Mix It Up! Why Exercise Variety Is Good for Your Body and Mind

Adding variety to your exercise routine can help you stay motivated and may offer greater benefits as well.

Medically reviewed in August 2018

Exercise can give us a big lift in mood and energy. Seeing friends at the gym, tuning into music or breathing outdoor air in a park can add personal pleasure to our regular routine, but we also need to reinvigorate our fitness program with new activities.

When I hear from someone that they’ve stopped or cut back on their exercise routine, I often ask: “Did you get bored?”

While some people love a routine, others hate the repetitive nature of the idea, and many have a love-hate relationship with their fitness schedule—they’re happy for a little while before growing bored and losing motivation.

Variety is the Spice of Exercise
Wherever you fall on this spectrum, it’s a good idea to build some variety into your fitness routine. According to an October 2016 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, adding variety to your exercise routine may extend your life. Among nearly 3,300 participants ages 59 to 79, those who enjoyed the most variety in their exercise also enjoyed more longevity over the next two decades.

Variety isn’t just an antidote to boredom. It will keep you fitter. If you’re the type who feels most comfortable sticking to one activity, perhaps leisurely swims or walks, it’s important to know that one activity may not be giving you the aerobic benefit you need and may not be working all of your muscle groups.

Ornish Lifestyle Medicine guides you toward moderately intense aerobic exercise at least three hours per week and strength training at least twice a week. Those guidelines leave plenty of choices and room for change. For example, pedaling on a stationary bike on days you lift weights and playing squash on the other days. The goal is to build a foundation of fitness so you enjoy moving and using your body in different ways over a lifetime.

Fewer Limitations
The more activities you are open to, the less you will be limited by injury, weather or access to equipment, and the easier it will be to stay fit under any circumstances. Joggers or walkers who also join a gym or pool have an option whenever the air quality or weather isn’t ideal.

Injuries are one of the most common reasons people fall out of an exercise routine. Let’s say you develop a knee problem. The solution may be cycling or swimming, which are easier on the knees. If you already cycle occasionally on weekends, you can quickly begin cycling during the week as well, but if you’ve never biked, the transition may take some time.

Ornish Lifestyle Medicine emphasizes balance, and encourages you to socialize and calm your mind. Exercise can also serve those goals. Although you might use a stationary bike to reliably get your heart rate up, you can add the social aspect if you choose an activity such as bowling or even dancing. Maybe you need more time to yourself and find that swimming clears your head better than anything else.

Start Slowly and Focus on Patience
The new research about the benefits of variety also found that people who exercised more intensely were the most likely to die of heart disease.

Quite often when I meet a new heart patient who wants to go gangbusters, I’ll encourage patience. When you’re recovering from heart disease, becoming too competitive or self-critical is actually dangerous.

High-intensity exercise can be fine, but only if you build up slowly. Setting goals is also a good way to ward off boredom, but I recommend against ramping up the challenge too quickly. It’s safer and more efficient to vary your game.

This article was originally published in Ornish Living.

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