5 Brain Tricks to Improve Your Workout


Light as a feather, stiff as a board — and with a rock-hard body? Brain games really can make your workout feel easier, research shows. (Levi Brown/Trunk Archive)

The same subliminal messages believed to make you eat more popcorn at the movie theater could also help you exercise longer, according to new research from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.

Study participants cycled 12 percent longer when they were shown quick flashes of happy faces versus sad faces, the study found. The athletes also reported that the workout was more fun, even though the images appeared so quickly that participants didn’t notice the faces.

Now, the researchers are looking into how to apply the findings for athletes using smart glasses, lead study author Samuele Marcora, PhD, tells Yahoo Health. “If they work, in the future it will be possible to use them to provide subliminal visual cues and improve performance during endurance competitions.”

This kind of subliminal messaging is certainly one trick to keep you going, though we’re still waiting for the day Google Glass is able to subliminally flash “go faster!” in front of our eyes. In the meantime, here are four more brain tricks to boost your endurance and make your workout more enjoyable that you can implement today.

1. Don’t call your workout “exercise”

In a study released earlier this year, people who were told a 30-minute walk was exercise reported feeling more fatigued afterward compared with people who did the same workout but were told it was simply a “scenic walk” — even though both groups hiked the same route. And when researchers fed the participants an all-you-can-eat lunch after the trek, the scenic walk group served themselves only 95 calories of drinks and desserts, on average — 40 fewer calories than the exercise group. In a separate experiment, the researchers found that the more race participants reported enjoying the event, the more likely they were to serve themselves a healthy snack.

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People tend to reward themselves after physical effort, the researchers wrote. But enjoyable activities are inherently rewarding, which reduces  desire for an outside treat.

“Make your exercise program into a game,” recommends James Gavin, PhD, professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. “Vary your routine and be creative in what you do. The main thing is to be active. You can run backwards, sideways, in a grapevine step, and still get a great workout.”

2. Talk to yourself

European researchers recently found that people were able to work out longer when they were instructed to talk to themselves with motivational phrases such as, “You’ve got this.” Subjects pedaled for an average of two extra minutes during a difficult stationary bike ride to exhaustion when they used this strategy, compared to a baseline ride, and also reported that the exercise session felt significantly easier.

3. When you encourage yourself, do it in the second person

When you give yourself mental pep talks, use “you” instead of “I,” suggests a study published in the October issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology. (For example, think, “You can do this” versus, “I can do this.”)

In the study, subjects wrote down advice to themselves on how to exercise more frequently in the next two weeks. “We found that participants who used ‘you’ in their self-talk not only planned to exercise more, but also reported more positive attitudes toward exercise than those who addressed themselves in the first person,” study author Sanda Dolcos, PhD, a researcher with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells Yahoo Health.

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4. Set the right type of goal

Research shows that setting moderate, specific goals improves exercise performance. Every time you work out, have an idea of what you want to accomplish, says Mark Anshel, PhD, professor emeritus at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Applied Health Fitness Psychology. The best goals relate to what you’re doing — for example, intending to run for 20 minutes or follow your strength training routine to a T — rather than how well you do it. These are known as process goals, and they’re superior because they help motivate you during the activity rather than waiting to the end of a sweat session to know the outcome, Anshel tells Yahoo Health. “Motivation is greater when success is achieved sooner than later, and when performance is under the person’s control, which makes the individual take responsibility for his or her success.”

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