I have a confession.
I hate working out.
I'm sorry. I know I've been telling you over and over how good it is for your body and your brain. But I can't stand it.
We'll call it a side effect of growing up as a nerd who was perpetually alienated in gym. I have a sort of cold disdain for the concept of standing in place lifting things over and over. Running on a treadmill for an hour.
If you're like me, have faith. I am not one to just leave a problem lying on the table. I eventually convinced myself to work out five days a week. I just had to figure out how to make it not feel like working out.
For me, the problem was the idea of wasting my brain while my body improved itself. I've always found my body to in some ways be a remnant of the lives humans used to live. Sure, I could get really strong by lifting weights, but why would I do that when my mind could be lifting the weights instead?
To me, exercise needed to demand something from my brain. It had to be something that could make me smarter while making me healthier.
Most people call this boredom. Lifting weights is boring. Treadmills are boring. What we think of as 'exercise' is boring, and when the brain is bored, it makes it really easy to focus in on muscle burn, sweat, heat, and the other kind of unpleasant parts of a workout.
My solution was to find something that engaged my brain, and even more specifically, the puzzle solving part of my brain that is thrilled by learning to overcome challenges creatively. I started indoor bouldering.
Bouldering is just rock climbing, but with really short routes that are challenging in unique ways. Little puzzles that you could work to overcome one by one.
You can see where even though to some extent you're doing some variation on pull ups and climbing ladders, it doesn't feel like just plain exercise. It feels like accomplishment. It's tangible progress.
For you, the solution may be different, but ultimately what you need to do is engage the parts of your brain that feel short-term rewards so that you can reap the long-term benefits.
Exercise That Doesn't Feel Like Exercise
I've to some extent covered it, but rock climbing doesn't feel like exercise. It feels like play. It feels like being a kid again, and wandering onto a playground. Doing things you aren't supposed to do as an adult.
Indoor and outdoor rock climbing both engage tons of muscle groups and teach you about moving your body in new and intelligent ways. To get started though, for indoor bouldering, all you need is a chalk bag and some climbing shoes.
If you play video games, this exercise is, to me, the closest thing to playing a video game with your body. Puzzles have ratings, and as you improve in climbing, you step up to new ratings levels.
Climbing is not about brute strength. In fact you'll see a lot of guys with too much muscle having a tough time because it's a very technique and thought based activity.
Kayaking is like running with your arms, and depending how stable your kayak is, can also be a killer core workout.
While moving around on a kayak really is pretty straightforward arm workout, the places you can go on a kayak and the serene feeling of gliding across the water completely negate any downsides of tired arms.
Kayaking can give you killer arms, a killer core, and a peaceful break during your day. Obviously this one is going to depend on where you live, ideally on a somewhat smooth body of water.
Similarly, you will need to be near the ocean to surf, but ask anyone who surfs and nobody will call it exercise. They will, however, be in mad shape if they do it often.
This is great exercise for your arms paddling out, and when you're riding the waves, excellent exercise for all the stabilizers throughout your body, with particular emphasis on a super strong core.
As another bonus, try to be caught up in feeling tired when you're just aching for another chance to glide back to shore by the power of nature. You can't do it.
Hiking is a tremendous activity that will enrich your life and give you some great exercise for your legs. Think of this as the stairmaster, except you get to discover beautiful environments and snap great photos for your instagram. #winning
Barriers to entry include buying a decent pair of shoes. You ought to have some anyway.
Swimming laps in a pool might be a little rough. Swimming around a lake or taking a swim in the ocean (know what you're doing when it comes to undertow and riptides, this can be extremely dangerous) can feel like exploring as well as getting one of the best full body workouts there is.
Various practices of martial arts teach effective body movement and work tons of muscle groups, and it's another activity that feels more mental than physical. Much like climbing, practices like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are about learning new techniques, being defeated by other techniques, and learning new techniques to combat those.
It has a very natural flow of improvement and learning that can make you feel more confident in your day to day life as well.
"WHAT?!?! Running is like... the most boring."
I know it.
The thing is, when rock climbing for my exercise, I needed a way to train cardio and legs, since they went a little bit by the wayside in bouldering.
So to make running 'not boring', I tried two different approaches. The first was to listen to podcasts. Educating myself about finances and nutrition while running.
It worked well. You can 'read' a book on tape while running, and get reading back into your life.
After that, however, I kind of dove in the opposite way. I embraced that running in place is boring, and instead turned my time on the elliptical into a place for mindfulness meditation. To clear my mind between mental workouts. 45 minutes of not working out my brain.
Whatever constitutes boring to you, you need to avoid it. Stop thinking that exercise needs to be done in a gym with weights or a treadmill. Choose something you find moderately intriguing, and take a stab at it. You might just discover a passion for a recreational activity that brings you a lifetime of good health without ever stepping into a 24 Hour Fitness.
Let us know your favourite activities to exercise without 'working out' in the comments below!