says. “It connects people through a shared love of running and music.”
4. Just move!
As Caroline Williams, the author of Move: The New Science of Body Over Mind, puts it: “The simple act of moving yourself forward through space does some surprisingly profound things to the way you think and feel. Studies have got people to walk forward through space and found it distorts our perception of time – it makes it feel like the past is further behind you and you are physically moving into the future.” This makes it harder to think of negative things. “One of the easiest ways to motivate yourself is to get up and move forwards – it can really change the way you feel.”
5. Dance like nobody’s watching
Dance is a particularly effective way of finding pleasure while exercising, says Williams. “We have this idea that dance has to be something you are great at,” she says, but leaping around your kitchen does the job fine. “You think you are going to fall and then you don’t – and that feels really good.”
6. Dance like a pro
Anya, from Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, never danced as a child, but took up ballet at 30. “I was terrible at social dancing and realised I had no body vocabulary,” she says. “My legs went from jelly to strong pillars of support in a few months. Being able to control muscles and motion so finely is completely new to me. Every class, I gain a bit more ability. When I can do one thing just slightly better, I smile ecstatically.”
7. Get outside
There are many benefits to exercising outdoors, from improving your mood and your sleep to reducing stress. Exercising in nature not only increases our connection with the natural world, but also exposes us to the associated sensations of awe, which are well documented for their mood-enhancing properties. Embrace the warmer weather and get out there.
8. Make it routine
For some, joyful exercise is a matter of building it into daily life. Phil Langton, in Bath, walks or cycles nearly everywhere and never takes a lift. “If I need to work a few other muscles, I use an elastic strap while the kettle boils, rather than weights.”
9. The more, the merrier
The more you do it, the more tolerable it becomes. April Brown, from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, manages to squeeze in 30 miles of running a week and four sessions of high-intensity interval training, along with daily yoga. “There’s no better feeling than being fit and strong,” she says.
10. Sign up for something
Swim the Channel, take part in an Ironman or even strip off for a naked 5k. Participation events make you feel like an Olympian and are the perfect motivation to keep training on the hardest of days. Even better: raise money while doing it.
11. Set a goal
Four months ago, Jonathan Wilson, from York, started on blood pressure tablets at 60 after “decades of denial”. His fitness goal was to lose weight and perhaps get off his medication. “Every week, some more weight comes off, I write it down and plot a chart – that’s all the motivation I need.”
12. Reward yourself
Whether the prize is food or the final episode of a box set, there is no harm in incentivising activities. You will enjoy your treat all the more for knowing you have worked for it. During physical activity, dopamine is released in the brain’s reward system, which fosters feelings of optimism.
13. Chase a runner’s high
This is not limited to running. Exercise is known to trigger various parts of the brain that bring pleasure and other benefits, including stress relief, connectedness and courage. Find out what gets you to that place.
14. Breathe better
Breathwork is helpful on many levels. When exercising, engage your diaphragm for deeper breathing that will bring more oxygen to your body, help you push harder and avoid stitches. Try apps such as Calm or Headspace to practise mindfulness techniques that can help you to focus, get through the tougher moments of your workout and generally feel more in touch with your body.
15. Chase zombies
Fiona Brennan, from Worcester, says she always struggled to keep up a fitness regime until she discovered the app Zombies, Run!. As the name suggests, “you escape zombies, uncover a story and feel a part of it”, she says. She loves it so much that she ran every day in January. “I now willingly do speed training, the most evil of all runs.”
Alternatively, make map art on Strava. Dominate your fitness app leaderboards. Orienteer. We are playful, competitive creatures.
16. Sign up to a fight club
Zed, from Glasgow, says he finds “great joy in being chucked around several times a week by the men and women of all ages that I now call friends at a mixed martial arts club. It’s a good way to break away from the monotony of spreadsheets, while the technical aspects of learning new skills and strategies challenge my mind and body. Truly the game of human chess.”
17. Run with a furry friend
Dan Weston runs around Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire and beyond with his dog, Kali. “If I need any nudge to get out, it’s usually enough knowing how much she gets out of it,” he says. “The ‘flow state’, when we are on a trail, cruising along, is unbeatable.”
18. Get loved up
In a study of older couples who exercised together, they reported feeling closer after a session, due to the sense of collective joy that doing fitness with others brings.
19. Look the part
Athleisure wear has never been better. Whether you want to dress like you are heading for Centre Court at Wimbledon or like Jane Fonda, you can take on a whole new identity while keeping fit.
20. Go ‘naked’
Ditch the apps, watches and headphones and exercise free, escaping modern technology – if only for half an hour.
21. Rediscover a childhood passion
After a 20-year hiatus, Emily Bristow, from Newport in Wales, got back into tennis in 2021 when she lost both parents: “I threw myself into it, playing doubles in the women’s league and winning a few promotions. Last summer, I entered the club’s women’s singles tournament, having finished runner-up as a junior more times than I can remember. This time, I won it. It was a huge achievement for me.”
22. Join a team
Grace Birchall, from Ruislip in west London, swears by netball. “Team sport is the most fun version of exercise, where you aren’t even aware that you are working out. If we have a match or training, there is so much more riding on whether I turn up or not for my team than if I did it alone.” She recommends the scheme Back to Netball for anyone keen to get into it again as an adult.
23. Take up something new
Trapeze, kayaking, pickleball. The less familiar it is, the less you will notice the work involved. Head to TikTok, where personal trainers and influencers are trialling everything from wall pilates to soft hiking and treadmill struts.
24. Dive in
Andrew Vermes swims every day, mostly in a local pool in Sussex, but also in open water, off Brighton pier or in Lake Balaton in Hungary. “It is a bit like meditation,” he says. “I focus on the small things all the time: the angle of my hands, my breathing, the cadence of kicks, the feeling of the water as I move. I try to change these to see what happens and keep the exercise interesting.”
25. Pump iron
Bex Evans, from Bristol, finds weightlifting much more satisfying than other forms of fitness. “Even if it’s adding just 1kg more to the bar, or being able to squeeze out one more rep than last week, it’s all progress. It’s a great weekly mood-boost that makes you feel super-strong and powerful.”
26. Play to your strengths
Nadia Gilani, the author of The Yoga Manifesto, says exercise should be a tool for feeling better about life. “If you think you should be practising yoga, meditating or going to the gym, but find yourself not wanting to, it might be worth finding something else that you’re drawn to and pursuing that. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. It’s usually a sign that it’s time for a different approach.”
Alan Russell, a fitness instructor in County Durham, says not to fight your personality or genetics. “When you find an activity that resonates with your body and mind, you will love doing it and find others who love it, too. The worst of fitness is trying to make you something you’re not. Celebrate who you are.”
27. Throw out the rules
Russell adds: “I don’t have a set plan for workouts, just a rough outline. Some days, I won’t feel like doing heavy weights, so I switch to light weights and go with high reps. If I start to put on body fat, I increase my cardio and dial back the weights. If I’m tired, I take the day off. Having to follow a set plan every workout would kill the joy.”
Take a different route on your cycle, vary your gym programme, try a new class. Mix it up.
28. Drink less alcohol
Excessive alcohol intake can play havoc with hydration and fatigue, inhibiting performance and satisfaction levels. A bad workout is not a fun one.
29. Know your limits
Don’t overdo it. Seek advice when you are injured. Rest when you are unwell.
30. Be proud
Whatever you manage to do, feel proud that you did anything at all. There is a certain level of enjoyment in that itself – and the knowledge that, afterwards, you can chill.