How to Start Exercising If You’re out of Shape

Finding the time, motivation, and methods to get fit is easier if you ease into it
By Andrew Lavender, Curtin University
May 13, 2019 Updated: May 13, 2019

Perhaps your doctor has recommended that you should exercise more, or you’ve had a recent health scare. Maybe your family’s been nagging you to get off the couch or you’ve decided that it’s time to lose some weight.

How do you find the motivation, time, and resources to get fit, particularly if you haven’t exercised in a while? How do you choose the best type of exercise? And do you need a health check before you start?

Overcoming Barriers to Exercise

Motivation

Understanding the effect that a sedentary lifestyle has on your health often hits home only after a serious event, such as hearing bad news from your doctor. For some people, that’s enough motivation to get started.

Surviving a heart attack or stroke can also be frightening enough to provide a great deal of motivation.

So, if you haven’t exercised for several years or haven’t exercised before, it’s a good idea to get a health check before starting.

Then, you need to find enough motivation to stick with your exercise program. You can try tracking your training or fitness level and setting some achievable goals to keep going.

Lack of Time

Finding the time and effort to fit exercise into your daily routine is challenging. We know being “time poor” is a common reason for not exercising. And many people such as office workers, and vehicle or machine operators have low activity levels at work and don’t feel like exercising after a long day.

One way to get around these barriers can be to attend a group exercise session or join a sports club. If you find exercise boring, you can encourage a friend to join you or join an exercise group to make it enjoyable. If you played a sport in your youth, that might provide an option.

Having a friend to exercise with or teammates to support you gives a sense of commitment so that you have to be there and will be challenged if you fail to show up.

Resources

You don’t need to join a gym with a lot of fancy equipment to get fit. There are many YouTube videos of safe routines that you can follow and adjust as you get fitter.

Many exercises—including squats, push-ups, and sit-ups—don’t require special equipment. Rather than lifting weights at the gym, you can fill milk bottles with water instead.

You’ll Huff and Puff—but It Gets Easier

You might be thinking about starting an aerobic exercise class, or walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling. All need oxygen to provide energy over several minutes or longer.

When we perform aerobic exercise, our heart rate increases along with our breathing rate and depth. This is because this type of exercise requires oxygen to provide energy to keep going.

When we aren’t used to this type of exercise, our body is inefficient at using the oxygen we breathe to generate energy for our skeletal muscles. That’s why when we start an exercise program, we huff and puff more, get tired quickly and may not finish the exercise.

But if we keep exercising regularly, our bodies become more efficient at using oxygen and we become better at generating enough energy for our muscles to work.

After weeks of regular exercise, the number and efficiency of our body’s mini-powerhouses—mitochondria—increase in each cell. This increases the energy they can supply to the muscles, makes exercise easier, and helps us recover faster from each session.

That’s why it’s important to continue exercising, even after a shaky start or a few setbacks. Yes, it can be a big challenge, but aerobic exercise gets easier over time as the body gets used to providing the energy it needs.

Yoga or Stretches? What to Expect

Yoga is a great way to start an exercise program and you can perform it at various levels of intensity. Stretching and other moves improve flexibility and strength. Yoga also emphasizes breathing and relaxation through meditation.

Yoga, like other forms of exercise, will be challenging to begin with. But it does get easier over the weeks as your body adapts. So, it’s important to be persistent and make the exercise part of your routine, with at least three sessions of up to one hour every week.

At the start, you may get sore muscles. While this can be uncomfortable, the soreness goes away after about a week. You can reduce this soreness by starting with low intensity and building gradually over the first month.

Once your muscles become used to the new movements, the soreness will be minimal as you progress.

Watch Your Joints

We know being overweight or obese has detrimental effects on the heart, bones, joints and other organs, including the pancreas, which regulates blood glucose (sugar) levels. Obesity also can affect brain health and is linked to poor cognition.

The good news is that regular exercise can help reduce these negative effects.

But if you are overweight or obese, taking up exercise can place great strain on your joints, particularly the articulating surface, the cartilage surface of bones that contact each other. So hips, knees, and ankles can become inflamed and painful.

So it may be best to include activities that reduce weight bearing, such as exercise in water or using a stationary exercise bike or rowing machine. Once you’ve lost some weight and your cardiovascular function has improved, then you can add more walking or jogging to your exercise program.

Food That Powers You Along

A healthy diet you can maintain in the long term is a very important part of any fitness routine. Not only can it help you lose weight, but it also can provide the right type of fuel to power your new exercise program.

Getting plenty of fiber from fruit, vegetables, and whole grains will help to reduce weight and keep it off while exercising.

Sugar, especially the type found in fizzy drinks and sweets, is low in nutrients and increases the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease. So cut down on refined carbohydrates such as some breads, sugary cereals, and refined pasta, since these include sugars we are trying to avoid and have had their fiber removed. Replace them with oats, carrots, or potatoes.

It’s best to avoid fad diets, which tend to be restrictive and difficult to maintain. They can lead to a yo-yo effect where you lose weight, only for it to return.

In a Nutshell

Once you’ve decided to start exercising, and had a medical check if needed, start slowly and build your exercise routine up over weeks and months. Make it interesting and enjoyable, perhaps by working out with a friend or group. Set some achievable goals, try to stick to them and don’t give up if you have a setback.

Weight loss and getting fit requires different approaches for different people so find what works for you and make it part of your lifestyle. Increase the intensity and frequency of your exercise gradually from a minimum of three times a week for 20 minutes to longer, more intense sessions more often.

 is a lecturer at the school of physiotherapy and exercise science at Curtin University in Australia. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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