If you looooove the feeling of almost dying during your workout and silently cheer when burpees are on the menu, you're officially not a psychopath. (You know what might make you one? Staying friends with your ex.) Turns out, you're more likely to enjoy and stick with a workout routine if it's kick-you-in-the-butt tough instead of a "meh" intensity.
If you're starting a new exercise program, you're more likely to continue to enjoy it if it's high rather than moderate intensity, according to new research done by kinesiologists at McMaster University in Canada. (And that's just one of the proven reasons you should make your workout routine harder.)
Researchers recruited about 40 young, healthy (but sedentary) adults, and had them exercise on a stationary bike three times a week for six weeks—half doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and half doing consistent, moderate-intensity exercise. The HIIT group alternated between 1-minute sprint and recovery intervals for 20 minutes, and the moderate-intensity group cycled continuously at about 70 to 75 percent of their max heart rate for 27.5 minutes. Researchers monitored things like their VO2 max (aerobic endurance), heart rate, and total power output throughout the study, and at the end of each week the exercisers rated their workouts on an enjoyment scale.
By the third week of the program, HIIT exercisers enjoyed their workouts more and their enjoyment levels continued to increase each week. Meanwhile, the moderate-intensity crew's enjoyment levels remained relatively stable, and consistently lower than the HIIT group. The researchers also found that HIIT is altogether a more effective workout—which we already knew was one of the benefits of HIIT.
The only time high-intensity isn't better than moderate exercise? When it's so hard that you can't complete it, according to the study. For example: when you're lying facedown on the floor during boot-camp class instead of planking like you're supposed to. (Which makes sense, because it definitely feels like a #fail.)
So why exactly are tough workouts more fun in the long run? The researchers found that increases in total power output predicted exercise enjoyment—meaning the stronger the participants got during each workout, the more likely they were to enjoy it. This could be because feeling competent (that "I got this!" feeling) is a key driver of positive workout feels. However, the increase in their VO2 max—or aerobic endurance—didn't predict enjoyment in the same way. This could mean that strength gains mean more fun in the gym (yay muscles!) or the researchers hypothesized that it could be something else: Exercisers could clearly see and keep track of their total power progress from week to week, but couldn't see their increased VO2 max. So the positive reinforcement of watching their progress might be a key reason they enjoyed it so much. Think about it: Knowing you were able to push a little harder, lift a little heavier, or bang out some more reps during your workout feels like a #win, which would definitely leave you feeling happy about your sweat sesh.
Consider this an excuse to hop off the elliptical and splurge on boot camp or a HIIT-specific class instead. (Want to DIY it? This 30-day cardio HIIT workout challenge is the perfect place to start.)