by Lisa Hartjen, MAAE, BFA

The last time I walked into a gym, the smell of sweaty towels and old sneakers sent me running for the exit. I don’t especially like working out, but I need to find ways to break a sweat daily. I feel better for hours (even days) after I do a workout—it lowers my stress levels and keeps my heart healthy and my weight in check. Even so, that’s not always enough to motivate me. Instead of forcing a run on the treadmill, I’m learning ways to take the “work” out of my workout by making exercise fun.

Rediscover Fun

The first question I ask myself before a workout is: “How can I make this more fun?” For me, fun is synonymous with play. Dr. Mark Beckoff says “play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for body and spirit.” I couldn’t agree more! Psychologist Peter Grey adds that play consists of self-directed, structured, imaginative activities that involve “an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.” When these defining characteristics are present, even work becomes play. With so much fun to be had, why not play more?

For many adults, play is a four-letter word, only to be uttered around children and pets. Observing young ones or furry creatures at play can inspire us, but may not motivate us to join in because maybe we don’t think of exercise as play. A study of children and adults in New Zealand found a telling gap in perception where “physical activity was considered an organized activity and play was identified as fun.” Regardless of how we define it, if we limit ourselves to having fun on a Saturday night, we rule out the powerful benefits of play on other days.

When we engage with our surroundings, the workout goal takes a back seat to the experience itself. (tweet this)

But what does it mean to play as an adult? Currently, adults turn to coloring books for relaxation, join flash dance-offs for spontaneous fun workouts, or attend touch improvisation classes. Once reserved for children only, activities like these encourage creative expression while actively engaging the mind and body in the spirit of play.

When guidelines for an exercise routine become too rigid, a workout can lose its appeal. One study found that compared to self-selected exercise intensity, “imposed intensities lead to declines in pleasure, even when they exceed the self-selected level by a small amount.” Why not develop your own “rules” by deciding where, when, and how much to work out as motivation? Create new, playful rules to re-invigorate a ho-hum routine.

Emphasize the Process

Have you noticed a difference in attitude when your winter workout shifts from an indoor treadmill to a power walk outside? The sights and scents encountered during an outdoor walk invigorate your senses and motivate your mind. Research suggests
important links between environment and exercise: “Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy.” When we engage more fully with our surroundings, the goal of a workout takes a back seat to the experience itself.

Many artists—including actors, musicians, and dancers—improvise, and report getting blissfully “lost” in their activity. In fact, dance can be beneficial to the mind. You don’t have to be an artist, or even a dancer, to experience moments of bliss while moving. Take a cue from dancer Daniel Frangos: “When I dance, I allow myself to let go of what I believe I need to be. I find freedom by connecting to music, to the movement itself, and connecting with another or a group. Dancing opens endless possibilities to shift, change, morph, and surprise—for me, these are different expressions of joy.”

If you’re like me and not quite ready to let go on the dance floor, take a turn with the kids in your life—they’re experts at finding joy in movement. I have the most joyful workouts with my niece and nephew playing tag, racing around the yard, or dancing to a favorite song. I love these spontaneous workouts because they remind me how much fun it is to play. In the process, I’m teaching my loved ones the joy of movement and steering them toward a healthier lifestyle that includes exercise.

With obesity levels on the rise in the U.S., I’m concerned for my niece’s and nephew’s future. Thankfully, First Lady Michelle Obama knows that to get people moving, it’s all about making exercise fun! Her Let’s Move Campaign teamed up with pop-star Beyoncé to create this motivational dance workout that combines aerobic dance with a catchy song. It’s a great way for kids and adults to move in style!

Discovering fun exercise ideas and new ways to increase the fun factor during a workout will motivate me to try new things and keep things fresh. For me, finding fun usually comes down to making choices about my approach to exercise. A playful attitude, less restrictive guidelines, and emphasis on the process are a few options to get out of a fitness rut. Ultimately, a willingness to experiment and play is the key to discover what works. If you’re looking for ways to take the “work” out of your workout, these tips may help you get started.

5 Steps to Increase Your Fun Factor:

  1. Delight your senses.
    Don’t let a rain shower ruin your walk. The touch of light mist on your skin is refreshing and the scent of wet green leaves intoxicating. On the next bright summer day discover what’s in bloom as you walk—take the time to stop and smell the roses. Focus on one of your five senses to turn your next routine into the most delightfully fun workout ever!
  2. Break the rules (and make up new ones).
    Who says that you can’t dance until dawn? Why not climb a tree? Is that old saying “Adults don’t play” holding your back? One of the easiest ways to shift from “work” into “play” is by changing the rules, and at this point you (and your team players) can rewrite the rulebook to include more fun exercises.
  3. Find a partner.
    A willing partner or workout buddy can make all the difference when it comes to motivation. Together we can find ways to move in tandem with one another—it can be uplifting, playful, and inspiring!
  4. Try something new.
    Leanna Skarnulis suggests changing up your routine with horseback riding, dancing, even boot camp… or simply make up a new exercise.
  5. Seek inspiration.
    Here are a few videos that may inspire your imagination to soar:

Have you found ways to make movement more fun? Share your discoveries with us in the comments below.


AlbertoLaGrange. (2011, April 8). Beyoncé: “Move Your Body” [Full Workout Routine] [Video file]. Retrieved from

Arnold, C. (2016, May 22). Syncopated Ladies Tap Dance Salutes a Legend [Video file]. Retrieved from

Beckoff, M. (2014, May 2). The Importance of Play: Having Fun Must be Taken Seriously. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Curtis, A., Hinckson, E., & Water, T. (2012). Physical Activity Is Not Play: Perceptions of Children and Parents from Deprived Areas. New Zealand Medical Journal, 125(1365), 38–47. Retrieved from

Devereaux-Fitzgerald, A., Powell, R., Dewhurst, A., & French, D.P. (2016). The Acceptability of Physical Activity Interventions to Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Synthesis. Social Science & Medicine, 158, 14–23. Retrieved from

Ekkakakis, P. (2009). Let Them Roam Free? Physiological and Psychological Evidence for the Potential of Self-Selected Exercise Intensity in Public Health. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(10), 857–888. Retrieved from

Fet mar (2008, November 9). Daft Charleston – Perfectly Synced [Video file]. Retrieved from

Gray, P. (2008, November 19). The Value of Play 1: The Definition of Play Gives Insights. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Huang, C.H., Webb, H., Zourdos, M., & Acevedo, E.O. (2013) Cardiovascular Reactivity, Stress, and Physical Activity. Frontiers in Physiology, 4(314). Retrieved from

InterKinected Contact Improvisation Research. (2013, May 28). Core Connection / Sharing Balance in Contact Improv [Video file]. Retrieved from

L’Homme Cirque. (2015, May 24). [Video file]. Retrieved from

Sagami Original. (2016, January 6). Act of Love [Video file]. Retrieved from

Skarnulis, L. (2005). The Unworkout: 7 Ways to Get Fit Having Fun. WebMD. Retrieved from

Sutton, J. (2016). Ascension [Video file]. Retrieved from

Thompson, C., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M.H. (2011). Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing Than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. Environmental Science & Technology. 45(5), 1761–72. Retrieved from

Verghese, J., Lipton, R.B., Katz, M.J., Hall, C.B., Derby, C.A., Kuslansky, G., … Buschke, H. (2003, June 19). Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. New England Journal of Medicine, 348, 2508–2516. Retrieved from:

White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. (2010). Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation: Retrieved from:

Zax ayko, P. (2011, September 4). Flash Mob Beyoncé Let’s Move LYON Part 1 [Video file]. Retrieved from


Featured image: livraiaadventisa
dancing girl: Gabby Orcutt
coloring page: Silke
rose: Maja Petric
boys playing: Brandon Morgan
canoe: David Straight
tree climbers: Ryan McKean
ballet dancer: Kevin Lee