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A post-exercise checklist to help you find a workout you actually like

The best exercise for a beginner is whatever you’re willing to do on a regular basis, but what if you don’t know what that is?
Image: Athletes talking in gym
What types of exercise leave you enthusiastic and happy? Try to spend more time participating in those pursuits.John Fedele / Getty Images/Blend Images

As we embark on a new year, you may find yourself making resolutions about your health. Whether you have a tangible goal such as losing 20 pounds or your resolutions are more about generally being healthier, exercise is probably one of the things you’re looking to incorporate into your life. But if you’re anything like me, it’s difficult as an exercise newcomer to know what to do and then find a routine that fits your schedule and includes activities that you actually want to do.

Experts say that the best exercise for a beginner is whatever you’re willing to do on a regular basis, but what if you don’t know what that is? What if your experience with exercise has been limited or non-existent? A lot of people have had negative experiences with exercise or sports in the past and simply can’t imagine that there’s something out there that they would actually enjoy.

Even experienced gym-goers sometimes find themselves in a rut, uninspired by their workout regimen, but unsure about how to change things up.

Since early in 2017, I have been doing my best to adhere to the federal Dietary Guidelines and Physical Activity Guidelines with the support of the American Council on Exercise. I first met with a personal trainer to help me figure out what to do and how to do it safely. He helped me gauge my current fitness level and walked me through a full-body resistance-training workout so that I could understand how to perform the exercises correctly and avoid injury.

The trainer then helped me put together a workout schedule that would fit in with my day-to-day routine. After all, if I couldn’t make this fit into my everyday life, it would immediately feel burdensome and create negative feelings about exercise.

The Exercise-induced Feeling Inventory

Once I began a regular workout routine, I started filling out something called an Exercise-induced Feeling Inventory (EFI) after each workout.

The EFI asks you to rank 12 different “feelings” on a scale of 0 to 4, with 0 meaning you “do not feel” and 4 meaning you “feel very strongly.” For example, after a tough interval-training workout, you might feel a 3 in terms of your fatigue, a 4 in terms of being upbeat and a 1 in terms of being revived.

Those 12 measures are as follows:

  • Refreshed
  • Calm
  • Fatigued
  • Enthusiastic
  • Relaxed
  • Energetic
  • Happy
  • Tired
  • Revived
  • Peaceful
  • Worn out
  • Upbeat

The idea is to measure how you feel after each bout of exercise over a period of time and then look for trends. The hope is that as you become more accustomed to an exercise routine, there will be a shift toward higher numbers on feelings like happy, peaceful and energetic and toward lower numbers on things like tired and worn out.

Over the past several months, I have regularly been performing four different workouts:

  • Walking on the treadmill at home, usually watching TV or listening to music.
  • A cardio routine at the gym on the elliptical trainer. This program has been progressing in terms of duration, intensity and frequency as I’ve grown more fit, and now also features tools like agility ladders, heavy ropes and aerobic steps.
  • Hiking on weekends. My hikes have ranged from quick three-mile loops close to home to 12-milers that last much of the day. Intensity varies with the terrain and the speed at which I’m hiking.
  • A strength-training routine at the gym that has progressed from largely functional movement using my body weight to more intense workouts using dumbbells, medicine balls, suspension trainers and various machines.

As I reviewed months’ worth of EFIs, I struggled to find the trends. My numbers were all over the place.

Then something caught my eye. My numbers were consistent depending on the type of exercise I was performing. Resistance training typically left me feeling very strongly about elements like enthusiastic, happy and fatigued. I was tired, but proud of myself and excited about my progress. Meanwhile, I was not feeling very refreshed or peaceful after these workouts.

When it came to hiking, I always felt enthusiastic, upbeat and happy. Over time, I reported less and less fatigue and fewer feelings of tiredness. This mirrors the improvements in my physical fitness that I could certainly feel on the trails. Hiking, not surprisingly, consistently left me feeling peaceful and revived.

Gym-based workouts on the elliptical trainer left me less enthusiastic and happy and more worn out and fatigued. These numbers improved when I introduced interval training and other modalities to my routine. These more advanced workouts left me more tired, but far more enthusiastic about my efforts. I think I just felt good about having completed the workout.

Grinding away on the treadmill for 45 minutes or an hour seems to yield the worst results on the EFI. These workouts left me fatigued and worn out (and bored, though that’s not one of the 12 feelings measured).

Of course, I knew instinctively that I love hiking and enjoy lifting weights more than working out on a cardio machine. That said, seeing these trends mapped out so clearly made me realize that I should shift more of my workout time to outdoor pursuits that seem to lift my spirits while exercising my body. If that’s not possible — and it certainly hasn’t been in recent weeks as the temperatures dropped in the mountains of North Carolina where I live — I will try to increase the intensity of my gym-based workouts, as that seems to drive some positive emotional responses.

You may not have the desire to track months’ worth of workouts using the EFI, and you probably don’t have to. Instead, spend some time over the next couple of weeks being very mindful after each bout of physical activity, whether it’s a high-intensity interval training session at the gym or an after-dinner walk with your dog. What types of exercise leave you enthusiastic and happy? Try to spend more time participating in those pursuits. What leaves you worn out and fatigued? Perhaps you should avoid those types of exercise if you’re feeling in a rut or just getting started with a routine. You don’t want lack of enjoyment to derail your efforts.

Seeing these trends mapped out so clearly made me realize that I should shift more of my workout time to outdoor pursuits that seem to lift my spirits.

As you become more experienced with exercise and have a more set routine, your motivations for working out may be less about enjoying it and more about changes in your body, performance improvements or the competitiveness of a group workout.

But, if you’re just getting started or find yourself struggling to stay motivated, identifying what makes you happy may be the key to getting — and then staying — on track.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things

I recently signed up for a beginner’s yoga, meditation and breathing class at my gym — eight weeks of 90-minute sessions every Saturday. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before, but I’m anxious to get started. I’m not sure where, or if, it will fit into my routine in the long term, but there’s only one way to find out.

I challenge you to move out of your comfort zone and try something new. Is there a class in your gym that you’ve been wanting to try? Are there hiking or biking trails in your area that you haven’t checked out? You never know what type of activity you’ll enjoy until you test out a few. Give it a go and let me know about the experience. I’ll be sure to share some feedback about my new yoga adventure.

Do you have any tips to share? Tell me about them. Have questions about my journey? Ask me on Twitter or follow my journey on Instagram!


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