Change Is Good
When is exercising like playing jazz or cooking?
It may sound like the start of a lame joke, but the answer to this serious question is: when you improvise. Like jamming on a saxophone or making soup without following a recipe, you can exercise guided by nothing more than instinct, feeling, or whimsy.
Take this bold step--leave your structured workout behind for a day or two--and you'll flex underutilized muscles, lose weight, be more mindful, and feel reinvigorated. "It's the paradox of exercise: You want to establish a routine, which inherently means doing the same thing so it becomes consistent," says Greg McMillan (www.mcmillanrunning .com), a respected online running coach in Flagstaff, Ariz. "But you don't want the routine to become a rut."
In his 16 years of coaching, McMillan says, the one thing he's seen help every runner improve, regardless of ability or level, is varied workouts. "Variety is what makes the body continue to adapt. The muscles and joints enjoy it, as does the mind."
This isn't to say every workout should be a free-for-all--even the best fitness regimens need structure--but you can mix things up with our expert advice. Says McMillan: "It's important to stick to the frequency of your routine, but experimenting within that routine is a great way to build fitness." And it may keep you coming back for more.
Yoga & Pilates Since yoga and Pilates are so precise, it may feel wrong to experiment with the movements. But many experts agree there's plenty of room for improvisation. "There's a wide range of possibilities, and you can learn something by exploring," asserts Joe Miller, a senior yoga teacher at OM Yoga Center in New York City. After all, Miller says, one of the purposes of yoga is to change habitual patterns of holding the body and seeing the world. "If a practice that was designed to break you out of your habits becomes habitual, improvising might be the way to break yourself of that habit," Miller says.
It's natural to feel nervous about tinkering with your yoga practice, says Ellen Barrett, a yoga and Pilates instructor and owner of The Studio by Ellen Barrett in New Haven, Conn. You can overcome that, she says, by tuning in to yourself. "You are the only one who can feel what your body needs and what it can do." Miller agrees, suggesting novices take what they've done in class and go from there. This might mean starting out with a few rounds of Sun Salutations to warm up, then assessing which way you want to move from there.
You can also come into a pose differently. "Getting into a Side Plank from a Plank position is different from getting into it from a seated position," says Barrett. "The changes are subtle, but they can make a difference." Or you can position yourself differently within a pose. With the Triangle pose (Trikonasana), for instance, instead of reaching your top arm straight up, reach it alongside your ear or snake it behind your back and tuck it into the crease of your bottom leg.
Even doing the asanas or Pilates exercises in a different order qualifies. "Improvisation comes from being very present--otherwise it's routine and mechanical," says Alicia Principe, a private Pilates instructor in New York City. "Let the flow happen instead of imitating, then each workout becomes unique."
Barrett suggests a few other ways to make Pilates fresh: Change the tempo at which you do the movements. Or jump into a mat class if you currently do one-on-one sessions on a Reformer.