Reebok conducted a piece of market research involving 15,000 women from 25 different countries to assess participation and attitudes to exercise. Only 25% exercised regularly, and two thirds said they would exercise more if exercise was more fun. Personally I can't help but wonder if that is partly a (weak) excuse not to exercise, however, my personal feelings aside, that is a powerful statistic, and one that shouldn't be ignored if we want to get more people into exercise, and something for you to consider if you are thinking of beginning an exercise programme.
Some of the key questions that need answering are:
1. What makes one type of exercise fun and another less so?
It strikes me that we immediately have a problem here. What is fun to one person is not to another. Some people think Zumba is fun, whilst I would rather get kicked in the nuts than suffer an hour of incessant positivity and dancing in a studio. That said, there are some things that would generally encourage a sense of fun:
2. Do we need to change peoples' expectations of having fun during exercise?
We've all seen the leaflets and posters from the gym, and now we have the millions of instagram images as well, the ones of impossibly healthy and fit people in the gym. The most misleading thing about these images is not the six packs and thigh gaps, they are achievable, it's the big cheesy grins that I find to be too much of a stretch. It makes it look like using the x-trainer or doing squats is fun. They sell the idea that if you come to the gym, you too will have fun and laugh while doing squats. Therefore, when you join the gym start training, it hurts and you don't like it and feel like there must be something wrong with you so you stop coming.
I can't help but think that a bit of honesty wouldn't go amiss sometimes. Maybe more images of normal people actually working out would help, or maybe it would put people off, who knows? But I'm willing to bet that if people had a full handle on the facts of gym life, they would at least know that everyone suffers in the gym, and that's ok because there will be a pay off, and we are genuinely all in it together, just at different stages of our journey. Maybe then people would persevere a bit more. Maybe once they understand that you don't need to have fun to get results, they might drop their expectations of having it a little bit.
3. Do we need to make exercise more fun?
This is a good question, even if I do say so myself. If you asked a cross section of fitness enthusiasts I suspect you would end up with a continuum of responses, from the spartan extreme of "hell no! Training should be uncomfortable and you should suffer, if it was easy, everyone would do it, and I wouldn't be special anymore", all the way to the other end of the spectrum "yeah man, exercise is fun and should always be a positive and fulfilling experience, let's all hug a tree!" I tend to occupy the middle ground here, although can swing either way.
Training must be hard to get results, and the further you progress, the harder you have to work, and that does require the ability to suffer at times, there is simply no other way. That is true regardless of the mode of exercise you choose. Even if you take up a sport, there will come a time when you hit a brick wall in your progress that having fun will not get you over. Take tennis for example, it may well be fun in the beginning, but at some point your serve may need work. At this point, you will likely need to dedicate some time practicing over and over again. Fun? No. Rewarding? Yes. So to get continuing progress, at some point, you need to accept the spartan reality of exercise and training. Or you may decide that the further progress is not worth the effort, of course.
On the other hand, I've had some great sessions with friends and training partners that I've genuinely had fun, in the gym, on the track and on the bike. There is however a caveat here, whilst there may be a bit of banter, we've always known when to shut the hell up and get to work, and this can be the problem for some trainees. It's all very well having a laugh and a chat with other people, but when the time comes you do need to switch on and work. You can't laugh your way through a hard set of deadlifts, and if you can talk during a set, I'd suggest that you are not lifting heavy enough to bring about a training effect.
But I do think that we, as an industry, can make exercise more appealing and enjoyable, if not actually fun, simply by being a bit more welcoming and friendly when people walk in through our doors, reaching out a bit to the newcomers to make them feel welcome and involved, so that the inevitable pain during the workout is slightly outweighed by the positive experience around it. I think this is one area we can all learn from crossfit, this sense of community and support at the same time as having some very challenging workouts.
In all honesty, there are enough options available to people that incorporate fun into exercise already, so that saying exercise is not enough fun is a pretty lame excuse. Certainly in London there really is a fitness option for every individual, fun or spartan, cheap or expensive, indoors or out, social or individual. If you are claiming that you don't exercise because it's not fun enough for you, I suggest you look harder, or just get on with it anyway, as being unfit doesn't sound like much fun to me.
4. Does fun make exercise less effective?
It depends. An exercise plan that you don't stick to is very ineffective indeed, therefore if you really must have fun when exercising, or you just won't do it, then no, fun doesn't make exercise less effective, in fact the reverse is true. However, as I said before, there comes a point at which exercise gets hard, and is not fun anymore, and an expectation of enjoyment can limit progress for sure. An ability to grind at some stage is necessary if you want to continue moving forward.
I guess at this point, it's easy to get into yes or no, black or white, but the reality is that it really depends on what you are exercising for, and what is important to you. Do you want to train for a six pack, be the best you can be, or just about be healthy and not be embarrassed when you take your clothes off? If it's the first, you have to accept that it will be hard, and fun needs to take a back seat at times, if it's the latter, then sure, you can have your gluten free cake and eat it. You can pick activities that you enjoy that keep you fit and healthy, just remember that your choices may not bring you a six pack.
In reality, it is all about matching up your goals and expectations of your outcomes with what you are prepared to do to get them and what you want from the process itself.