One of the greatest things you can do for your health is to start an exercise program. Even if your goal isn’t weight loss, regular exercise offers a wide variety of health benefits. People who get 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week have an easier time controlling their weight, enjoy improved mental function and moods, stave off chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes, have more energy, improve their sex lives, and enjoy more restful sleep.
Of course, getting started presents its own challenges, especially if you have never exercised before or lead a sedentary lifestyle. Read on for ideas on how to safely get started and get moving.
Know Your Current Fitness Level
If you have not been exercising regularly, or have a chronic health condition like high blood pressure, schedule a physical examination with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. He or she can offer advice on how to begin exercising safely based on your specific health issues. It is important to make sure that you are not going to cause harm to your health by trying to do something good. Your doctor should be happy to support your efforts to incorporate exercise into your lifestyle, in a safe manner.
Knowing your current level of fitness before starting your exercise program helps guide your efforts in the beginning. Take some benchmark readings on common fitness indicators. Start by measuring your waist and weighing yourself in the morning, before exercising or eating. Record these measurements in a journal or notebook, or an electronic fitness app.
In fact, keeping a journal of your fitness efforts helps you track your progress, as well as the emotions you experience as you work your way toward better health. It can also motivate you or get you back on track when you see the results.
Next, take your resting pulse and record it. Normal resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute. Then, put on your walking shoes, make a note of the time, and walk for one mile at a comfortable pace (meaning, one in which you can hold a conversation without gasping for breath). Record your pulse again, and jot down how long it took you to walk one mile. This will provide you with a time to try to improve upon as you progress.
You should record how many push-ups (or modified push-ups) you can perform in a minute. You should also record how long you can hold a plank on your elbows. Finally, take some flexibility measurements, such as whether or not you can touch your toes.
With that baseline information, you can set some simple fitness goals. Do you want to knock a minute off of your time to walk one mile? Write it down. Increase flexibility, or strength? Write it down. Working toward a goal often helps you stick with a new routine, such as exercise, until it becomes a habit.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), adults need at least 150 minutes each week of moderate aerobic exercise, 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic exercise, or a combination of these two. In addition, you should incorporate strength-building activities two days per week that work all major muscle groups.
In the beginning, start out slowly to ensure you do not hurt yourself. Please note that some degree of muscle soreness is common following exercise. However, if pain is sharp, lasts for an extended period, or includes redness and swelling, stop exercising and consult your physician or physical therapist.
If exercising for 30 minutes at a time is difficult either physically or because of lack of time, you may split your workout time into 10- or 15-minute increments and still achieve similar benefits.
Start your exercise routine with a slow warm-up period, including dynamic stretching, and end it with a cool-down and stretching.
Gather what You Need
To begin, you need appropriate shoes, preferably ones designed for your preferred exercise. Walking or running shoes are a great investment, since they protect your feet and keep you moving.
A pair of shoes should feel comfortable as soon as you put them on. Try out a variety of styles and brands, and spend some time walking around the store to make sure they don’t pinch or leave so much room that your feet slide around. Make sure to bring the same type of socks you plan to wear when exercising.
If you want to buy home exercise equipment, try it out first. You can use a day pass at a fitness center, or check out the floor model at the sporting goods store. Once you know what you want, check out online ads and used stores for deals. You can usually find plenty of used exercise equipment for sale.
Don’t be Afraid to Experiment
One of the best ways to ensure you keep exercising is to find activities you enjoy doing. Go onto YouTube to find fitness videos, or head to your local library to borrow some exercise DVDs. You’ll find yoga and Pilates routines, dance and Zumba videos, cardio training, and so much more. Give them all a try. Borrowing them won’t cost you a dime, and you may discover something you love.
You may be someone who actually use a gym membership (two-thirds of people with gym memberships never go at all). If you want to give it a try, start with either guest passes or facilities that allow you to join monthly or weekly without signing any kind of contract. You can also register for specific classes, or join a community recreation center. Look around and see what’s available in your area; you’ll probably be surprised at the number of options you have. You can search online for “fitness centers in (your zip code)”.
Increasing daily activity helps improve overall physical fitness. You’ve probably read the usual things, like parking farther away and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. People keep advising you to do these things because they are effective.
You can get a fitness tracker that measures steps, and aim for 10,000 steps each day. If you currently clock in well under 10,000 on an average day, add 500 steps per day each week to build up your activity levels.
Rely on your own energy to do things like get to the corner store. Take a walk, or ride a bike, to nearby restaurants so that you work off some of that food and increase the number of steps you take each day.
Look at incorporating fitness in your entertainment, as well. Sign up for ballroom dancing, go miniature golfing, hit the hiking trail or the dance floor, or find any number of things to do instead of parking yourself in front of a TV or movie screen.
If you play video games, look into systems that feature exercise programs, such as Wii U Fit. You get your video game fix and get moving at the same time.
It’s also easy to move while doing something that’s normally a resting activity, such as watching television or reading a book. Walking on the treadmill, riding a stationary bike, or even doing callisthenic or stretching exercises are all activities you can do while watching your favorite show.
Monitor Your Progress
Tracking your progress in a fitness journal helps encourage you to keep going. Weigh and measure yourself weekly at approximately the same time of day, always before eating or exercising. Check your progress on those initial baseline measurements once a month or so, and adjust your goals as your fitness levels increase.
You may notice that your progress tapers off or stagnates at some point. This is normal. When your body adjusts and progress ceases, mix it up a little. Try a new exercise video, increase the amount of weight you lift, increase your repetitions, or increase your walking speed or add an incline. Adding short bursts of speed to walking routines helps improve stamina.
Finally, listen to your body. If you don’t feel well, or experience pain when exercising, take a break. Trying to power through may cause injuries, which might derail your new fitness program entirely. It’s much better to take a break for a couple of days than to sustain an injury that sidelines you for a week or two.
Establishing a new habit takes time. Despite common belief, 21 days isn’t the magic number; it’s different for everyone, and even for different activities. However, finding something you enjoy, and then making it a priority, makes building an exercise habit easier.
We would like to thank Ashley Williams, PT, DPT, for providing her professional input for this Guide.