Putting the ‘fun’ into functional training
In a previous article we discussed the question of what functional training actually is. We covered key principles that make an exercise functional, including multi-planar, integrated movement and core stability.
Yet whilst functional training may help us to achieve physiological aims, such as improved sports performance, reduced risk of injury and better function in activities of daily living, the psychological aspect of exercise should not be overlooked. We all know that physical activity can improve mood and the ‘feel good’ factor is as beneficial for health as stronger joints and a more efficient heart, but can we go one step further?
Not everyone is as crazy about exercise as we are – the promise of improvements and longed-for results can only provide so much motivation. So what if we can add to the intrinsic psychological benefits that exercise brings by deliberately programming training sessions to be enjoyable? Rather than exercise being a means to an end - ‘you’ll feel better for it afterwards’ - let’s get people actually looking forward to the process itself. We know results aren’t achieved overnight, but as people are more likely to stick at something they like doing, the potential for success rises dramatically.
How then, do we make people feel good whilst exercising?
The winning mentality
Challenges and tasks inherently invoke a sense of achievement when they are overcome and participants feel good when they can clearly see they’re making progress towards a goal. Every exercise or activity should therefore have a clearly defined aim to both increase motivation to complete it and to promote this sense of attainment afterwards. Set mini-targets based on time, distance, repetitions or level of resistance throughout the session. These could be more conventional in terms of weights lifted or number of reps, but other examples could be ‘throw the medicine ball further than last time’ or ‘run up the hill in under 30 seconds’.
See things differently
What was your favourite part of the day at school? Play time! What did this involve? Lots of running around, climbing trees and playing games. As adults we become conditioned to see physical activity as a chore rather than something to be enjoyed. We’ve literally forgotten how to play. The very terms ‘work out’ and ‘training’ imply effort. Some of us revel in this of course - when we have a specific goal such as running a marathon or competing on stage in a bodybuilding contest then dedication and hard work are necessary and we look forward to the challenge - but for most people, we need them to perceive activity differently. We need them to see it as play.
One way to do this is to ‘hide’ the exercise in a game. What’s the difference between a ‘multi-plane reaction drill involving short sprints’, and a 5-minute game of tick? Could a round of ‘Simon Says’ involve you calling out whole-body integrated actions for everyone else to perform?
You’d be surprised how reverting to activities most people haven’t done since childhood can bring a smile to their faces – precisely the desired effect.
In it together
Whilst games can be played individually, the above examples work best when a group is involved, and as Maslow’s (1970) hierarchy of needs suggests, humans are fundamentally driven to seek a sense of belonging to social groups. This is one of the key reasons small group training and bootcamps have grown in popularity in recent years. We can further enhance the positive experience by encouraging team work, setting physical challenges for the group to overcome together such as an obstacle race or transporting one team member across a set distance without them touching the floor. This will have them performing functional movement patterns (lifting, squatting, pushing, etc) without even realising.
Another reason both games and team work are so effective for improving mood is the increased release of endorphins (e.g. Cohen et al, 2010). Social interaction, in the form of support and encouragement provided by each group member to the others, also improves adherence to both the individual activity being performed, as well as the long term programme.
It’s not about the destination
In summary, the fitness industry is undergoing a huge shift as we acknowledge the importance of psychology during physical activity, not just the long term effects. We need to focus on giving participants a truly engaging and memorable experience. How much more motivated would you be to get somewhere if you knew you would enjoy the journey?
Cohen, E. A., Freyl, R, E., Knight, N. and Dunbar, R. I. M. (2010). Rowers' high: behavioural synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds. Biology Letters, vol. 6, no. 1, 106-108
Maslow, A. H. (1970) Motivation and Personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row