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Making Workouts Feel Shorter

Did you know? You can greatly shorten the perceived duration of an aerobic workout by slightly increasing the length of songs you play while exercising.

Workout-time-trickYour Astonished Tamale! editor is pretty buzzed about this new Jedi mind trick. New to me, anyway — and it works like magic: Exercise time flies by so fast that a long, hard workout is over when it still feels as if it’s just getting started.

Here’s the scoop:

Being a long-time health-and-fitness buff doesn’t keep me from falling off the workout wagon. It happens more often than I’d like. So I climb back on and keep moving. But I’m always alert for better ways to motivate myself.

Writing this blog is one of those ways. If I share publicly what does and doesn’t work for me, and if you’ll share what does and doesn’t work for you, maybe we can spur one another on.

Future entries will explore why your most important exercise — isn’t exercise. (No, it isn’t sex either, although that was a good guess.) I’ll report research on which workout styles burn the most energy with the least perceived exertion. Then there’s my amazing weight-loss chocolate! (Okay, that one, technically, isn’t exercise either, but it should be.) If any of these ideas intrigue you, please sign up for email updates using the form at the top right column.

But enough already! What this business about song and workout durations?

I shoot for at least a half-hour aerobic workout several days a week. Preferably five or six days, but at least three. But the closer I get to my goal, the more tedious and repetitious the whole thing feels.

One standard solution is to play music while exercising. That’s old news: Even before Dr. Kenneth Cooper popularized the word “aerobics” (1968), folks like me were running around with transistor radios and tiny earphones. We’ve since used tape players, CD players, and MP3 players. (My current music-box is an antiquated iPod Classic.)

The average song on my iPod is about three minutes long, so it takes 10 songs, on average, to get me to my 30-minute mark. Rarely do I time it exactly: Instead, I just work out till I’ve played 10 songs and figure that’s close enough. The iPod is set to “shuffle”, so it chooses songs randomly from my collection of more than 2800. There’s endless variety.

But even so, I sometimes get bored maybe midway through my workout. Even if I’m loving the music (and I ONLY play music I love), I can feel those last four or five numbers dragging on way too long.

This made me notice that my sense of time depends, not on how many minutes have passed, but on how many songs have played. I’m thinking, “That’s song number three — only seven more to go!” And this remains true no matter the actual length of the songs being played. Sometimes my randomly generated playlist will cough up an unusually large number of unusually long songs, and I end up working out 40 or 45 minutes — and won’t even notice.

So I asked: “What if I could rig the playlist so that the average song length was five minutes — not three?” It would then take just six songs to reach the magic half-hour mark. If my gullible psyche still measures the time by “songs played”, wouldn’t this make the whole workout seem shorter?

Tried it and — to the astonishment of this easily astonished tamale — it works! It works even though my mind knows perfectly well I’m fooling myself. To my sense of time, a six-song workout feels almost half as long as a 10-song workout, even if they consume exactly the same number of minutes.

One wrinkle here is that the average or typical song recording seems to have gotten longer over the years. My music collection is one I started back in the Sixties. Most recorded songs — at least from the artists and genres I collected — tended to be two to 2-and-a-half minutes. Today they’re more likely three to four minutes, and five or more isn’t at all unusual.

Apple’s iTunes software, which controls the iPod, lets me sort songs according to length of play. I sorted them that way, then created a special playlist consisting of all my songs within the range of four-and-a-half to six minutes. This turns out to be almost 300 songs. Since I can shuffle these randomly, there’s very little repetition day to day.

In the never-ending struggle to motivate myself, I’ve tried lots of tricks. Some of them work for a while, then stop working as the novelty wears off. This one, however, I’ve been using for several weeks, and it’s still working as well as the day I started. The time just seems to go faster with fewer (but longer) songs.

If you’re an exerciser, why not try this trick and see whether it works for you, too. And let the rest of us know. Please use the comment form below to share your opinion.

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