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How to break the monotony of working out

“And then, once you’ve released the top bar, you just look to the lower bar and catch it.” Oh, yeah, just do that, I think to myself.

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The scene is a parkour gym where I have signed up for an American Ninja Warrior workout. Yes, that American Ninja Warrior—the popular television show that features former Marines and Eagle Scouts leaping from one obstacle to the next, before plummeting, fingers aching, into the water below. The person giving the advice is a twenty-something with a light resemblance to Jake Gyllenhaal, though obscured by a scruffy beard and filthy sweatpants. The move he’s just demonstrated involves swinging from one metal rod to a second metal rod. He makes flying through the air look easy, effortless, and fun. I am neither a Marine nor a twenty-something Jake Gyllenhaal knock-off. I am a thirty-something professional and mom decked out in brunch-appropriate athleisure. And I am terrified.

The class covers swinging from beam to beam, running up a vertical wall (“The zombies are after you, get up there,” the instructor shouts), and running up a twenty-foot curved surface with the ominous name “the warped wall.” Here’s what I usually do for exercise: jog slowly, and grunt my way through a million sun salutations in the Ashtanga practice I have been nervously but doggedly pursuing for the last several years. In other words, an American Ninja Warrior I am not. (Or so I thought). Nevertheless, and despite the fact I am nervous, sweaty, and somewhat humiliated by this new adventure in exercise, I also feel exhilarated and very present. I don’t know how to swing between bars, so I find myself paying close attention in a way I don’t when jogging. I’m ashamed to say that in addition to listening to podcasts while running, I’ve occasionally checked email on my phone, too. This is not possible when you’re flying through the air. (Fear of falling is a remarkably effective mindfulness tool.) And though I haven’t yet fully conquered the vertical wall climb—I get half-way up, huffing and puffing zombie food that I am—I do touch the target at the top of the warped wall once and feel tremendous satisfaction.

My exhilarating but somewhat uncomfortable experience dabbling in the world of Ninja Warrior has made me consider research on varying exercise, as well as the difficulty scientists have faced getting athletes to carry out experiments along these lines. In the journal Sports Medicine, for example, researchers report that simply adding more of the same exercise does not bring significant improvement to endurance athletes: “it does not appear that additional submaximal endurance training volume improves endurance performance or related physiological variables in this particular population”. Still, the researchers note, athletes can be a remarkably stubborn bunch, hence “the difficulty of persuading highly trained athletes to alter their training [programs] to accommodate the interests of exercise scientists.” We know that adding another lengthy ride or run to the routine of someone who cycles or runs long distances may not guarantee improvement, but athletes, like the most of us, are creatures of habit. What the researchers do know, however, is that introducing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to what they call “previously sedentary or recreationally active individuals”—that is, me—can create real benefits. My own goals do not include competing in front of a large audience, swinging from beam-to-beam, but I would like to run a faster 5K and bring more strength and endurance to my yoga practice. Rather than adding in more of the same workouts, I’m trying to move in new ways, mixing in activities so wild, weird, and scary even that they feel like play. So, while you won’t see me on TV competing with the Eagle Scouts anytime soon, I’m hoping that training in new ways will help me bring new intensity and focus to routines that have gotten a little stale.

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