Despite being rational humans, we don’t always act in our own best interest. We know we should eat certain foods to look good, feel good, and get healthier, but often succumb to junk food that tastes good in the moment but makes us feel worse in the long term. We know getting to bed before 10 pm makes us perform better the next day, but it’s fun to stay up late. This is the human experience: the push and pull between our rational higher minds and what feels good in the moment. This is most evident in our relationship to working out.
Working out is hard. It’s work. We are applying intense stress to our bodies and getting uncomfortable enough that the body’s only response is to get stronger, faster, and to adapt to the stress. That’s what makes it work, but it’s also what makes it hard to do: it’s not “fun” in the purest sense of the word. There’s pain, sweat, and grueling effort. Hardest of all, we have to want to work out . Most of us can’t get fit through daily living. We work in offices, sit at desks, drive in cars. We aren’t hunting, gathering, exploring, climbing as part of our daily lives anymore. It’s a choice we must make.
Today, I’m going to list a number of tools (low- and high-tech) and techniques to help making the right choice easier. Whether we like it or not, we don’t always do what we know we should—myself included—so this post is for all of us. Here are eleven tools and tips that will give you that little nudge you need to stay on track and do what’s best for yourself.
Set a Goal
A lot of people fail because they never even set a goal. Now, a goal can be almost anything. You can aim for a certain amount of weight to lose or inches to shave off your waist. You can try to hit a specific weight on the squat rack or a time on the mile run. Your goal can be more broad, like “run a marathon.” It can be hyper-specific, like “run a marathon in under three hours.” It can be flexible, like “hike 50 miles a month” rather than “12 miles a week.” Your goal can even be “do something fun and active every day” or “play more often.” But the point is that you should probably have a goal of some sort in order to achieve a goal.
Heart Rate Monitor
I’m not a big fitness tracking guy, but I recognize their utility for certain people. A heart rate monitor is probably the best overall option for people because it allows you to track your heart rate and heart rate variability. Why are these important?
Knowing your heart rate throughout a workout helps you adjust intensity to hit your goals. If you’re trying to build up cardiovascular and aerobic capacity, you’ll want to perform low level aerobic activity while keeping your heart rate under “180 minus age.” If you’re 40, that means your target aerobic heart rate is 140. Stay under that and you’re burning mostly fat and building your aerobic capacity. Go over and you’re burning a larger percentage of glycogen. The heart rate monitor tracks that for you.
Knowing your heart rate variability (HRV) in the morning upon waking can tell you how recovered you are and how prepared your body is for a workout that day. A higher HRV means you’re recovered and can push it. A lower HRV means you’re still in recovery mode and should take it easy. HRV is also a good general biomarker to track for overall health.
A cheap sports watch will do wonders for anyone who runs or sprints and cares about their times. Easiest way in the world to time your sessions, track your speed, and observe your progress.
You can go fancy and get a Garmin or an Apple Watch, but that’s not necessary for most people with smartphones (unless they want to track HRV as well).
Aesthetic Notebook for Tracking Workouts
Tracking your progress, especially in the weight room, is a great idea for people . When it’s on paper, it’s real. When you know exactly how much you lifted last workout, you know exactly how much to lift next workout. You can look back on your progress and get a nice burst of dopamine, and you’ll be more likely to stick with the program.
There are plenty of apps and spreadsheets and high tech tools for recording workouts, but I find a physical notebook with really high quality paper and an expensive pen make for the best fitness tracking. Barring that, the basic “Notes” app on your phone works too.
The beauty of Strava is two-fold. First, it turns your smartphone (or other activity-tracking device like a watch or heart rate monitor) into a high-powered activity-data gathering device. Before an activity, you activate Strava and it will track your vital stats and later you’re able to pore over and analyze the data. Second, it acts as a fitness-based social media feed. You see what your Strava friends are up to and they see what you’ve accomplished. You compare, compete, and encourage each other.
It’s great for data lovers who enjoy obsessing over the minutiae of performance and recovery. It’s great for people who derive motivation from competing with their friends or need encouragement from others. It’s particularly good for social media addicts who want to divert their obsessions into more fruitful enterprises.
Fatbet is a throwback to a simpler time online. Make a Fatbet by setting a fat loss goal and placing a wager that you will reach the goal. Convince other people you know to make Fatbets and place wagers, too. If you lose your Fatbet, you must pony up the wager, whether it’s money, donations to charity, personal favors, or buying dinner for the winners. By drawing on mankind’s innate drive to win bets and defeat opponents, Fatbet can help keep you making the right choices on your path to losing weight. This seems like a good choice. It doesn’t necessarily involve money, if that’s not your thing, but it should be effective because everyone likes winning.
Zombies Run! is a gamified fitness app that combines real world running, walking, or cycling with zombie-related storylines. Put your headphones on/earbuds in, start jogging, then start the mission. As you run, the story develops and the GPS tracks you or counts your steps. Maybe you’re taking supplies to a local township. Maybe you’re rescuing some stranded civilians. It could be anything. And at any moment, zombies can burst out and give chase, forcing you to really push yourself. It’s actually quite a clever idea and gets great reviews on the iPhone and Android App Stores.
The Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld’s method of staying productive while avoiding day-crippling bad decisions is decidedly low-tech and is normally used for getting work done or doing chores, rather than reaching health and fitness goals. But that’s okay. It’s easily modified. You set a few goals (like “lift heavy things” or “eat no grains”), set daily minimums for each goal, devise boundaries and strategies for each goal, print out a calendar for each goal, and procure a big red pen. Every time you hit the daily minimum for a given goal, make a big red “X” on the day of the given goal’s calendar. If you miss a daily minimum, you don’t get an X. Strive to get an X on each day of each calendar. Chain them together. Don’t break the chain!
I like this one. First, I’m a Seinfeld fan, so I might be biased. Two, it’s simple and it requires the user to interact with real-world objects: pen and paper. On the computer, it’s easy to minimize a window, switch to a different browser, ignore email updates, or just never visit the website that logs your unfulfilled commitments, but a calendar on the wall or your desk stares you in the face. It’s right there in your line of vision, and if you want to avoid it you have to physically remove it. I suppose you could use an online motivational calendar like Streaks, but I wonder if the effect would be the same.
There are lots of food trackers, but I think the best is Cronometer. The free app and desktop version have everything you need, and if you upgrade to the premium version (for a pittance) you get access to more customization. All the entries source nutrient info from official food databases, so if you want to know how much methionine, glycine, and folate is in beef sirloin with the fat cut off, you can get that info and trust that it’s based on the best possible
Gymnastics Rings Hung in Your House
Gymnastics rings are the best bang for your buck workout tool to keep laying around. Hang it from a rafter or a doorframe. If that doesn’t work, try a tree branch outside. Just hang it up somewhere you often visit, and then every time you pass by it, do some pull-ups, dips, or rows. It’s that simple.
Movement Alarm Clock
I like this one a lot. Set the alarm to go off every thirty minutes or so, and use it as motivation to get up and do a set of pushups, pullups, and/or squats or do a microworkout just to keep active throughout the day. If you sit a lot at work (or even if you’re a standup workstation superstar), using a basic alarm clock to keep moving every hour (at least) should keep some of the negative health effects of sitting at bay. You know you shouldn’t be sitting for that long, and the clock is free, so you really have no excuse.
Before you know it, you’ve been hitting a set or two of exercises every hour, going for a short walk every two or three, gotten stronger, fitter, leaner, and accumulated a large amount of training volume without thinking about it or going to the gym. It’s almost magic.
Not everyone needs a dedicated tool to keep on the straight and narrow, but I’d wager that very few of us are completely rational actors who make nothing but logical decisions each and every day. Even something as simple as the alarm clock method or the Seinfeld method could be useful. The only way to really know is to try it out yourself.
Have you used any of these tools to reach your goals? I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences. Can you recommend any of your personal favorites that aren’t on this list? I’m sure readers would love to know more. Thanks for reading!
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