Let's not delude ourselves: If there is an activity more boring than pedaling a stationary exercise bike, it has yet to be identified. The same goes for exercising on a stairclimber and walking on a treadmill (which, by the way, is listed under tedium in Roget's Thesaurus).
But that's no excuse to abandon exercise. You can use a number of gimmicks to divert your attention so that before you know it, your 20 or 30 minutes have passed and you're free to head for the refrigerator or couch. Eventually, you may actually begin to enjoy the sensations of sweat and fatigue, and exercise won't seem like a chore. The Stairmaster will cease to be the stairmonster.
Here are 10 ways to combat boredom on cardiovascular machines, whether you're at home or at the gym.
Do a crossword puzzle
Holding a pen and a magazine isn't as cumbersome as it might sound, particularly on a bike or stairclimber. And it's an excellent way to make time fly.
Be sure to choose a puzzle that's not too difficult: There's no reason to tax your brain \o7 and\f7 your body at the same time. Unless you're a whiz with clues such as "a mineral resembling feldspar," pass on the New York Times puzzle.
Dell crossword magazines are great because they contain puzzles for all levels and include such clues as "Mary had a little --------."
Cycle in short spurts
To break up the monotony, alternate five- or 10-minute bouts on the stairclimber--or bike or treadmill--with five minutes of weight training or other activity (besides eating). Contrary to popular opinion, it is not written--in the Bible, the California Penal Code or anywhere else--that to benefit from exercise, you must perform an aerobic activity for at least 20 consecutive minutes. If your goal is to gain endurance, you'll want to do 20 minutes consecutively. But if you're simply aiming to improve your health, that's not necessary.
"The bulk of evidence supports the (notion) that it's the total time spent that matters. Whether the time is continuous or broken into multiple bouts is really a trivial issue," says Rod Dishman, a professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia and an expert in exercise adherence.
Read a magazine
Don't try to impress the guy on the treadmill next to you with the New Republic. Chances are, he won't even notice, and then you're stuck with articles about peace-keeping operations in Tajikstan.
Go with magazines such as People that contain stories you can actually finish; forget Vanity Fair unless you're planning an all-nighter on the treadmill. Fitness magazines are a good bet. They'll validate what you're doing, and the articles tend to include lists you can skim, such as "Six Moves to a Better Butt Now" and "25 Ways to Stop Craving Chocolate."
If possible, schedule your workout during "Seinfeld," "Roseanne" or other shows that'll keep you laughing (and for variety, crank up your intensity during the commercials). This isn't the time for "Bassmasters" on the Nashville Network--unless of course, you are eager to learn "strategies for catching more fish more often."
Think--but not too hard
"People tend to have their most creative ideas when they're doing something that's repetitive and doesn't involve their mind completely," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago professor who is an expert on boredom.
But don't set out to solve the health care crisis. Instead, use your time to ponder more solvable dilemmas, Csikszentmihalyi says, "like how to get your boss off your back." He suggests keeping a tape recorder handy in case a flash of brilliance comes along.
Monitor your heart rate
The number of times your heart beats per minute during exercise is a great indicator of stress on your body. If your heart rate is too high, you need to slow down; if it's too low, you should speed up. Some exercise bikes and treadmills come with built-in heart-rate monitors. If yours doesn't, you can buy a monitor for about $100 or you can take your pulse manually. Ask a trainer to help you determine your range of safe heart rates.
"Monitoring your heart rate continuously will keep you busy, and it will make your workout more effective," says Kevin Smith, a fitness consultant at Busybody, an exercise equipment store in West Los Angeles.
Make use of the machine's gadgetry
With their flashing dots, beeping arrows, interval programs and plentiful feedback, today's high-tech machines have eliminated some of the monotony from indoor exercise. Periodically check how many miles you've walked, stairs you've climbed or calories you've burned. (Keep in mind that the calorie estimates aren't always accurate, and even the best machines can't factor in your metabolism. And if you're clenching or leaning on the side railings of your stairclimber, you're not burning as many calories as the machine says you are.)
Talk on the phone or to a friend
Some people think that if they're able to speak while exercising, they must not be doing their body any good. That's not true. "Your breathing should not be so labored that you can't carry on a conversation," Dishman says.
Listen to music
Rock, rap, pop, country--go with whatever gets your adrenaline pumping. If Vivaldi works for you, so be it. A tape that mixes fast and slow songs can add variety to your workout, because your intensity tends to go in sync with the music. "The Eagles Greatest Hits"--with "Life in the Fast Lane" and "Take It Easy"--has a perfect blend.
Sing--to yourself, if you want to retain your gym membership
If all else fails, you can resort to the old time-killing standby, "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." You might want to try this gym adaptation:
\o7 100 bottles of beer on the wall 100 bottles of beer, If I stop exercising and go to the mall I won't be able to drink any more beer at all.\f7