After what may have been a long (and possibly agonising) build up to your new exercise program, you pull on your running shoes and hit the road. 300 metres later you’ve stopped, bent over with hands on knees, trying to breathe. God, who thought of this?! Starting exercise when you haven’t been doing it for a while can be a real challenge. Inactivity becomes a very comfortable state over time and breaking out of that is possibly the biggest obstacle. However there is great encouragement in the knowledge that the body adapts to challenges very quickly.
The secret to getting started is this: just get through the first six weeks. This is the period in which your body adapts to exercise stress most easily. Your metabolism improves, your muscles get stronger, your cardio system gets more efficient, and after six weeks you will find exercise easier and you can work harder. That’s when discipline is offset by motivation and you want to do exercise.
It is the mental challenges that are the biggest: post some wins! Motivation is everything. For that you need some wins and for wins you need targets to hit. Those targets are set when you create your fitness strategy. You may be able to design a strategy yourself or perhaps get assistance from a Personal Trainer – but you need one! Your strategy must be tailored to your current fitness (or lack of!) and build gradually. As you hit those targets your motivation will skyrocket.
How often should you exercise? We all have lives to live, time is precious, and there will never be a shortage of unexpected interruptions. So my answer to this question is ‘as often as you can manage’. The idea that exercise requires an all or nothing commitment is misleading and I’m sure it stops a lot of people from participating. Ideally you want to exercise two or three times a week to start. If you can’t do it that often, don’t worry. Every bit helps and the benefits will accumulate. Five minutes once a week will eventually become a full program if you stay committed. Importantly, you don’t have to be a gym junkie to get great results.
How hard should it be? In the beginning the frequency and volume of exercise you do is more manageable than intensity. For example a 30 minute walk in the park is more viable than a five minute uphill sprint. Even fit athletes who are training for an event will start with high volume / low intensity and work towards low volume / high intensity. So when you start out you want to challenge yourself but you don’t want to make yourself wish you weren’t doing it. Your exercise program should build with your fitness.
What are the mistakes people make getting started? From experience I would say that the most common mistake is to go too hard too soon. It’s not possible to get fit and lose weight in a week! However, this is the consequence of a bigger mistake: not having realistic goals and a well thought out strategy. As with anything in life, the better the plan the better the outcome. As the old saying goes: having no plan is a plan to fail. Exercise is no exception to this rule. Unless you know exactly what you are doing it is always best to get professional help – the return on investment is results!
What are your options? I think of exercise in terms of ‘cardio’ and ‘resistance’ with a multitude of choices within them. Of course they are interdependent but they each have a different focus. Cardio exercise can be any exercise that elevates your heart rate but typically uses light or no resistance. For example jogging. Resistance exercise requires increased weight or load. Load can refer to your own body weight or a variety of devices – anything from dumbbells to cables and bands. Resistance exercise places more demand on muscle, and the benefits include improved posture, balance, strength and overall function. These are simple definitions because in reality these systems are not independent. Ideally you want to position yourself somewhere between cardio and resistance for the most efficient functional and fitness gains. Examples of this are rowing and cycling, but there are an almost infinite number of possibilities.
The Nuggets: establish your goals and create a strategy, get help if you need to. Time is always a problem so find the cracks and gaps in your schedule and exploit those. Incidental exercise really helps – use the stairs, walk instead of driving whenever you can. Don’t make it too hard – set challenges that you can achieve and build on them over time. Once you are in the zone, then you can vary the volume and intensity from session to session. The trick to staying on track is to establish a ‘flexible routine’ based on clear goals. Once you are clear on your purpose you can create an exercise program that is relevant and will most effectively get results. You also want to choose a training style and exercise program that you enjoy. Exercise is not all about pain and discipline!