Congratulations on making the decision to start exercising and working towards better health!
Beginning an exercise program for the first time can be very stressful and overwhelming. I get it. You know you should exercise. You know it will help with all kinds of health issues. You know it will help you feel better. But you’re thinking…How do I start?? What do I do??
There are an endless number of options for exercise programs. But don’t let that discourage you. You can use that to your advantage because it means you can create a fitness plan that suits you, your goals and your life, perfectly. And if you’ve never exercised before or at least not in a really long time, then you’ll want to explore lots of different modes of exercise before you finalize a routine. There’s simple things like walking, running, cycling and bodyweight strength exercises. Then there’s more complex modes of exercise that require a little more planning like swimming, CrossFit, Barre, tennis, rock climbing and on and on.
You probably already know this but just in case, exercise can…
Improve your strength and balance
Reduce chronic disease risk
Help you sleep better
Help you manage stress better
Improve your mood
First, and this is very important, get your doctor’s approval for an exercise program. Even if you feel pretty ok, there could be underlying issues that you don’t realize are going on. And if you have specific ongoing health issues, your doctor can guide you to the best type of program for your needs and advise you of any precautions you need to take.
Figure out your goals, or, in other words, your “why”. What’s prompting you to start exercising? Why do you want to do this? Then, write your goals down so you can look at them from time to time to add to, reevaluate or check off. Here's a printable Goals chart you can use for that purpose.
You should also assess your baseline fitness levels so you can know if you’re making progress and reaching those goals you wrote down. Assessing your cardiovascular and muscular fitness as well as flexibility is easy to do at home.
To assess your cardiovascular fitness, measure your pulse rate before and immediately after walking 1 mile. Also track how long it takes you to walk that 1 mile. After two months of consistent exercise, do it again and note if your heart rate is lower and if you got faster. If so, then your plan is working!
To assess muscular fitness, note how many pushups you can do. This is a very specific measurement of chest and arm strength and not overall body strength but it will still give you an indication of your progress. Reassess after two months.
Assessing flexibility is similar to strength, it’s specific to the muscles and joints being measured. But it’s still something to help you check on your progress. To measure your hip and low back flexibility, sit on the floor with your legs out straight in front of you and a tape measure positioned flat on the floor between your legs. Position the end of the tape measure at your knees and hinge forward at your hips stretching towards your toes (or beyond) and make note of how far you can stretch.
The key to any assessment you decide to do for yourself is to do it the same way each time and to give yourself time to make progress before reassessing. Every two weeks is probably too often but every two months is a good indicator.
Time to design your plan. It’s easier to be consistent when your schedule is consistent but I know this isn’t always possible. Plan your schedule out a week or more at a time depending on what works for you. Make sure you include all components that are important to your goals. Things like strength training, cardiovascular exercise and flexibility/mobility. Don’t forget to build in rest days! Start slowly and progress slowly. Make the plan as simple as possible to start. You can always add on or change it later. And when I say simple, I mean seriously simple. Like, go for a walk three times a week. If you want to jump into something new by all means do it but if you’re overwhelmed, don’t complicate things.
Aquire any equipment that’s necessary or that you want. Workouts at home can be equipment-free but if you’re interested in getting anything, consider what storage space you have, whether equipment can be multi-use, and the ease of use (you don’t want something you need training on how to use it) Make sure equipment has appropriate safety features. The auto-stop pull cord on a treadmill comes to mind. If you are borrowing equipment from a friend or buying used, make sure it’s in good working order and not missing any parts before you start.
Set up a plan to help you be disciplined because you won’t always be motivated. The more automatic you can make your routine, the easier it will be to stick to it.
Listen to your body and monitor yourself regularly after you’ve started your program. If you don’t feel well or start to feel dizzy or nauseous or have pain or shortness of breath, don’t workout or stop your workout. Make sure you manage nagging pain or injuries appropriately and promptly. Ice, rest and stretch sore muscles or joints and visit your doctor if anything persists for more than a few days or is suddenly painful.
A very easy, inexpensive and convenient way to start exercising is to go for walks. Walk at a brisk pace for 20-30 minutes (or longer). Bodyweight strength exercises can be done anywhere, anytime. Things like standard or modified pushups (you can even do pushups against a countertop), squats or lunges and planks or sit ups.
Give any new type of workout at least a few sessions before you decide if it’s not right for you. Don’t stick with something just because someone else says it’s the best workout. And don’t be afraid to change things up if it doesn’t work for you. I’m a big believer in using the “Is it working for you?” measuring stick. If it works for you, that’s all that matters. If someone tells you that running is the best way to burn fat but you hate it, then it doesn’t work for you. Find something you love. That’s the best way to ensure that your program will last and that you’ll get the results you want.
Here’s an example of what a weekly program could look like if you were trying to get strength training, cardio, stretching and rest into your week.
M - Bodyweight strength training - squats, pushups, sit ups, lunges
T - 3 mile walk
W - Rest
Th - 3 mile walk
F - Bodyweight strength training
S - Yoga class or online video
S - Rest
Don’t let starting an exercise program overwhelm you. Start slow and simple and get help when you need it. Just start!