How to Trick Your Brain So Your Workout Feels Easier
Your mind is a big factor in how long you last and how strong you feel. Here’s how to train it.
When you’re lifting, Spinning, boxing, or doing HIIT or yoga, there’s a certain level of physical exertion involved—any wrist tracker that keeps tabs on your heart rate can measure it.
But your perceived exertion is another story. That’s a more squishy mental reading that can override the reality of how much you’re working. Tweak this perception, and you can go harder, happier, and longer.
Bump Up the Tunes
First, prepare your playlist. You already know how music helps you power through a long routine by amusing your brain. In fact, with the right tunes, a treadmill run can feel 10 to 12 percent easier, research from Brunel University London shows. Music helped exercisers work 4 percent harder during HIIT without feeling it, according to a study conducted by Sonos.
But music can also lift your load post-workout. In another Brunel study, when people listened to slow instrumental music (about 71 beats per minute, akin to a resting heart rate) right after cycling, they recovered faster by lowering their cortisol levels and reducing how keyed up they felt.
“Heart and respiration rates and brain waves are drawn into common oscillation with the rhythmic qualities of music,” says author Costas I. Karageorghis, Ph.D. (Related: How to Craft the Ultimate Dance Party–Inspired Running Playlist)
Score a Buzz
A shot of caffeine an hour beforehand helps too. “By blocking the adenosine receptor in the brain, caffeine increases brain excitability and thereby reduces the rate of perceived exertion [RPE] for given work,” says physiologist Adriano Eduardo Lima-Silva, Ph.D., of Technological Federal University of Paraná, Brazil. (Here's more about how caffeine can supercharge your workout.)
Know When to Scale Back
During your workout, you can also make shifts that still maintain your gains. HIIT too hard? In a recent study in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, researcher Daniel Machado, Ph.D., found that when exercisers cut the duration or number of high-intensity bouts in their workouts by half, they increased enjoyment and reduced their RPE while actually boosting their anaerobic capacity more than by doing tougher HIIT sessions.
Take It Outside
Fun fact: Other research by Machado shows exercising outdoors decreases your RPE by providing distractions. (Read more on that here: Why Outdoor Workouts Feet Easier Than Indoor Ones) Not to mention, you also get all the health benefits of being in nature too.
Don't Forget to Cool Down
Cooldown time is also key. In a study at the University of South Florida, participants who ran on a treadmill at different speeds for 30 minutes formed their impression of its difficulty based on how they felt in the last minutes rather than at the toughest stretch.
Walk it off, or stretch for five to wrap it up. (Related: Why You Should Never Skip Your Post-Workout Cooldown)
Shape Magazine, July/August 2019 issue