I remember the first time I asked a client to come onto the small basketball court in her apartment building gym. My plan was to have her dribble the basketball with her non-dominant hand, take jump shots from different positions, and run to get to the ball after each shot. Sounds like fun to me! When I saw the sheer look of terror come across her face while I explained the routine, I realized that my idea of fun and play was not hers at all.
Personal trainers and group fitness instructors will try anything to get more people to workout, exercise and move more in general. In our efforts to incorporate more aspects of fun and play into our programs, it is necessary to establish a few foundational thoughts that will be discussed in this article.
The fitness professional will be able to answer the following questions after reading this article:
- What is the difference between fun and play and should we incorporate these aspects into the training program?
- How do we determine what a client feels is fun and then include specific variables to achieve this feeling in the training session?
- How can we make small tweaks to a training program to add a sense of play?
Incorporating Fun & Play into the Training Program
Fun is often described as activities we do for pleasure. These activities can be informal, not cerebral and sometimes purposeless. Fun is a difficult concept for us to articulate and it exists along a continuum. Many times, for example, I’ve heard someone say that a weekend volleyball game was fun until others showed up and it became too competitive - and no longer fun. To others, however, competition is fun and they see it as a waste of their time otherwise. Most fitness professionals probably associate movement and activity with fun more than someone who is not intrinsically motivated to exercise. There are plenty of folks who describe their fun day as sitting by a tree and reading a book, for example.
Play is often described with phrases including voluntarily, intrinsically motivated, of a recreational nature, physical, and enjoyable. When you picture someone playing, you might conjure up visions of children running, jumping on a field, and then spontaneously rolling down a hill. Laughter seems to be a common aspect of playing.
When people tell me that "seniors need to have fun or play in their workouts," my first response has traditionally been, “Why?” If the senior client can’t get up out of a chair, then they're not having any fun anyway because they can’t get to the party! So what’s more important in this program: strength or fun and play? And how can we make a necessary exercise a little more fun or playful?
With these thoughts in mind, let’s look at the personal training program.
I present the notion that play includes some sort of movement, with spontaneity or reactive component, where the exact pattern is not necessarily set or consistent. I call this "chaotic training." Fun, on the other hand, is very subjective. We need to determine what the individual finds to be fun, and incorporate ways to enhance the exercises with this in mind. In other words, play can be fun, but fun is not necessarily play.
Determining What's "Fun" for the Client
Just as we ask about medical history, lifestyle, injuries and other questions to establish a baseline for a potential or new client, we can ask how they feel about exercise and what exactly a “training session” means to them. Our inquiry could include:
- When you think of working out, what comes to mind?
- What kind of memories do you have in terms of exercise, and working out? (Listen and be aware of whether you hear any terms that describe "fun" for this person.)
- What did you like about it and what didn’t you like about it?
- What do you consider fun? (Are they describing activity/movement at all?)
When I was selling memberships for a health club, identifying someone’s likes and dislikes was part of our training. I would then target the presentation appropriately. When a prospect described how they hated loud, noisy places and did not like to wait for equipment to become available (or classes to begin), I made sure to point out the quieter areas of the club and did not try to excite them with the crowded group fitness classes!
If someone answers that they enjoy competition and miss college sports, there is a greater likelihood that they will enjoy sports drills where they can compete against themselves using a stopwatch or other tools.
However, if someone says that they don’t feel coordinated doing sport drills, we stand a chance of sabotaging the new relationship right at the start if we ask them to do agility drills!
What if someone describes a perfect day of fun as being quiet, by him/herself, focusing on a specific task - like organizing a project. We could then think of exercises, equipment, or tasks that might make him/her feel more comfortable, and thus have more fun. We could learn quieter, specific cues from modalities like Pilates training to address more precise type movement tweaks during the workout. They might appreciate a rhythmic series of postures and moves that require thought and readjustments.
We could find a quieter place in the gym for a portion (or all) of our session to make them feel more comfortable-which is more enjoyable for them.
If you are already working with someone and want to make the workout more fun, think about a time when the person has responded with positive feedback and not seemed frustrated with the exercise you have instructed. Did those exercises or progressions evoke a lighthearted response (i.e., did she smile, seem happy with her efforts)? If so, those are cues to us that we are on the right track! We need to keep remembering that it is about what they want, not what we feel is fun.
Making Small Tweaks to Add a Sense of Play
As I mentioned earlier, I like to incorporate play by adding a reactive, chaotic sense to the exercise or movement. This means that the client does not necessarily know the next required movement, and the challenges change quickly without much notice.
Remember freeze tag? It’s amazing how hard it is to move quickly, then make spontaneous directional changes. Similarly, we can make some simple adaptations to important components of a circuit to make it more playful.
Let’s go back to the previous statement about the need for seniors to get up out of a chair. Another important skill is reactive stability, i.e. being able to change direction (and thereby avoid a fall) in an instant.
Instead of performing sets based on a number of repetitions you can set up a circuit, where upon your cue, the client needs to stop what they are doing and move quickly to the next exercise. You can have a chair or bench close to a cable column. The client starts with fast squats towards the bench and, upon your cue stops in mid movement and begins again. Your next cue has them quickly moving to the cable for a standing “stir the pot” core exercise. The next cue could be to shuffle quickly to the right until you tell them to stop, or change direction to the left.
Making a few tweaks to a plank on the floor with arms straight turns this exercise into a great game I call "Core Twister." Pretend that there is a small clock at each hand and foot. Each hand and foot is at the center of its own imaginary clock. Upon your cue, the client moves the appropriate hand or foot to the number on that specific clock. This one might sound like:
- Left hand 7 (client lifts up left hand and moves it a little down and to the left)
- Right foot 3 (client lifts up right foot and moves it a little to the right)
They will be laughing in no time, especially since it’s hard to picture a clock in the first place considering the digital world we live in! Then, as their posture and form become a bit more contorted, your client might just collapse in laughter!
Just as everything else in our decisions regarding program design, it's personal. The concept of “exercise” and “going to the gym” are complex, and so many variables influence an individual’s attitude towards them. We need to find that delicate balance between what someone finds motivating and fun, then incorporate these elements to the program in order to have this person feel successful and get the results THEY want.