Activity Recreation//

The Surprising Thing I Learned During My Silent Workouts

Want to revamp your exercise routine? Try this new technique.

Teenager skiing in Formigal ski resort
Teenager skiing in Formigal ski resort

When I think back on all the workout routines I’ve ever done, there’s been one constant: sound. Whether it was a coach talking me through a workout, a friend chatting during a run, or music blaring through my headphones, my experience with exercise has been inextricably linked to the accompanying audio.

That is, until my recent family vacation to Yellowstone National Park. I had read online before my travels that I wouldn’t have service or WiFi in much of the park, so I announced to my friends and co-workers that this vacation would be a “no-phone party.” When I got there, I realized I could have found service if I wanted to — but I didn’t. I left my phone off, or on airplane mode, for the entire week.

The vacation was mostly a cross-country ski trip, with my parents and brother joining me as we explored the vast, still snow-covered park. But since our different skill levels separated us, I would typically ski for at least an hour by myself — in silence and solitude.

On a recent episode ofThe Ezra Klein Show,” Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, discussed the concept of solitude. Newport doesn’t see solitude as retreating to an isolated cabin in the woods to read and commune with nature. He thinks of solitude instead as “freedom from inputs from other minds.” Instead of thinking about location, think about the processes of your mind. If you’re working to understand something communicating with you (like when you’re talking to someone, listening to a podcast, or watching TV), then you aren’t in solitude.

According to Newport’s definition, I hadn’t been in solitude for years. But skiing alone, I began to think about my movement and form in a way I never do when I’m in a yoga class listening for the next instruction. I breathed deeper because my exhalations were the loudest sounds around me. And I worked out harder than I had in a long time.

When I returned to life at home, plugging back into social media and my headphones, I wanted to replicate my experience in Yellowstone. So now I do at least 30 minutes of exercise every day in solitude. I walk, run, and do core exercises — all in silence. Here are some the ways I made the most of my solitary exercises:

  1. Focus on your breath. The more you move, the more oxygen you need to get to your body. In order to maximize your workout, you need to breathe differently. During a cardiovascular workout like walking, running, and biking, you should be establishing a consistent breathing pattern. But while you’re lifting weights, exhale when you’re putting in the most effort.
  2. Be fully present. Being present really means paying attention — realizing what you’re doing and what’s around you. When you’re working out, listen to the sounds around you, and think about the way your body is moving and what you’re feeling. Unplugging is also a huge part of being present and paying full attention to yourself and your environment.
  3. Pay attention to a specific part of your body. Before your workout, set an intention for your body. What area do you want to focus on? It can be anything from your legs (wanting to feel sore tomorrow) to your heart (wanting to get it pumping hard).  
  4. Think about your “why.” Sometimes, it can be hard to motivate yourself during a workout. But setting an intention for the reason behind this workout — getting in shape, staying healthy, or feeling happier later — will make it easier to stay in the moment and finish strong.

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