Should Exercise be Fun?
FUN: adjective - informal
1. amusing, entertaining, or enjoyable.
"it was a fun evening"
Do we have a right to demand fun from a process that is meant to be a challenge?
The entire exercise community exists along a spectrum ranging from "absolutely no fun" to "all the fun and none of the pain". Most practitioners, coaches, and enthusiasts fall somewhere in between, but just like any topic in the modern world - the extremes tend to grab the headlines.
Those who bury themselves in the processes, the grit, and the struggle feel that fun has no place in a training session. The time should be meant for sharpening your sword no matter how hard and uncomfortable it may make you feel. They'll say, "it's the pain that makes you stronger".
These are your dedicated powerlifters, olympic lifters, bodybuilders, crossfitters, marathon runners, triathletes, and ex-military coaches that find pleasure in discomfort and revel in the glory of doing what so many others will not.
Then there are those who want all of the fun and none of the pain. They pile into the spin studios to lose themselves in an hour long soundtrack of popular music and the deep moans and motivation of their favorite instructor. There are Zumba classes in every major fitness club, although dance in all of its varieties permeates nearly everywhere. There are also those with home DVDs and the downloadable workouts of the day that refuse to step foot in a fitness facility.
It's meant to stimulate the minds of the millennial, the stay-at-home-mom, and the person who couldn't possibly imagine themselves doing any of the things mentioned in the previous example. They feel the social pressure, the psychological and emotional vulnerability, and the discomfort that stems from stimulating physiological adaptations.
And of course, like anything else in this world there are those who fall right in the middle as well as dotted along the lateral spectrum - each person with a varying degree of "fun".
So what is right?
Before looking into the argument for each end of the spectrum let's first establish that the definition of fun will vary from person to person.
Some will find absolute pleasure from counting repetitions in a spiral notebook, sipping protein from a container, and casually waiting for their next set of barbell squats.
Others will embrace the burning sensations and chase the "pump" - each repetition building their body into a more sculpted being.
There are those of us who eagerly tie their laces a click past 6 AM and begin the action of placing one foot in front of the other until they have finished 5, 10, or even 15 miles. Others clip into their bikes and ride down the road, or go nowhere in a sweaty heap at their local spin class.
There are the yoga practitioners, the Pilates people, those who eagerly play pick up basketball and other sports, and of course - the crowd who only takes group classes that get their heart rate up.
On the other side there are those that find fun in six beers, four slices of pizza, and the company of friends. Workouts are just a means of survival meant to keep them from tipping into obesity and losing all sense of health and well-being. They abhor working out, but do so out of necessity.
Fun is a relative term. I love watching action movies, but my girlfriend finds most of them unnecessarily violent. She loves romantic comedies, and I find little pleasure from seeing Ryan Gosling shirtless in the rain. Our differences make the world go around.
But, in terms of prescribing fitness and pushing the world to be a healthier, better place - shouldn't' there be some standard of "fun"? How much is too much?
And most importantly, can you see progress and have fun at the same time?
First, let's examine the case for limiting the "fun" of a workout session -
1. Exercise is meant to challenge you
Study after study has been conducted that confirms progressive overload is the best way to continue to achieve results in regards to fitness. The simple translation: keep doing things that are hard enough to make your body adapt.
These things aren't meant to feel enjoyable like a theme park. They aren't meant to be so easy that you can watch a movie, talk deeply with your friends, or even play on your phone.
The exercise modality that causes the most change in the body is the one that pushes it towards its limits. Not way over the limits of course, but far enough over that line that your body knows things are getting tough and your body needs to adapt.
This happens when your training your strength using heavy loads that push you to a point of near failure and when you're starting mile ten. It also happens during that sprint that leaves you breathless, or when you are doing the final drop set of your bodybuilding program and it feels like your muscles are about to burst.
Being pushed to the brink of physical failure doesn't exactly amount to being "Fun" for most people. Those of us who love hardcore training - sure - but everyone else...
It's like taking sandpaper to your under carriage just for "fun".
So, it can provide an extremely intimidating mountain slope for someone just beginning their journey if they don't have that alpha mindset already. However, making the choice to go this direction is going to lead to ridiculous results. By chasing the challenges you'll achieve the win.
FUN sounds great when you want to get someone to move once or twice, but the long term adaptations come from grinding away at the necessary elements of fitness - no matter what the goals are.
2. Exercise adherence is a discipline that should be mastered
Exercise, in many ways, is like meditation. It requires focus within on the subtle body functions that we often take for granted. It requires coming to peace with everything out of your control in that moment and simply embracing what currently is.
Meditation, like learning to play an instrument, becoming a rocket scientist, or memorizing all the useful quotes from "How I met your mother" requires patience, determination, and a desire for true mastery.
Our exercise programs are just the same. Tuning into the depths of your core as you work your way through a set will only further your benefit. Mastering the ability to get in and out of tension during a deadlift or squat workout is critical to realize your true strength.
The most dedicated of the bunch savor this process. They eat, sleep, and dream about their next training session. It is their absolute commitment to the process that often leads them to exceptional progress. These are the ones we follow. They have the six pack abs, the six hundred pound deadlifts, the sub-3:30 marathons, the fast twitch athleticism, and so on.
Fun is something that these people do not make a priority. There are no spin classes with Kanye on the playlist, or yoga happy hours in the park. There is just the methodical metronome of their training schedule - something that in no time becomes their idea of "fun". The intrinsic desire to be great is enough.
This mentality is what separates the average from the good, and even more so - the good from the great.
It's what makes CEOs, doctors, law partners, elite athletes, famous musicians, and perfect bodies happen! It's the active chase of the tough that makes these individuals better than so many at their craft. It is the body of work at the end of the day, week, and month that they are most happy about...and not the chase of simple pleasures.
Greatness must have this quality, and so when deciding how you will exercise for your goals it is imperative that you figure this level of commitment into your plans.
Looking at these arguments it is easy to understand the concept that exercise is meant to make us better in the long term, and not happy in the short term. This workers mindset is one that leaves this group of individuals feeling empowered by their willingness to overcome basic desires and temptations and rise up to a higher level.
They aren't wrong. It takes incredible willpower to pass on the chicken parm at a fancy Italian restaurant, instead opting for a grilled salmon with vegetables. It takes drive to stick through your tenth set of back squats, your tenth set of sprints, or the tenth mile in your training run.
Embodying the values of the blue collar worker hell bent on mastery and success is always a good move.
But, it's often too intimidating to those just getting their feet wet in the exercise pool. It's too much to ask; too strict of a demand.
And so the industry has created that fun zone....
Let's examine the strongest case for making exercise fun
1. If it is fun it will be less painful and lead to a higher chance of happening again
Those who are in favor of putting a lot of fun in the workout argue that entertaining someone throughout their workout is necessary to keep them coming back. If you can make them smile and laugh just as much as they sweat and burn, then maybe, just maybe you'll change their life for good.
Take a look at the ZUMBA crowd. Now, I'm not one for going into Zumba and making moves on the dance floor. I've done it to support a friend who was teaching her first class, but it is not a method of exercise I prescribe my clients, my friends, or anyone else for the matter...
Unless they ask me about it, and seem extremely optimistic to get going and working out.
Because, seriously...who the hell am I to rain on the parade and tell them that what they are about to embark on doesn't account for progressive overload, the SAID principle, or any other base science principle that ensures muscle gain, fat loss, and world domination.
If I were to mention these things I wouldn't be wrong. I'd be a huge dick, but I wouldn't be wrong. ZUMBA isn't going to be the catalyst to make anyone win a fitness show, land on a magazine cover, or suddenly find the passion to spread EDM into the third world. But, it just might be the first spark in a long line of great decisions that eventually turn that individual into a bad ass dancer, fitness model, and DJ...
For so many, FUN gets them in the door.
I'll give you 500 bucks to get someone to smile during a grueling HIIT workout in the same way they'll smile when "Shape of You" drops on the studio floor.
The point of the FUN argument is that it shouldn't make you miserable to well for yourself. The chase of better health and wellness shouldn't be one that comes at the cost of your happiness, your well-being, and your emotional state.
It should be tough...sure...but it shouldn't be like watching a Grey's Anatomy marathon on football Sunday. Exercise should be inviting enough to make everyone want to join in, fun enough to make them stay, and hard enough to reward their efforts. Boutique studio fitness thrives on this business model, and for good purpose, they actually get people to keep coming. (The cult mentality certainly doesn't hurt).
So, now that we've taken a moment to examine both sides of the discussion let me tell you where I stand. As a person who loves exercise just as much as he loves a cold beer, hot wings, and good football game I feel qualified.
Every exercise program, no matter how serious you are, should have an element of FUN.
Yes, every single program...even yours Mr. Powerlifter. Yes you Mrs. Crossfit.
See, the fun doesn't have to be from start to finish. That's the misconception that the extremes of the argument use to disqualify the other. Die-hards think newbies just want to have a party complete with hats, pizza, and Chumbawamba. They assume they hate hard work and just want the results to magically happen on their way to another boozy brunch.
Newbies think die-hards just want to be miserable and hate themselves under the suction of their big headphones, the influence of their colored drinks, and the guidance of this crumpled notebook that comes out of their bag every time they finish a set.
And that's why we can't have nice things.
It could be as simple as a set of medicine ball exercises for those who like throwing things. A challenging pseudo-obstacle course for those who are doing conditioning...and the promise of a sweet cookie or donuts for the grueling deadlifts, squats, or biceps curls they are about to do.
As a coach - this is how I program.
As a group exercise coach - this is how I program.
As a guy in a bar who is constantly asked for fitness advice - this is how I sell my programs.
It's about doing what you need to do to move the proverbial needle. The deadlifts, the mobility exercises, the mileage, etc. Then it's about throwing some fun into the mix and letting the person be free. It's allowing the mind to relax and the body to work underneath the calm. It could be medicine ball throws, a fun agility drill, or the incorporation of a sport into their training habits.
Maybe they hate going heavy but love the feeling they get when they are out of breathe...or vice versa. My job is to give them what they need, but it doesn't mean I can't give them a little of what they want.
It may not even happen during my personal training sessions. It may be the homework I assign them on the days they aren't with me. I tell them to take that Zumba class, slap on their spin shoes, climb a mountain on a hike, swim laps...
It doesn't matter what their goals are - every single clients get at least one FUN DAY.
Some use it to rock climb at an indoor facility.
Others take a run with their significant other.
Whatever they choose - it gets maximum effort, minimum mental anguish, and all of the benefits of stress-free living. I want my clients to enjoy their challenges to some extent. But what's most important to me is that they enjoy their journey.
One Simple Fact
So many exercise professionals sit high and mighty as they preach what modalities of the practice will lead to the most desirable results. The die hard fitness fanatics look down on those who lack their drive and commitment to do the hardest things all the time. They revel in the grind and take pride in the denial of simple pleasures.
But for most exercise is hard enough as it is. Why wouldn't we make it fun?
Most people don't have the high tier goals that us fitness professionals/enthusiasts set for ourselves and our clients. Most people just want to lose a little weight, gain a little muscle, but feel a whole lot better. They most certainly don't want to be miserable. They most certainly shouldn't choose a late night squat sessions over a dinner with their family.
So, we need to move the needle back to the center where it belongs. Exercise is hard. It's hard to understand, hard to perfect, and hard to adhere to. Those of us who do it need to drop the bullshit and stick a hand out to those who need our expertise. So what if they want to have some fun while they sweat?
If a deep belly laugh can make my client keep coming back, then you'll be damn sure I'm working on my humor just as frequently as I'm refining my coaching craft.
Those who seek absolute fun need to make the concession that work must be done. This isn't meant to feel like watching a movie and throwing down milk duds. It's this fact that is why they've avoided it for so long.
So if they want change - they must change.
But they don't have to be miserable. Fun has a place in a workout just as laughter belongs in a funeral. It is these moments of glee that bring the sparkle back into our souls.
So work hard, sweat harder, but laugh and smile the hardest!