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Ready, set, go! How to begin an exercise routine.

“Just go to the gym, get on a cardio machine and lift weights”. While this advice is better than no advice at all, I want to write about a few tips that might help those who are starting to exercise stay safe and feel more confident about their workouts.

Consistant exercise can do wonders for us: it can prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, and stroke, and even Alzheimer’s disease, some cancers, and osteoporosis as some studies suggest. Additionally, more immediate benefits include improved self-esteem, confidence, body image, positive physical changes and improved digestion. Exercise is also proven to provide a positive boost in mood and people who exercise regularly have lower rates of depression. This is due to endorphins, a chemical produced during physical activity. It is similar to morphine, and it makes us happy! (Think about this: next time you’re about to reach for a piece of candy or chips to improve your mood, try taking a walk or doing a few squats in your living room to try getting rid of the temptation).

Forming an exercise habit is the most important factor in sticking to it. Before making a schedule, look at your availability objectively. Look at how much time you can

dedicate to exercise each week, realistically. It is better to start slow and add more workouts later than start with an overwhelming schedule that you can’t stick to, making you feel like you’ve failed even though you haven’t even given it a good try.
It’s ok if at this point you can only work out twice a week for thirty minutes. If you make this a part of your life and stick with it, you can always improve from there.

Eventually overtime you might learn how to make more time for exercising even if right now it seems like you don’t have more time than two days a week (remember – baby steps and consistency are key). You can make it your long term goal to try to bump up your workouts to 30 minutes, 5 times/week of cardio (or 150 minutes/week) and strength training two times/week as recommended by the Cooper Institute.

This might take some time, and it’s supposed to! Habit forming is a process, so keeping that in mind helps to see the big picture, instead of focusing on the struggles. Perfection is NOT part of habit forming, but trying your best is!

Megan (one of the awesome DeCore Trainers) wrote earlier about how to stay motivated and provided some brilliant practical tips on how to stick with exercise, which are going to be extremely helpful for those who are starting out in the gym. Read it HERE.

When it comes to the actual physical part of working out, there are some things worth keeping in mind.

First off, as a personal trainer I believe in the benefit of having an exercise coach. My mission as a trainer is to make a program that is individualized to each person, a program that’s safe, progressive, effective and fun! Trainers make sure that the workouts aren’t too easy and not too difficult for optimal results. They keep the workouts safe and diverse, and they challenge in appropriate ways to improve a person’s confidence. Also, just like having a workout buddy, trainers help with the difficult part of commitment to exercise. In a way, your trainer is your workout buddy, a buddy with lots of knowledge about health and fitness!

However, not everyone can, or wants to work out with a trainer. This is why I will provide some basic guidelines for someone who is starting exercising.

For cardio beginners, it’s all about building up intensity and time up to your goal (goals should be revisited every 8-12 weeks).
If you’re starting a walking routine, and you can walk 2 laps on the track, try adding a half a lap at each workout. If it is too difficult in the beginning, add half a lap every week instead of every workout. The same principle applies to an elliptical, running and cycling. Once walking becomes comfortable, jogging on and off could be the next step. This is called overloading, which means that in order to see improvement it is necessary to increase the intensity, timing or type of activity.

Once you get comfortable with this level of cardio, or are starting from a slightly higher level of fitness, use a “talk test” to determine intensity of your cardio. If you are able to speak normally while exercising, it means you are performing a low intensity activity. If you can talk but cannot finish a sentence without taking a breath, you are performing a moderate intensity activity, perfect for long cardio sessions.  If it is difficult to talk, it means it is a high intensity activity. By keeping these levels in mind, one can create a goal by trying to increase intensity, or duration of a given activity.
If a certain activity becomes easy to perform, let’s say 30 minutes on an elliptical, one can move on to a more difficult activity such as incline walking or stair master.
About.com has great cardio programs you can subscribe to for free. I used it in college when training for a 5k race.

If injured (ankles, knees, spine, etc), it is still possible to do cardio training by performing low impact activity which includes swimming, cycling, elliptical, walking on soft surface (treadmill, grass, track, asphalt).

Let’s talk about strength training. Strength training is a bit more complicated, since proper technique and intensity are crucial to follow in order to prevent injuries. When starting out, stick with simple exercises to get you going. That will help you prepare your body for other, more difficult exercises by strengthening the main muscles.
I would recommend using exercise machines in the beginning. They usually include directions and they often force one to obtain proper positioning in order to perform the exercise. With time (it is difficult to define a timeline since everyone is different) it would be proper to include more free weight exercises, more complicated exercises (exercises someone was not able to do when starting out), and finally exercises requiring great body awareness and strength such as squats, lunges, shoulder press or clean and press.

Those with weight lifting experience and are getting back to it should also start slowly (not from a level of fitness they used to have but what they are able to handle now) and build up their strength and confidence for 3-6 weeks first before they begin strenuous lifting. Just like in forming habits, it is better to start slowly and increase with time than do too much and in this case risk getting injured.

A few other crucial tips for strength training:

  • Always warm up before and stretch after a lifting session.
  • Lift and lower weights slowly for maximum benefits (do not use momentum to lift weights)
  • Breathe.  Exhale as you exert (ex. breathe out as you’re lifting dumbbells upwards)
  • Always keep a proper posture. Don’t know what proper posture is? Find out here.
  • Rest and recover. Always take at least one day between full body training, but it is ok to lift weights two days in a row if you train different muscles each day (ex. lower body on Monday, upper body on Tuesday).
  • Use proper weights. Your muscles are supposed to hurt two thirds into the exercise (ex. in 12 repetitions muscles should start burning at 8th repetition).
  • Pick 8-10 exercises for each workout that you feel comfortable with and perform 2-3 sets of each exercise.
  • Overload. Just like in cardio training, in order to see improvements it is necessary to increase weights and switch things up, so the body doesn’t adopt to one form of exercise making it more difficult to lose weight, gain strength, and reach goals.
Remember: “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”J.Rohn
Good luck!