Focus on Fun—Not Health or Fitness—to Succeed with your New Year’s Exercise Resolution

Have you ever considered that exercising to improve your health could be counter-productive? As we start the New Year road-testing resolutions to get active, what better time to consider our motivation for making that choice. The fact is, a new approach to exercise can yield better results.

The good news: recent health research emphasizes a softer approach, one that speaks to the intrinsic benefits of exercise—to happiness, well-being, and enjoyment. Indeed, enjoyment may be the most important reward of all.

In other words, forget “No Pain No Gain.” From now on, it’s “Pleasure is the Measure.” For the majority of Americans who can’t seem to exercise regularly, it’s time to drop the “working out” mentality and adopt the powerful motivator of “having fun.”

Among the new champions of the benefits of moderate exercise: New York Times health columnist and best-selling author Jane Brody, who admits that, “public health experts, doctors, and exercise devotees in the media—like me—have been using ineffective tactics to entice sedentary people to become, and remain, physically active.”

When I think of enjoyment, I definitely don’t picture a fitness regime built around a treadmill, a stationary bike, or an elliptical machine. Activities like those are based on hard work aimed at some future benefit. Instead, I think of play—of joy in the moment, of having fun, of something that makes my heart sing. Maybe it’s dancing the samba, an afternoon of bodysurfing, or one of my old standbys—swimming or skiing or tennis or golf.

The point is, recreation can and should be restorative and add to an overall sense of happiness and well-being. The list of such physical activities—your alternatives to “exercise as hard work”—is long and widely varied: from bungee jumping to bowling to gardening to a quiet stroll in the park.

Naysayers may argue that such leisure and recreational pastimes may not be sufficiently vigorous to improve health, but the research shows otherwise. The current American College of Sports Medicine exercise guidelines suggest that moderate physical activity—physical activity roughly comparable to walking a dog—provides sufficient health benefits.

The goal is simply to be more physically active on a regular basis. Wouldn’t it be easier and more pleasurable to stick with something you enjoy? Focusing on fun—instead of health—will free you up to include a rich variety of recreational activities—those you can stick with for a lifetime.

So how’s this for a New Year’s resolution: stop working and start playing! The health benefits of your newly active lifestyle will be the byproduct of having fun. The formula for your exercise success in 2013? Having Fun + Being Active = Glowing Health and Well-being.

Dancing Like a Star: How to Make Ballroom Dance Your Lifetime Sport

If you’ve ever watched Dancing With the Stars on TV and envied how celebrities seem to learn and perform new dances each week with ease, the good news is that you can do the same.

The other day, I visited Santa Barbara Dance Center in my hometown to talk with the instructor Nigel Clarke. I wanted the former British and U.S. ballroom dance champion’s opinion. “What do I need to do to learn ballroom dancing?” I asked him. “I’m hoping to look good on the dance floor, and I also want to have fun in the process.” To my delight, Clarke’s answer sounded easy and doable—and it echoed my long-held approach to success with most any physical activity, be it ballroom dancing or basketball.

Ballroom dancing is a skill-embracing activity, Clarke replied, and learning specific dance skills is the key to gaining mastery and enjoying yourself in the process. The first step toward those goals, he said, is to make the commitment to taking lessons. I couldn’t agree more. And don’t let the lack of a partner stop you from signing up for lessons. Instructors pair up single participants, and often have everyone change partners during class—which gives you an opportunity to dance with the best dancers!

A decade or so ago, I learned how to swing dance by taking a six-week series of recreation department classes. I started with a beginning-level series and really enjoyed myself. At the end of it, I could swing dance—or at least do the basics—and I could go to the recreation department’s Saturday night dance and have fun. Indeed, among the more affordable ways to explore dancing is to take group classes at city recreation departments.

My next step was an advanced beginning-level series and then the intermediate-level series. I could have moved on to advanced lessons, but decided to repeat the intermediate series a few times so that I could master those steps.

The point is to start with a small commitment. If you picture yourself “dancing like the stars,” you simply need to take that first step. Enroll in beginning-level lessons—just to see if you like dancing. If you enjoy the classes, you’re ready for the next series. Continue to take classes, and you’ll not only be on your way to dancing like a star, but you’ll also be building an exercise habit to last a lifetime.

Clarke’s ballroom program, for instance, covers sequential instruction in four popular dances—the waltz, fox-trot, tango, and quickstep—tailored to National Dance Council of America skill levels: “bronze” for beginner, “silver” for intermediate, and “gold” for advanced.During the first six weeks of his classes, you’ll learn a quarter of the skills required for bronze-level waltz. In a subsequent six-week series, you’ll learn a quarter of the skills for bronze-level fox-trot, then the tango, and finally the quickstep. At this point, if you were to attend a dance, you’d be adept at the basic steps of all four dances.

You then repeat the sequence, learning the next group of skills. At the end of a year, you’ll know half the skills for the bronze level; within two years, you’ll know the bronze skills for all four dances. You’ll also feel comfortable at dances—and you’ll look like you know what you’re doing!

Sound like fun? The time commitment for bronze-level classes is only one hour a week. Just keep showing up once a week and eventually you’ll progress to whatever level of dancing skill you desire. You can continue with lessons for silver-level skills; at gold-level, you may want to switch from group lessons to private instruction in order to work one-on-one with an instructor.

Your local recreation department may sponsor dances several times a month, and you can dance to your heart’s content—for three hours straight if you have the stamina! At these events, there are dancers of all skill levels, from beginning all the way up to gold and competitive. Be sure to sit out a dance or two just to watch the dazzling moves of the advanced dancers.

Best Practices for the Budding Ballroom Dancer

Learning to dance as your “lifetime sport” draws on the same best practices for achieving exercise success that athletes do, as I’ve outlined in my book, Stick with Exercise for a Lifetime. Look to these best practices as guidelines for learning the waltz, the fox-trot, the tango, and the quickstep—and enjoying every minute of it!

Have Fun. Long-term success with exercise depends on choosing enjoyable physical activities. When it comes to dancing, start out small. Take beginning-level classes. If you have fun and enjoy them, take the next series.

Find a Coach. When you join a dance class, you’ll automatically have a “coach,” a professional instructor who sets up the music, provides encouragement, and helps you learn new skills.

Join a Team. Being part of a team adds to the enjoyment of any phyiscal activity. With dance, your class members will serve as your “teammates,” sharing your interest and enthusiasm in learning new steps and skills.

Schedule Your Time. However busy your schedule, decide that you can find one hour a week for dance class. Once dancing becomes an exercise habit, you won’t even imagine scheduling anything else during dance time! If you really enjoy dancing, you may even find yourself taking a second class each week or a few individual lessons.

Make Continuous Improvements. By taking classes and progressing through the skill levels, you’ll get better at dancing; the pleasure that comes from improved performance will help you develop a passion for dancing.

Add Supplementary Fitness. Somewhere along the way, you may want to be in better physical condition to improve your dancing. You may participate in other activities that can improve you dancing, such as an aerobics class or strength training.

When you reach the advanced levels, you’ll be able to enter competitions, partnering with your instructor and competing against other student/instructor entrants—the very model for the participants in Dancing with the Stars!

How to Make Swimming Your Lifetime Sport

After watching Olympic swimmers Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps win multiple gold medals at the London Olympics, millions of people probably wished they could swim better and have swimming as their lifetime sport. It would be enjoyable to do lap swimming during the lunch hour or after work, or maybe even be a member of a lap-swimming group or Masters’ swimming team. If you have felt that urge to swim, there is a formula for making swimming your lifetime sport—regardless of your age.

It all starts with lessons

Like millions of Americans—myself included—I learned to swim at the YMCA, so I headed to the local Santa Barbara Family YMCA and met with Sue Miller, swimming instructor and life guard, to ask this question: if someone is a poor swimmer, but enjoys the water, how long would it take this person to develop sufficient skills to join a lap swimming group or a Masters swimming team?

When I asked that question, Miller immediately said there were so many factors involved that it would be hard to come up with a specific period of time. But eventually she came up with one year as a reasonable time frame. Of course, she added it might be sooner if a person puts in regular practice time. In any case, the investment of time is worth it since the end result is the ability for one to enjoy swimming for a lifetime.

Develop a plan to learn beginning skills

Virtually all Olympic swimmers started with beginning swimming lessons and so should you. Often you will have the option of individual or group lessons. At this YMCA they offer individual lessons for adults. Miller suggested starting with four lessons, ideally twice a week. In these lessons you will learn the basic swimming skills such as the arm pull, kicking and breathing. Right from the start Miller emphasized the student needs to practice the skills, and suggested 15 to 20 minutes, 2-3 times per week. The lessons help you learn the skills, and with practice, help you master the skills, build confidence and improve fitness. After the first four lessons, you and the instructor will review progress to determine if additional lessons would be helpful.

What if you’re a total beginner? Assuming you enjoy being in the water, and after a lesson or two can put your face under water, open your eyes, blow bubbles, and watch them rise to the surface, you’ve taken the first steps in learning how to swim. Once you’ve learned the basics of swimming, you’re ready for the next step.

Develop a plan for continuous improvement

Here’s the big secret to success: Set up a plan that will help you make continuous improvement. It’s fun to get better, and if you continuously improve you will soon develop enthusiasm and passion for swimming. You can use the “Getting Better Cycle,” as described in my book, Stick with Exercise for a Lifetime, to make that improvement.

Step 1: Start the cycle by setting a small goal, for example being able to swim continuously for some distance, say a quarter mile.

Step 2: Take ongoing lessons and get coaching from your instructor to help you reach that goal.  Your instructor can help you determine the frequency of lessons.

Step 3: Practice regularly (two to three times per week) to improve your swimming.

Step 4: Reach your goal and celebrate! Be forewarned: it won’t take long before you are itching to set a new goal—swim a half-mile without stopping. Each time you reach a goal, you’ll want to get better. Simply return to step one and repeat the process. After you reach the goal of one mile, you can start trying to swim a specific distance in a shorter period of time. As you pursue these goals, you will become a better, more efficient swimmer.

Note: swimming is a highly skilled activity. A good swimmer can swim a quarter mile and not be breathing hard, while a poor swimmer might be breathless after just 25 yards. The most effective way to become a skilled swimmer is through ongoing lessons, coaching and practice until you can swim easily without becoming breathless.

In summary:

Learn and master the beginning level skills

  • Join the YMCA or other organization that offers swimming lessons.
  • Enroll in a beginning series of lessons, either individual lessons or group classes.
  • Practice 2-3 times per week for 15 to 20 minutes. As you get better, you will build confidence and want to swim for longer periods of time.

Develop a plan for continuous improvement.

  • Set a goal to reach a certain skill level.
  • Take additional lessons to enhance your learning.
  • Try to practice at regularly scheduled times. This will help you develop a regular swimming habit.
  • Reach your goal and celebrate! Then set a new goal. It’s fun to pursue a goal.

 When you begin to feel comfortable with your swimming, go to a Master’s workout and watch to see if you could fit in. A Masters’ team is really a coached workout for all ability levels. The swimming lanes are set up by speed of the swimmers. Thus there are lanes for slow swimmers as well as lanes for medium and fast swimmers. If you join the group, the coach will put you in a lane with people of comparable ability. If time allows, talk with one of the swimmers or the coach. The swimming community is a friendly group, and they will welcome you and encourage you to get involved with the team.

The amount of time it will take to reach the skill level for the lap swimming group or masters’ swim team will vary greatly from individual to individual. But there is no hurry; you are developing a relationship with a lifetime sport, and youll have fun for a lifetime. Oh yes, and don’t forget, you will be building muscle, losing fat, looking slimmer and feeling younger as you progress.

Olympic Swimmer Missy Franklin: It All Started with Fun

The other night, while getting ready to watch U.S. Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin compete in the 100-meter backstroke in London, I caught an NBC segment about the soon-to-be four-time medalist’s formative years as a developing athlete. In it, Franklin’s mother mentioned that she started her daughter off with swimming lessons at six months old. While every other kid in the water was terrified, she said, Missy was underwater, smiling and blowing bubbles. Franklin then shared her earliest recollection of the sport that would take her to the Olympic Games. “I just remember loving the water,” she said. “I always had so much fun in it. No matter what I was doing, I could do anything in the water—I could just let go and have fun and let my imagination run completely wild.”

For this Olympian, swimming started out as all about having fun. The same goes for all the successful athletes I’ve known during my years as a swimming and water polo coach. They, too, were initially drawn to their sport for the sheer fun of it. Indeed, as explained in my book, Stick with Exercise for a Lifetime, talent development studies have shown that, for young athletes, having fun forms the very foundation for future success.

If only all of us approached physical activity as the pursuit of pleasure!

The fact is, 7 out of 10 Americans don’t get adequate exercise. If you happen to be one of them and want to change that, think back to the last time you tried an exercise program. Did you choose physical activities you thought would actually be fun to do? Or did you steel yourself to take on what turned out to be a grim—and short-lived—fitness routine?

Olympic Swimming London 2012

By choosing physical activities you think would be fun to do, you’ll greatly increase your chances of sticking with those activities over the long haul. If you love dancing and take lessons, it’s easy to continue with them because you’ll be having fun. The same holds for golf, tennis, martial arts, skiing, swimming, volleyball, bowling, ballroom dancing. Having fun makes it easier to be physically active—to stick with exercise and take pleasure in it!

In winning the 100-meter backstroke, Franklin swam her way to becoming a world record holder at age 17. Expect to see her having fun in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio at 21, and maybe one or two more Olympics after that. She loves being in the water, and it shows.

Is Lack of Physical Activity America’s #1 Health Problem?

Adding fuel to the argument that lack of exercise may be America’s number one public health problem, Harvard researchers reported in a recent issue of the medical journal The Lancet that physical inactivity is lethal—roughly as dangerous as smoking or obesity.

The Lancet study is a wake-up call for inactive Americans to change their lifestyles and become more physically active. The study begs the question: Why do so many of us have such difficulty sticking with exercise?

GolfEver since Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book Aerobics came out in 1968, American adults have been encouraged to develop a fitness program. Today, when you read an article or book about exercise, it invariably outlines some form of fitness program. Yet, after all these years, 7 out of 10 people don’t get adequate exercise—including 4 in 10 who get no exercise at all.

What then might effectively educate and encourage more of us to become physically active? How about reframing our approach to exercise? Rather than a “workout,” why not approach “exercise” as “fun”? As explained in my book, Stick with Exercise for a Lifetime, it’s easier to stick with an exercise program that you find pleasurable. If you’ve tried and failed with exercise before, try this simple guiding principle for exercise success: pleasure is the measure!

Everyday Athlete TennisThe American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association exercise guidelines include an option of 30 minutes of brisk walking five days per week—or activities roughly equivalent to brisk walking. That means you can choose from a bounty of fun, recreational activities—golf, tennis, skiing, swimming, yoga, bowling, ballroom dancing, kayaking, even gardening.

Choose activities you think would be fun to do and see how easily exercise can become part of your life.