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Answer by Leo Polovets, CrossFit Trainer (Level 1). 6 years of Crossfit + 10 years of running, cycling, and triathlons.
There are tons of great tips, hacks, and strategies for exercising more, exercising better, and becoming more fit. For the sake of common decency, I'm going to try keeping this answer to 2,000 words or less.
Exercising More Frequently
The hardest part of exercising is actually doing it. The gym is too far, you're tired, you're sore, you need to lose some weight first, you don't have time, your wrist hurts, you ate too much for lunch, you already went three days ago, blah blah blah. There are plenty of available justifications, and not exercising is so much easier than the alternative. Here are some tips to get past the excuses:
Find physical activities you think are fun. This is probably the most effective hack for exercising more: find something that is exercise but which doesn't feel like exercise. For some people this might be biking or hiking, for others it's playing volleyball or basketball with their friends. Be open, try new things, and see what sticks.
Exercise in a group: CrossFit, Zumba, spin class, cycling club, whatever. Going to a gym by yourself can be hard because you are your sole motivation. When you sign up for a group class, you get subtle peer pressure and encouragement to work out more frequently. You hear things like "hey, where were you last week?" or "do you want to go to the 5pm class tomorrow?", and so you start exercising more often because you like being with your friends and you don't want to disappoint them.
If you don't have time to go to the gym, come up with a 10 or 15-minute routine that you can do before taking a shower. For example, do a few rounds of 10 push-ups, 15 sit-ups, and 20 squats (depending on your ability). If you're about to take a shower anyway, spend a little bit of time working up a sweat and getting healthier. As a tangential benefit, the shower will feel even nicer and more relaxing.
Put a pull-up bar in your doorway. Commit to doing one pull-up every time you leave the room. Then do one every time you leave and again when you re-enter. Then do two. Pretty soon, you might discover that you've somehow become able to do 25 pull-ups in a row. A very pleasant surprise, indeed. (If you can't do a regular pull-up, you can try jumping pull-ups or pull-ups assisted with elastic bands. See my answer to: What exercises can I do that will help me do pull-ups?)
- Join a gym that is close to where you live or work. Ideally, the gym is within walking distance. A short drive is okay, too. If your gym is 25 minutes away, that means 45 minutes of exercise turns into a two-hour ordeal of driving, sitting through traffic, showering, and, finally, a little bit of working out. The more time-consuming and daunting the routine sounds, the less frequently you will do it -- until you stop doing it completely. It's better to pay a little more for a close gym that you use than to pay less for a far away gym that you never go to. Keeping a little bit of equipment at home is another effective approach.
Read a book on bodyweight exercises. A good one is You Are Your Own Gym. If you have a large repertoire of things you can do without any equipment, then you will have the ability to exercise in any place at any time. This is huge, and eliminates excuses like "I sit at a desk all day and don't have access to a gym" or "I'm traveling and don't have any equipment in my hotel room."
Exercise while you watch TV. Make it a game. For example, do 20 jumping jacks every time there is a commercial or 5 push-ups every time a news story mentions Barack Obama. One of my friends loves watching tennis, and he will do push-ups or sit-ups after each tennis game depending on who won. It's a corny system, but it works.
Sign up for a race with friends. The race could be a mud run, a 10K, a triathlon, or anything else. Having a goal is motivating and having friends to work with makes the training fun. A bonus is that after doing one race, most people want to do more races and end up training and exercising for many years.
Don't be afraid of becoming "big". This advice is mostly for women, who are often reluctant to include weights in their routine for fear of looking bulkier or less feminine. Don't worry, that's not going to happen. Bulking up is 25% exercise and 75% calorie consumption, so if you're not finishing every meal with a 32oz protein shake, you don't need to worry about looking big. Check out the top 3 women from the 2011 CrossFit games in the picture below. They are some of the fittest people in the world and are often working out 3+ hours a day with heavy weights, and yet they still look "normal". If they do not look like bodybuilders despite their time in the gym, then neither will you.
Exercising More Effectively
Once you're exercising, you want to get the most out of it. Here are some ideas for doing that:
Keep a logbook. How long did it take you to run 2 miles today vs. last month vs. last year? How many more push-ups can you do now compared to back in April? Having a logbook reveals your strengths and weaknesses, shows you where you need to apply more effort, provides clues about persistent injuries ("Hmmm, it seems like my knees hurt whenever I do a hill run that's more than 3 miles."), and indicates progress. Every time you work out, write down 1-2 sentences about what you did, how you felt doing it, and what you'd do differently next time. For example: "Ran around Lake Merced in 34 minutes and 17 seconds. 1 minute faster than last Monday! Felt great, but a little tired and dehydrated in the last mile. I should drink more fluids before the next time I do this."
Vary your exercises. If you're a professional athlete, your goal is optimize performance in a very specific way. If you're an average Joe or Jane, you probably just want to be healthy and fit. Fitness includes many components: endurance, strength, stamina, coordination, flexibility, agility, etc. Don't just practice one thing at the expense of everything else; practice a little bit of everything.
Every day, do one thing you suck at for 5-10 minutes. Practice handstands, push-ups, running, cartwheels, swimming, etc. Work on whatever it is that you find frustrating. This has *tons* of benefits: 1) When you suck at something but then get good at it over time, you feel *amazing*. 2) Working on things that are hard for you will make you better-rounded in terms of fitness (see previous point). 3) Plenty of studies show that doing something you don't want to do builds willpower. With more willpower, you'll have ever less trouble exercising on a regular basis. 4) Along with feeling awesome, reaching milestones is very motivating. Once I hit my first handstand, I was incredibly proud, but also wondered if I could hold it for 5 seconds. How about 10 seconds? Could I do a push-up from that position? Several push-ups? Walk 10 feet? 25 feet? 100 feet? (The answer to half of these question is 'no', but it will be 'yes' with enough time.)
Understand how to use weights. First, you get the most benefit from the reps that are close to failure, so always try to squeeze out one more rep if you can do so with good form. Second, different weights have different benefits: a heavy weight that you can lift 1-5 times will increase your strength; a light weight that you can lift 15 or more times will improve your muscle tone and muscular endurance; an in-between weight gives you some strength and some muscle-building.
- As you get more advanced, start doing interval training. Working smarter often trumps working harder, and exercising is no exception. Studies have shown that protocols like Tabata intervals (20 seconds of hard work, 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times) are more effective at improving endurance than long, sustained efforts. Think about that: doing 5 minutes of interval training will help you more with running a 10K than running 10Ks. That's a terrific ROI.
Consume a drink with about 10g of protein and 40g of carbs before and during a long workout. Studies show that a 4:1 carb:protein ratio improves muscular endurance by about 57% percent. (See: Leo Polovets's answer to What are some good studies on what food you should consume before and after a workout for optimum results?)
Use the 5x5 program for building strength. I haven't used this myself, but a few of my friends have and all of them experienced huge strength gains. Adding 100lbs to a back squat or a deadlift is not uncommon for 6-12 months on the program. Check out the (slightly spammy looking) StrongLifts 5×5 website.
- Work out with a partner and have them encourage you. This is especially useful for intense workouts like CrossFit or Tabata intervals. When you're working out by yourself, you feel like you're putting in 100%, but it turns out that's not true. When someone is on your case, yelling at you to rest a little less or encouraging you to push a little harder, you discover your true level of ability. In CrossFit, I've seen people improve their results on a workout by 10-25% just from having someone to (encouragingly) yell at them.
Challenging workouts will make you sore, and that soreness turns some people off from exercising. While you can't get rid of soreness entirely, there are things you can do to lessen it:
- Protein and carbs improve endurance during a workout, but they also improve recovery after a workout. Try to consume about 15g of protein and 45-60 grams of carbs after you work out. Consuming less is fine, but you want at least a little bit of carbs and protein to kick-start muscle recovery and reduce soreness the following day. High glycemic index carbs work best.
Do active recovery. If you do a long run or bike ride today, try doing a light jog or short, leisurely ride tomorrow. It seems counterintuitive, but using the same muscles lightly will make the soreness less severe and less prolonged. See Active Recovery from Strenuous Exercise for more info.
Ok, still under 2,000 words. Phew. Good luck with your fitness goals! =)