Making your (memory of your) workout more enjoyable

Posted on October 30, 2013

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What would you rather do? Be in pain for 10 minutes, or be in pain for 20 minutes? Are you sure that’s your answer?

What you remember probably isn’t what you experienced

Continuing with our 10 and 20 minute scenarios: Say you workout ridiculously hard for 10 minutes, or, you work out that hard for 18 minutes with the last two minutes being a cool down. In terms of pain, whether it’s muscles burning, mental anguish, whatever you want to call it (we’re not talking chronic pain here), we can all agree a 10 minute workout isn’t as painful as an 18 minute workout. Yet, when you look back on these two workouts, you may very well remember the 20 minute (18 hard; 2 easy) as more enjoyable than the 10 minute scenario.

Two selves

Daniel Kahnemen, a psychological researcher, has referred to humans as having two selves. The experiencing self, and the remembering self. He came across this by studying colonoscopy experiences. Two big things were found:

  • We remember our pain through an average of two memories: How bad things got, and how bad things ended.
  • How long we experienced the pain does not influence our memory of the event.

Say you had a colonoscopy, and on a scale of 0-10 your pain reached a 10, and ended at 5. The average of those is 7.5, which is where you’ll remember your pain being. If someone else reached a 10, but was in pain for an hour longer than you were, and ended at a 0, an average of 5, they’ll still remember themselves as having a less painful experience than you, even though they were in pain for an hour longer!

From Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, two conclusions from this were reached:

  • “If the objective is to reduce patients’ memory of pain, lowering the peak intensity of pain [how bad things got] could be more important than minimizing the duration of the procedure. By the same reasoning, gradual relief may be preferable to abrupt relief if patients retain a better memory when the pain at the end of the procedure is relatively mild.”

  • “If the objective is to reduce the amount of pain actually experienced, conducting the procedure swiftly may be appropriate even if doing so increases the peak pain intensity and leaves patients with an awful memory.”

To further illustrate this difference another study was done. People held one hand in painfully cold water for a minute. Later, one hand was held in the same water for 60 seconds, but the next 30 seconds were slightly warmer, by one degree. Overall, the one hand had 60 seconds of pain while the second hand had 90 seconds of pain.

If they had to do the cold immersion again, 80 percent of participants said they’d opt for the 90 second variation. To be clear, these participants asked to be in pain for 30 more seconds than they needed to be. They even knew one trial was longer than the other, and still picked the longer one! The barely warmer ending drastically changed people’s memories of their experience, thus changing their future decisions.

“The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.”

Application to physical fitness

I primarily work with two types of clients: General fitness and those wanting to work on one specific joint. This is going to correspond more to general fitness and working out. If you’re trying to get someone out of pain, nothing that person does should be painful. To reiterate, with working out pain we’re talking being out of breath, struggling to lift something, muscles burning, you get the idea. We are not talking lower back, knee, hip, shoulder, etc. pain.

Ok, now some people love working out. If they could, they’d have sex with lactic acid. Most people aren’t like this. For most, working out can be a chore, staying healthy takes energy, basically, their couch is usually more appealing than the gym. These are the people where we need to make working out as enjoyable as possible. Where they look back on their experience and their remembering self goes, “Yeah, that felt pretty good. I’ll do it again.”

There are two big considerations then:

1) Try to make people enjoy their workout as much as possible while in it.

2) Try to make people enjoy the end of their workout as much as possible.

Remember, to improve someone’s recollection of an event we need to improve how bad / good it gets, and how bad / good it ends. We are not concerned with how long it goes.

Let’s get new trainees out of the way first. I’m not sure if this fits exactly with Kahneman’s terms, but in my mind making someone incredibly sore is giving the person the perception their workout has ended badly. It’s almost like extending the workout beyond an hour into a few days (or however long they’re sore). As we’ve seen, it’s not so much the duration; it’s the intensity of pain. If you were sore for 5 days after your first workout your level of pain likely reached a greater level than someone who was only sore for a day. The other thing here is if someone is sore for 5 days you likely put them in more pain during the workout than someone who was only sore for a day.

You can think of it as the peak pain the person experiences is worse, or the end of their workout is worse, or both. Regardless, it’s a bad move. You’re causing the person to think back negatively on their experience.

Moving to regular trainees, or people who’ve been working out for a while. In order for people to see some results they’re going to have to push themselves -be in pain -at times. (Again, workout pain, not chronic musculoskeletal pain.) They’re going to get out of breath, muscles are going to burn, yada yada. As Ronnie Coleman said, “Everybody wanna be big, but ain’t nobody want lift no heavy ass weight.”

We can’t really avoid this, nor should we. However, we can improve the end of the workout.

Happy Endings

Think of this like a movie. We’ve all be enthralled during a movie only to realize the ending consists of “And it was all a dream.” A terrible, awful way to end a film. Because of the poor ending, our entire judgment of the movie changes. You may have experienced 85 minutes of enjoyment, but those ending 5 minutes can really sour your opinion.

This makes a very good psychological reason for a cool down. Rather than have a client end the workout huffing and puffing, have them walk around for 10 minutes so they feel better. Just those extra ten minutes will change their perception of their entire workout.

I like to be a bit more specific than this though. I like to cool down with a couple exercises that almost always give people a “that feels really good” sensation.

First, I go with a Backward Rocking exercise. Also referred to a Child’s Pose, calm down yogis.

This pretty much always feels nice on the lower back. Since most people have a lower back history, this is always a good idea. Plus, it’s more insurance the person leaves with a good feeling lower back, rather than a stiff one, which can happen when working out.

Next, Supine Breathing with the Arms Up:

First, we get a nice shoulder stretch. Second, having the person focus on breathing with the diaphragm helps calm the body down. When the body is stressed, such as during a workout, it tends to breathe more through the chest and lungs. When it’s relaxed, more through the stomach. So, we hope to relax the person a bit before they leave.

These two exercises also help to get the spine horizontal in a specific manner, giving more lower back relief. More here.

I’m sure this fits into what yoga classes often do before ending a session: Some breathing exercises with relaxing music. Or, what everyone says after leaving a yoga class, “Ah, I loved nap time.”

I don’t think I need to go over this too much. I feel the reasons for incorporating something like this is obvious. But,

  • As a trainer you want people looking back fondly on their experience with you. So, it helps to understand how people remember an event.
  • I’m not in a big commercial gym right now, but say you’re a trainer (or whatever) competing with others for clients. Ending your workout on a good note can help clients look back at you more fondly, making it more likely they’ll continue to work with you rather than someone else. You and another trainer could do the same workout, but if you’re ending with some breathing exercises while the other trainer is ending with burpees, you are likely leaving the client with two very different memories.
  • Thanks to things such as the Biggest Loser, trainers get a lot of shit about “punishing people.” This isn’t how I want people to think of me. As some authoritarian, pain inflicting jack ass. Like I said, to some degree, this infliction is unavoidable. However, through tactics such as those outlined here, you can keep the same infliction yet change people’s memory of it. You still get the benefit of really pushing someone, while lessening the painful memory of it.

Daniel Kahnemen talking about the experiencing and remembering selves:

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Pain