Peter Berko

Move for the joy of it: workouts that don’t feel like work

Do you remember how you moved as a child? 

You didn’t “exercise.” You ran, jumped, skipped, somersaulted, cannonballed, slid, squirmed, bopped, climbed trees, rolled down hills, and got into things. You didn’t have to make an effort to move — you just were always in motion.​

We know exercise is good for us (in addition to its numerous benefits for our physical health, but it boosts our mood, helps to stave off depression, sharpens our thinking and memory, and elevates our self-esteem).​ But it also often feels like a chore, another thing on the to-do list. The idea of running on a treadmill or sitting on a stationery bike sounds like torture to me. Sometimes I even dread running through a sequence of yoga postures, even though I know I’ll feel much better afterwards.

The thing is, exercise is just movement, and if you ask me if I like to be in motion, the answer is an emphatic yes! I love the feeling of my body moving through the water on a swim, the breeze on my face as I walk around the city, the thump of my heart as I race to catch a Frisbee thrown a bit too far. Life is short, and I don’t want to be watching the clock for those 45 minutes to an hour each day. Movement is joy, so why can’t I find exercise that feels joyful?

So the other day I started asking myself these questions:

How did you like to move when you were younger? What kinds of movements make you feel most alive?​

Take a moment to ask yourself these questions too. What do you notice? ​

I realized that a lot of the movements that brought me joy were related to the aesthetics of joy: freedom, energy, surprise. And I wondered if, by paying attention to the aesthetics that bring us joy in a given moment, we might be able to find workouts that don’t feel so much like work. ​In this post you’ll find more than 60 different workouts and movement ideas to help you incorporate exercise into your life in a way that truly brings you joy. 

Energy

Energy and movement are closely aligned. After all, one of the most common forms of energy we experience in our lives is kinetic energy: the energy of being in motion. So if we want to bring more energy to our exercise routines, then one way to do this is to amplify the kinetic feedback we get from the experience. Take a break from high-resistance activities (running on an incline or working with resistance bands) that slow your movements down and instead choose activities that give you an extra spring in your step.

For example, try rebounding: a workout done by bouncing on a small trampoline. See if there are in-person bounce classes in your area, such as these from Bari studio. They also have online versions if you want to try following along at home. If you don’t have space for a rebounder, you might also look into kangaroo shoes, which absorb stress on your joints while also giving a Tigger-like bounce to running or cross-training.

Or if you want to keep it simple, try skipping! At one of my recent workshops, a woman shared that she recently began skipping to the grocery store, and it always lifts her mood. You might feel silly at first, but it’s almost impossible not to smile when you’re skipping down the street.

Another way to bring energy to a workout? Add color. I definitely felt a boost when I swapped out my dull blue-gray yoga mat for a hot pink one. I also stopped buying black and gray workout clothes and instead pick bright colors that make me want to put them on. If you’re kitting out a home gym, buy colorful hand weights, exercise balls, and kettle bells rather than black ones. For extra motivation, sign up for a color run. The anticipation of the vibrant experience will make the daily training sessions feel worth it.

Abundance

If you’re drawn to the abundance aesthetic, you might need a greater sense of variety in your workouts. One way to add variety is through intervals. Rather than running at a steady pace, try alternating a minute of jogging with a minute of all out sprinting. (When I did this recently I realized that this was much more like how I ran as a kid. I never just “went for a run,” but often sprinted off and on while playing tag or capture the flag at school or camp.) Similarly, explore HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts that incorporate a wide variety of movements in quick succession, like the popular seven minute workout. Workouts like this give you very little time to get bored before you’re on to the next movement.

You can also add variety by broadening your repertoire. Maybe you’re not the kind of person who does three yoga classes a week, but rather needs something a little different to look forward to each day. Try a range of different classes and rotate among them. If you have ClassPass (or something like it it) in your area, this can be a great way to try many different workouts, from boxing to pilates, spinning to rowing, while sticking with a regular routine.

The abundance aesthetic is also about having a rich sensory experience while working out, so another way to make your workouts more joyful might be to add sounds, scents, or textures to the experience. Has your workout playlist gotten stale? Mix it up with some new tunes. Try adding essential oils to the beginning and end of your workout or have scented towelettes to clean off (like these, for example) with after your cardio. Or add a sprig of mint or other natural flavoring to your water.

Freedom

Freedom is all about the joy of nature and open spaces, so if you’re craving this aesthetic, take your workout outside! Get off the treadmill and onto a running trail, out of the spinning class and onto a road or mountain bike. Try to get to places that you wouldn’t be able to get to in a car: go for a hike or kayak across a pond. And don’t let inclement weather stop you: in the winter, try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. A few years ago, when Albert had the idea to buy us snowshoes for Christmas, I thought he was crazy. But they turned out to be the perfect conduit to adventure, and allowed us to explore places that would’ve been impossible to reach otherwise. (As a bonus, workouts en plein air give you exposure to the many benefits of nature for the mind and body, from improved mood to better concentration to a boost for the immune system!)

Other ways to liberate your workouts? Do things that give your body a real freedom of movement. Remember the playground, and the way that it let you swing, slide, spin, stretch, and hang? Move in those ways. Try downhill skiing, or take an ecstatic dance class where you can be as unrestricted with your movements as you’d like.

And if it’s the workout clothes that are making you feel hemmed in, you could try a workout au naturale. Some cities have naked yoga classes (warning: NSFW). Or just try this one in the privacy of your own home!

Harmony

Harmony is all about balance, and there are countless fun ways to play with this sense. Watch children and you’ll often find them trying to balance on a wall or a curb. We can do the same thing with exercises ranging from roller blading to ice skating, paddle boarding to surfing to skateboarding. Gymnastics has many exercises that test and play with balance. Yoga is also full of balance poses, from the simple, like tree pose, to more advanced arm balances like crow or flying pigeon. Tai chi is another practice that involves slow movements and a strong sense of balance. (Research indicates that tai chi in particular may be helpful for enhancing balance as it declines in older adults, helping to prevent falls.)

If you already have an exercise routine you like, you might explore adding a balance board or disc to it. These tools make workouts more challenging by creating instability, which introduces a challenging balance element to a basic routine.

Play

Perhaps the easiest way to make exercise more joyful is to add an element of play. I recently discovered this with tennis. If you tried to make me run around a track, I’d stop after about 20 minutes. But give me a racquet and I’m still happily chasing that yellow ball an hour later. Research recently showed that tennis and other ball-based sports have a strong connection to longevity, perhaps because of the social component. Whether it’s basketball or soccer, squash or badminton, these games feel less like exercise and more like childhood fun.

Other ways to play? Try hula hooping, (A friend of mine does this at night in front of the TV), or learn to juggle (Jugglefit will teach you online or in person). Grab a frisbee or Aerobie and play catch with a friend. If you have a dog, take them to the park for a game of fetch. Even LARPing (live action role playing) can be a great workout if that’s what brings you joy!

Surprise

If you’re drawn to the surprise aesthetic, then you likely have a low tolerance for boredom. You may find that the exact thing that helps most people cultivate a workout habit — a regular routine — is what makes you lose interest and quit. While some variety (see Abundance, above) might help, surprise lovers will find the most joy when they introduce unpredictability into their exercise regimen.

One way to do this is by choosing teachers who regularly mix it up. In yoga, for example, instead of going to the class with the teacher who always does a regular sequence with minimal variations, choose the teacher who comes to class each week with a different approach or body part to focus on. You may find it better to look for teachers with eclectic training in different methods or styles, as they’re often constantly looking for new ways to synthesize different approaches.

If most of your workouts are things you do on your own, try mixing it up with an “opposite day.” Do your routine backwards, go to the gym at night instead of the morning, or do something else that feels a little weird (but be safe about it!).

You might also benefit from scheduling a few wild card activities into your rotation to mix things up. Try underwater cycling or learn stage combat with light sabers. If you typically dance ballet, take a jazz class. Or, get a change of scenery by booking a destination-based experience like a surf clinic, yoga retreat, or bike trip. (Did you know there are wine tasting bike trips? See if you can find other ways to combine exercise with other favorite hobbies.) Just getting out of your comfort zone occasionally can shift your perspective in ways that make your regular routine more enjoyable.

Transcendence

Transcendence is all about elevation, so look for ways to get some air! Hiking or rock climbing are great activities for this aesthetic: anything that helps you shift your orientation to the earth and get a different view. Ropes courses can be a fun way to train a variety of muscles while getting up off the ground, especially if they end in a zipline.

If you’re a yogi, play with poses like handstand or forearm stand that lift you off the ground. Or try an aerial yoga class where you get to practice your asanas while swinging from silks like a circus performer! And speaking of the circus, you could also try a trapeze class, or tightrope walking.

Magic

What’s a magical workout? Well, if you watch late-night infomercials, it might be one promising stunningly chiseled abs in two minutes a day. But I think a truly magical workout is one that puts us in touch with the invisible phenomena that surround us on a daily basis. Windsurfing, kitesurfing, or sailing are all physically demanding activities that attune our bodies to the wind. Swimming (especially in open water), waterskiing, and surfing allow us to experience the joy of buoyancy, and the fleeting magic of being carried up by a wave.

There’s also a kind of magic in training our bodies to do what seems impossible. Parkour classes offer this kind of magic, allowing you to learn to leap obstacles and run up walls without fear of falling. Fire-spinning classes give you a sense of control over a volatile element. You might also experience this sense of magic from training for a marathon or ultra-marathon, finding new strength while learning a martial art, or finding perfect balance with your feet over your head in a headstand.

Celebration

If you’d rather go to a party than work out, bring that spirit into your day-to-day movements. Take a hip-hop, salsa, or Caribbean dance class. Or try Zumba. Zumba-lovers swear by the joyful, empowering vibe of these dance-based fitness classes. Variations on the theme abound, like BollyX, a workout class that incorporates Bollywood moves and tunes. Or Y7, a yoga class set to hiphop music.

You might also check out the new wave of early morning dance parties, such as Daybreaker, which allow you to sweat in a more festive setting than a dance studio or gym. Or just put on some music and take dance breaks while working, tidying up, or anything else you’re doing.

Renewal

If you’re craving renewal, then likely there’s a gentle kind of dynamism you’re seeking. Consider yin or restorative yoga, gentle pilates, swimming or water aerobics, or long walks, especially on a beach or in a natural setting. You might also think about activities that feel restorative to you that have movement integrated into them, such as gardening, restoring old furniture, or deep cleaning. These activities are not workouts, but often burn just as many calories.

Another aspect to renewal is following the rhythm of the seasons. If this aesthetic speaks to you, you may want to come up with different practices based on the time of year. Perhaps you prioritize swimming in the summer and dance in the winter, so that you have something new to look forward to in each season. (This might also help you fill in the gaps: if you have lots of exercises you enjoy doing when the weather is fine but none you can do in winter, then you can make a priority to explore new indoor activities.)

Many holistic wellness traditions, such as Ayurveda and yoga, incorporate these seasonal rhythms into their practices. For example, some yogis believe that in winter it makes sense to focus on grounding and warming postures, and then transitioning to more lengthening, stimulating sequences in spring. Finding a rhythm that feels in tune with the world around you can help renewal-seekers find a more joyful sense of movement as seasons change.

What other exercises, workouts, or movements bring you joy? Share in the comments or on instagram. You can find me @aestheticsofjoy!

Images: Annie Spratt, Color Run via Wikimedia Commons, David Hofmann, Alaric Sim, Johnny McClung.

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The Aesthetics of Joy is now a book! Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness is now available.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this!! Your ideas are so amazing and they really help with making life more joyful! Went and played badminton with my daughter tonight and we had a blast!!

  2. Thank you Ingrid! I’m always looking for exercise inspiration. I look forward to your newsletters. You are so creative!

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