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How To Trick Yourself Into Working Out Harder Without Even Realizing It

Prevention logo Prevention 6/23/2015
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We've all been there: You applaud yourself for visiting the gym to make strides on exercise, but you end up feeling bored in just 5 minutes. Staring at a white wall isn't exactly motivation to sweat harder. And while the idea of focusing on something other than your pace might seem a bit nuts, recent research shows that multitasking during certain types of exercise can do wonders for your mind—and for your workout.

In a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, University of Florida researchers had a group of older male and female participants cycle in a quiet room while performing 12 different cognitive tasks which included saying "go" whenever a blue star appeared on a screen, naming different colors, memorizing patterns on tic-tac-toe boards, repeating long lists of numbers backward, and solving math problems. Aside from the hardest task—the math problem—the participants actually improved their thinking and cycled 25% faster once they completed the easier tasks.  

"Some people actually doubled their speed, but they weren't aware of it," says Lori Altmann, PhD, the study's author and associate professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The key to increasing the intensity of your exercise is to find continuous activities that are fun, fast-paced, easy, and engaging for your brain and that are somewhat interactive, Altmann says. 

But something that doesn't require enough brainpower (watching TV) or something that demands too much (answering emails), won't help you reap the same results; they can actually slow you down.

"If you give anyone a cognitive task while walking, they're going to slow their pace. You have to maintain a full-body posture, and you transfer all of your weight to one side when you step," Altmann says. "When you're cycling, you don't have to think about when or how much to move one foot or the other because the pedal is going to do it. Cycling doesn't demand as much of the cognitive resources in your brain."

So the next time you get an urge to cycle (or hit the elliptical—studies have shown it could provide similar benefits), try one of these brain-boosting tasks and get ready to sweat:

1. Play your favorite mobile game.

This is probably the most effective way to score, Altmann says. Research shows that video games improve learning. And if you're really into what you're playing, not only will you go faster, but time will go by faster, too.

2. Grab an easy novel to read.

"Our hypothesis is that you really have to concentrate on what you're doing, and it has to be going pretty fast," Altmann says. "A novel that takes you away to another world would probably work, but it would have to be really captivating." She recommends an effortless read instead—like a romance novel—that will really get your blood moving. Check out our list of the top 100 books every woman should read for ideas.

3. Listen to an interesting podcast.

Look for suspenseful story-telling types that aren't too tough to follow, like the popular Serial, NoSleep, or True Murder podcasts, Altmann suggests. Even better: these stories are fast-paced and will have you on the edge of your seat—literally.

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