Older Man Using a Dumbbell

6 Practical Tips for Starting an Exercise Program and Sticking to It

Beginning an exercise program can be the start of an amazing transformation in your physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. Studies show that regular moderate physical activity has numerous benefits including:

  • Achieving and/or maintaining a healthy weight and body composition.
  • Reducing the risk of diseases such as stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, certain types of cancer, depression, and arthritis.
  • Improving mood by stimulating brain chemicals that make you feeling happier and more relaxed.
  • Increasing energy levels.
  • Improving the quantity and quality of sleep.

With all of these benefits, it is hard to make an argument not to include exercise in your daily routine. However, once you make the commitment to begin an exercise program, it is important to have a plan and adhere to some basic advice when getting started. Even with the best intentions, exercise can quickly become a painful and frustrating experience if you jump in too quickly without having the proper tools for success. Here are some practical tips to make the transition to regular physical activity as pleasurable and pain-free as possible.

#1 Start Low and Slow

The easiest and quickest way to fall off the exercise bandwagon is to begin to fast and push too hard. Start off slowly, work at a low intensity, and build up gradually. It takes time for your body to adapt to exercise so be kind to yourself and give your body time the time it needs to adjust. Trying to do too much too soon will inevitably result in frustration, fatigue, and injury.

#2 Take a Load Off

If you are new to exercise, particularly if you are significantly overweight, stick to exercises that are low impact. Low impact exercises are activities that are either non-weight bearing or minimally weight bearing. Low impact activities are easier on the joints and are generally more comfortable for overweight individuals. Examples of low impact exercises include cycling, swimming, water aerobics, and rowing. You may also include moderate impact activities such as walking or using an elliptical machine, in your exercise program as long as you do not experience discomfort or pain. Once you have developed a good foundation of fitness, you can begin to slowly incorporate short bouts of high impact activities such as running and plyometrics (jumping) into your routine.

#3 Dress for Success

Having the proper shoes and clothing is a must when beginning an exercise program. Purchasing high-quality clothing and footwear that is appropriate for the activities you are performing may be pricey up front, but I promise you it is worth the investment in the long run.

Shoes should fit well and provide good support. If possible, have a professional measure and fit you for shoes, particularly if you plan to engage in a lot of weight bearing activities like walking or running. Many running stores offer free fitting services. Having properly fitted shoes is critical in reducing the risk of painful conditions such as blisters, shin splints, and injuries to the joints.

Clothing should fit well and be made of high-performance synthetic fabrics that wick sweat away from the body. Fabrics such as cotton absorb sweat and interfere with the body’s natural heat regulation processes and can promote chafing.

Chafing is a common (and very uncomfortable!) side effect of starting an exercise program. Chafing most frequently occurs as a result of exercise that consists of repetitive motion of the limbs, such as walking, running, and cycling. When the skin continually rubs against clothing or other skin, friction builds and the skin becomes irritated. The most typical sites of chafing are the thighs, underarms, and groin.

The best way to deal with chafing is to prevent it in the first place. There are a number of options for minimizing chafing from exercise. The first step, as mentioned above, is to make sure that you are wearing synthetic fabrics that wick sweat away. Second, wearing compression garments can significantly reduce friction during movement and therefore chafing. Athletic apparel companies, such as Under Armour, have extensive lines of compression clothing designed specifically for exercise. Finally, several anti-chafing balms (e.g. Body Glide) and creams are available to reduce chafing. These products are applied directly to the skin and provide a protective layer that helps to minimize friction during movement.

#4 Get Fueled Up

In order to get the most from your exercise program, it is critical to make sure that your body is properly fueled by plenty of water and nutritious foods. In order to function efficiently, burn fat, and build muscle, the body needs the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals found in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy and whole grains.

Minimize empty calories by reducing added sugar and salt in your diet. Processed and packaged foods are the most common sources of added sugar and salt. Reducing or eliminating processed foods and replacing them with a balanced diet of whole foods will ensure that your body is appropriately fueled for exercise and has the building blocks necessary to build muscle and burn fat.

Eating real, whole foods is the best way to fuel your body for exercise. Using supplements is a tempting way to easily get vitamins and minerals; however, the body generally does not absorb and use vitamins and minerals from supplements as effectively and efficiently as it does from food. Also, unlike other drugs, supplements are not regulated by the government and therefore do not have any controls on contents or the quality of the product. Companies making and marketing these supplements are not required to verify the ingredients in the product, prove any claims of health benefits, or disclose potential dangers or side effects. Unless you have a specific vitamin or mineral deficiency that your doctor has prescribed a supplement to treat, it is always better to save your money, skip the supplements and choose healthy, whole foods.

Finally, if one of your goals is to lose weight, do not replace the calories you burn during exercise! It is easy to justify eating more by telling yourself that your body needs the extra calories because you worked out. However, this is rarely the case. Unless you exercise for over an hour at a moderate to high intensity (e.g. running 6 miles in an hour) you do not need to replace any of the calories your burned.

#5 Have a Backup Plan (or 2 or 3!)

Starting an exercise plan is the easy part – sticking with it in the long run is the hard part! One of the best things you can do to set yourself up for long-term success is to plan ahead. I suggest sitting down at the start of each week and creating a weekly plan that answers each of the following questions.

  • When will I exercise this week?  What days?  What times?
  • What exercise(s) will I do?
  • Where will I exercise?
  • How long will each exercise session last?
  • Who will I exercise with?

By making a detailed plan for the week, you have blocked off the appropriate time on your schedule to exercise. It also allows you to identify and deal with any obstacles that may prevent you from exercising. Inevitably, life happens and unexpected events occur that can potentially sidetrack us from our exercise plan. Brainstorm all of the possible reasons you can come up with that would prevent you from meeting your exercise goals and then determine what you can do to bust those excuses. Have a list of exercise options you can do inside, outside, in a small space, with little or no equipment, etc. Be prepared and don’t let the unexpected sneak up on you and get in the way of meeting your exercise goals.

#6 Get in Touch

Pay attention to how their body feels during and after exercising. At first, even minimal amounts of exercise can feel uncomfortable and unpleasant if you are new to exercise. However, as you continue to exercise consistently, you will begin to notice a change in how you feel both during and after exercise. Your breathing will become less labored; you can work longer and go farther with less fatigue, and you will begin to savor the feeling of accomplishment when you finish your workout. You will also begin to notice subtle changes in your everyday life. You may find you are less stiff when you get out of bed in the morning, you have more energy, walking a flight of stairs is no longer a challenge, and overall you are feeling happier and healthier. Pay attention to these feelings! When you are feeling down or tired and want to skip a workout, remember how exercise makes you feel and focus on the positive effects that it has had on your life. This will give you the motivation to stay focused and keep on moving!

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