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6 Ways to Get That Exercise High

Find the Joy In Sweat

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You know that, in theory, working out can improve your mood, and yet you may find that the exercise high has been eluding you, that every rep, interval, and minute simply feels like a means to an end. If so, you'll be particularly excited about this: Even if you're not the biggest fitness fan, new scientific findings can help you get into that exercise happy zone and unlock body benefits you didn't even know you were missing. (Just two to four hours a week at the gym can make you feel better.)

Being a happier exerciserwon't just keep you com­ing back for more; it will spur you to do more. According to a study in The Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, sprinters in an upbeat mood per­formed significantly better than their nonpumped counter­ parts. "When we're happy, our tendency is to want to achieve something quickly," explains study author Marco Rathschlag, Ph.D.—something like, say, an all­out sprint.

Better yet, becoming some­ one who smiles on the treadmill is easier than you think. Here are six research­-backed ways to experience exercise nirvana.

Photo: Chris Fanning

Prime Your Mind

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During your warm­up, recall a happy experience—crossing a finish line, maybe, or playing with puppies—and focus on it for one minute, Rathschlag suggests. That's the technique that turbocharged the sprint­ ers in his study. Compared with the other racers who were told to think about something anxiety-­inducing, or with those who were told to have "neutral" thoughts (they were instructed to imagine brushing their teeth), the happy thinkers not only ran faster but also felt happier dur­ing the sprint. "If you're in a good mood, that state can be trans­ferred from your thoughts to your exercise," Rathschlag says. (P.S. This Mental Trick Can Make Exercise Feel More Comfortable.)

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Embrace the Effort

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If you're used to exercising to the Real Housewives to get you through, you may want to switch your focus. When scientists at Harvard asked 2,250 people to rate their happiness as they were engaged in certain daily activities, including exercise, they found that the participants were happier when they were thinking specifically about what they were doing (as opposed to letting their mind wander), even if they were doing something they found unenjoyable. "Most activities are more pleasant if you are engaging in them rather than trying to escape from them, and exercise is no excep­tion," says study author Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D. To test­ drive this at the gym, think about your breathing pattern, your heart rate, even how your quads feel on that uphill or the tremble in your biceps as you rep. "If you can see these feelings as signs that you're making progress toward your goals, you'll be happier in the moment," says Caryn Carlson, Ph.D., a positive­ psychology researcher at the University of Texas.

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Cue Some Happy Talk

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A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that talking to yourself dur­ing a tough workout not only enhances performance (by 18 percent!), but also makes the exercise seem easier,which in turn should increase your enjoy­ment. "The important thing is to choose a word or phrase that resonates with you," says study author Samuele Marcora, Ph.D. Participants in the study picked four phrases, such as "Dig deep," "I can do this," "Keep going," and "Be strong"—two that were appropriate for the middle of the workout and two that were more applicable toward the end—to buoy them. You don't have to literally say these things out loud to feel a lift; simply thinking the phrases works too, Marcora says. (And Cutting Yourself Some Slack Can Reduce Your Risk of Injuries.)

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Fine-Tune Your Playlist

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To have music make working out feel more energizing, choose songs with a range of beats per minute that's comparable to the heart rate you're aiming to achieve, says Carl Foster, Ph.D., of the University at Wisconsin– La Crosse, who has conducted numerous studies on music and exercise. Find out how to figure your target heart-rate zone at shape.com/targetHR, and go to SongBPM.com to get the BPM for your favorite gym jams.

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Build In Mini Victories

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Setting a new goal—or more than one—for every workout (a technique often used by exercise psychologists), instead of having one huge goal like "lose weight" or "get better abs," can help you extract more joy from it. "Mini goals increase the rewards," Carlson says. So, try breaking up your workout into parts: Think of a long run as a 5K plus a 5K plus a 5K rather than 9.3 miles, and each time you hit one of those "finish lines," you'll boost your happiness and motivation. (In case yo were wondering, This Hormone Is Responsible for Your Runner's High.)

Photo: Corbis Images

Find Your Flow

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Italian researchers determined that exercisers with a "harmoni­ous" mind­set toward working out are able to get into the flow of it, while those who are more "obsessed" with it as an obliga­ tion miss out on the mental benefits. "Flow can be defined as the complete absorption of oneself in the present moment," says study author Fabio Lucidi, Ph.D. To get in touch with your harmonious side, shift your perception of working out from "must" and "need" to "want" and "desire." Eventually, Lucidi says,you'll find the fun in fitness.

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