Engage Your Brain for a Better Workout

Get — and stay — in the zone while exercising, and you’ll see better results, faster.
The Mind Body Workout

Admit it: You’re guilty of spacing out to Real Housewives while pounding the treadmill, paging through US Weekly on the elliptical or mentally organizing your grocery list during Downward Dog. You might think you’re doing yourself a favor by multi-tasking or distracting yourself from fatigue. But if it’s an efficient workout you’re after, you’re better off leaving the reading material in your locker and the TV turned off.

“If you’re able to comfortably read while exercising, you’re probably not exercising at the intensity you need to reap the full physical health benefits,” says Tracie Rogers, PhD, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. Not only are you cheating yourself out of incinerating as many calories as possible, you’re neglecting key workout components such as breathing, alignment, heart rate, or stress reduction.

It’s time to focus on what you’re doing, how fast you’re going, and what muscles you’re using instead of worrying about which Glee actress got pulled over for DUI. We asked the experts for their top in-the-zone recommendations; drop your exercise crutches and pick up their tips for an awesome workout that pushes you closer to your weight loss goals.

Psych yourself up
Athletes have special routines to transition from everyday life to competition. Tap into your inner athlete and create a mental prep practice. “When you’re changing from your street clothes into gym gear, psychologically commit the next 30 minutes to exercise,“ suggests Patrick Cohn, PhD, a sports psychology expert and owner of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando. “Put work behind you, stop thinking about to-do lists and responsibilities, and just escape.”

Let the rhythm move you
Whether you’re running, hitting the elliptical, or climbing stairs, find a rhythm and focus on it. That might be the cadence of your feet, the number of revolutions per second, or your breath. “It modifies your attention so you’re focused on the task at hand, not on ‘When will I be done?’” says Cohn. As you move further into your workout, try to increase the speed of your rhythm – the sound of your feet hitting the ground or the swishing of the elliptical pedals as they move round and round.

Lift smarter
Research shows that simply imagining that you are doing a squat or a bicep curl can actually boost strength within the corresponding muscle. (That’s not an excuse to skip strength training and just pretend you’re at the gym when you’re really at the movies.) Harness the power of your mind by truly focusing on the muscles you’re working. “Your nervous system has a blueprint of every movement, and it knows what muscles need to fire and when,” explains Los Angeles-based neurophysiologist and performance trainer Chad Waterbury, MS. “So if you focus on activating your glutes during a squat, you strengthen that motor pattern and become even more powerful. It’s like tongue twisters – the more you say it, the better you get at it.”

Ditch the notion that you must possess double-jointed flexibility or a monk’s meditative powers to benefit from this ancient practice. “You don’t need to get your head between your legs or feel totally zen the first day,” assures Tara Stiles, founder of Strala yoga studio in New York City and author of Slim, Calm, Sexy Yoga. “Even people who have practiced for years still find their thoughts racing during class.”

When worries of endless errands or witchy coworkers infiltrate your mind, quietly guide it back to your breath. “Think about it as helping a small child cross the street,” Stiles suggests. “The child needs your guidance and you'd be gentle in that situation.” (In other words, don’t silently scream, “Relax, damnit!”) Bonus perk: The relaxed buzz you build helps promote mindful eating, paving the way towards a healthier weight.

Rock on
The right soundtrack may help to enhance cardiovascular endurance by 15% and make a workout seem more fun, according to a 2008 Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology study. The trick to amping up your playlist: Choose songs with between 120 and 140 beats-per-minute, or BPM. Try Push It by Salt-N-Pepa, Drop It Like It's Hot by Snoop Dogg, Don’t Phunk With My Heart by the Black Eyed Peas, Mr. Brightside by The Killers or the dance remix of Rihanna’s Umbrella. Bonus: Ohio State University research suggests that grooving to tunes while exercising can boost your brain, too. Study participants performed more than twice as well on a verbal fluency test after jamming to music while exercising than they did after exercising in silence.

Crosstrain your brain
Tap into the brain-boosting powers of an elevated heart rate, increased blood flow, and the hormonal changes that occur during a workout. A 2010 Brain Research study showed that exercisers enjoyed enhanced focus and decision-making 15-20 minutes after a bout of acute physical exercise. So if you really want your workouts to do double duty, hit the books (or Suduko puzzles) immediately after leaving the gym.

Change things up
Fight boredom by switch machines, even if it means hopping from one treadmill to the next. “You can stay focused for 10 minutes on just about anything,” says Andrea Metcalf, author of Naked Fitness. Try splitting 40 minutes between the elliptical, Spin bike, rowing machine, and StepMill. Or change positions on the treadmill, walking sideways, backwards, and alternating inclines with flats.

Better yet, avoid cardio machines, which make it too easy to read a magazine or watch E!, and build a mini bootcamp filled with jumping jacks, burpees, jumping rope, and other moves that require 100% of your attention. Head outside to jog instead of relying on the treadmill, which makes running easier by pulling you along with each stride. “It’s like my mother said,” Waterbury jokes, “if you want to stay out of trouble, stay away from trouble.”

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