Strange but clinically proven ways to enhance workouts

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published September 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

Despite their health-enhancing abilities, many people dislike gyms, finding it unsettling to be surrounded by sometimes odd and intimidating exercise equipment. Exercise intensity and volume of group classes can also be deterrents. Interestingly, genetic wiring for dopamine may also play a role in exercise disdain, according to the American Council on Exercise.

For those who need a bit more motivation to hit the gym for whatever reason, here are some novel ways to make the prospect of exercise more enjoyable.

The sport of one-upmanship

Although social support is an integral aspect of health, physicians know competition well—at least from a professional perspective. Intriguingly, the benefit of competition may extend to exercise, too.

In a large study published in Preventive Medicine Reports, researchers established an attendance-based reward system for exercise classes, with university students divided into four groups: social comparison, social support, combined, and control conditions; the last receiving only individual awards for individual attendance.

The researchers observed that attendance was 90% higher in the social comparison and combined conditions compared with that of the other groups without comparison.  

In addition to boosting exercise levels, the researchers inferred even more potential benefits based on their findings. 

“Our results suggest that networks that emphasize social comparison among members can be surprisingly effective for motivating desirable behaviors. The results from the combined condition, where adding team performances to a supportive environment significantly increased exercise levels, suggest that the introduction of a minimal competitive reference point into an otherwise support-based environment can change ineffective health networks into highly motivating social resources,” they wrote.

“Healthcare providers, online fitness programs, and peer-to-peer communities for improving patient health all seek ways to structure social interactions among their members to provide the greatest incentives for adopting and maintaining health behaviors. Social comparison might be harnessed to address a variety of other health issues such as medication compliance, diabetes control, smoking cessation, flu vaccinations, weight loss, and preventative screenings,” they concluded.

Swearing up a storm

As a youngster, swearing may have been punished by a mouthfull of soap or a trip to the principal’s office. As an adult, swearing may actually improve your athletic performance.

In a small experiment, researchers measured the effects of repeating a swear word or a neutral word on strength and power during anaerobic and isometric exercises.

They found that with both types of exercise, participants demonstrated greater maximum performance while swearing vs non-swearing. But swearing did not alter cardiovascular or autonomic tone measures of heart rate, blood pressure, heart rate variability, and skin conductance. 

The experimenters found that “swearing can increase physical performance depending upon muscular force. Participants were able to achieve increased power on a high-resistance bike pedaling task and a stronger hand grip when repeating a swear word compared with a non-swear word. However, increased physical performance occurred in the absence of detectable changes in cardiovascular or autonomic activity, indicating that the primary mechanism underlying the effect of swearing on physical performance may be other than sympathetic activation.”

So feel free to cuss away through the sweat. But you may want to keep it under your breath, lest risk offending fellow exercisers. On a related note, studies show that swearing can increase pain tolerance, so revel in the burn.

Crushing it with kettlebells

Kettlebells seem more at home in a medieval dungeon than a modern gym.  These arcane exercise tools were pioneered by Russian strongmen in the 1700s. But kettlebells can still elevate your fitness level, according to research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise.

In a small study, researchers split a group of relatively fit male or female participants aged 19 to 25 years into an experimental and a control group. Fitness was assessed in both groups before the experiment started via various measures, with the experimental group then undertaking an 8-week kettlebell training period, led by a pair of certified trainers.

After completing the 8-week course, kettlebell users demonstrated improved grip strength, leg press, dynamic balance, core strength, and VO2max compared with the members of the control group. The researchers noted, however, no improvement in other factors, such as body weight, percent body fat, HRmax, and so forth.

In a press release, ACE's Chief Science Officer Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, said,  "The use of kettlebells has grown immensely over the past few years, as they can offer a great bang for your buck when it comes to time spent exercising and quality of results. A person can easily burn several hundred calories in a brief period of time using these iron orbs, which makes them appealing to those looking for time-efficient results. Kettlebell-themed workouts and kettlebell-only gyms are popping up everywhere in order to cater to the high demand of this growing fitness trend," he noted.  

Kicking it into high gear

Every physician knows that regular exercise is effective therapy and prevention for a gamut of chronic illnesses. It also improves cardiorespiratory fitness, facilitates muscle remodeling toward a more oxidative phenotype, and enhances insulin sensitivity. 

But for physicians short on time, the recommended 150 minutes a week—especially after factoring travel time, cooling down, showering, and so forth—can seem like a tall commitment. One alternative may be 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week.

“The reasons for not engaging in regular physical activity are numerous and complex, but ‘lack of time’ remains one of the most commonly cited barriers,” wrote the authors of a small study published in PLOS ONE. “Therefore, developing more time-efficient, yet equally effective exercise strategies are urgently needed,” they added.

The researchers examined whether sprint interval training (SIT) compared with moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) was a time-efficient exercise strategy to improve cardiometabolic biomarkers, including insulin sensitivity. Notably, the SIT regimen included 1 minute of intense exercise during a 10-minute exercise period, whereas MICT entailed 50 minutes of continuous exercise per session.

According to the study, “[A] SIT protocol involving 3 minutes of intense intermittent exercise per week, within a total time commitment of 30 minutes, is as effective as 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity continuous training for increasing insulin sensitivity, cardiorespiratory fitness and skeletal muscle mitochondrial content in previously inactive men.”

“While SIT is clearly a potent stimulus to elicit physiological adaptations, this type of exercise requires a very high level of motivation and is clearly not suited for everyone. Future studies should examine the potential for interval training protocols that involve relatively intense but not ‘all out’ efforts to elicit changes like [those] shown in the present study. Considering that a large number of individuals do not meet the current physical activity recommendations, there is value in exploring the potential benefits of exercise strategies that involve reduced time commitment,” they concluded.

So for those short on time, there’s no excuse to avoid exercise—just turn the dial up to 11.

Pump up the volume

Many people rock out to their favorite jams while at the gym, and with good reason: Music may improve exercise performance.

In a small study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers had participants complete an acute session of SIT while either listening to music or not. They found that peak and mean power during the course of the exercise session was higher in the music group.

“Music enhances in-task performance and enjoyment of an acute bout of SIT. Listening to music during intense interval exercise may be an effective strategy for facilitating participation in, and adherence to, this form of training,” they concluded.

So, you may want to invest in those AirPods after all. 

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