Think back to when you were sixteen years old: what was your dream car? Imagine you could have that car when you were sixteen, but it would be the only car you would ever drive for the rest of your life. How would you take care of that car? Feed it the right fuel, run it regularly, get routine check-ups, surely. Now think about this: when you were sixteen (ish) years old, instead of getting your dream car, you got your adult body, the only body you would ever have for the rest of your life. While brain development continues into your 20s, all of your metabolic processes were beginning to plateau to how they would function for your adult life, until they begin to decline in later adulthood1.
How have you taken care of your body since you were sixteen? One of the best things you will ever do for yourself is create a lifestyle that includes regular exercise. People who exercise regularly have been known to have decreased risk of comorbid diseases, as well as improved mental health. I became passionate about exercise science when I realized how many people in the US were dying from preventable diseases. According to the CDC, heart disease has been the number one cause of death in Americans2. Heart disease is most often the result of inactivity, a poor diet, obesity, and/or smoking3: ALL lifestyle elements that are 100% in our control. Whether or not you are genetically predisposed to heart disease, or any of its risk factors, regular exercise and a complete diet will aid in prevention and contribute to overall health and function. Heart disease may be killing us, but we are still living longer than previous generations. We can do something about how those later years look and feel for us right now.
Even if you are a few (or many) years past sixteen, you can turn your health around and get on track to preventing disease, losing weight, improving performance, and overall just feeling better. Along with health improvements, exercise can have a number of movement benefits, including improved quality of movement for functional tasks, and specific movement skills, depending on what your body requires and how you train.
And therein lies the ultimate question: How should you work out? What is the “right” mode of training for you? There are a lot of activities that can get you to where you want to be: walking, swimming, weight lifting, yoga, pilates, muay thai, kickboxing, run clubs, group fitness classes, rock climbing, cross fit, cycling, and many many more. You could even combine some of these training styles and create a dynamic routine.
Just like your dream car, there is no one-size-fits-all for choosing your workout. This article will provide you with some important considerations for making your next steps into exercise, whether you are a beginner, or you are looking to change your regular routine.
Time is probably the greatest limiting factor in exercise, and the number one excuse NOT to work out. Your first step is getting real with your schedule: how much time are you willing to commit to your exercise per week? Next, how can you practically break that down into individual days? The only right answer to these questions is what works for you. The CDC has recommendations for weekly activity in adults (150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity OR 175 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week), and in their most recent publication, have found that cardio bouts that are less than 10 minutes can still provide benefits in cardiovascular health4. So, if you can only pop into the gym for 20 minutes and get 8 minutes of intentional exercise in, you are still doing good for your body.
Another consideration with time is working around others’ schedules. Maybe you have kids or pets, or you want to go to a fitness class at a specific time. Shifting your schedule to make everything fit can be challenging, just remember that there are always possibilities to make it work. One of the ways I work through problems is by replacing “buts” with “ands”. For example: “I really want to go to a Zumba class at 5:00, BUT my son has soccer practice at 4:45” becomes “I really want to go to a Zumba class at 5:00, AND my son has soccer practice at 4:45.” With the “and” in place, there is more space to come up with solutions.
Once you plan your time, commit to working your plan. It will take a while to get used to a new routine, but stick to it, and use motivation techniques to keep you on track (more about that later). I also advise giving yourself some flexibility: if you are unable to get your workout in one day, have a backup day. I usually reserve a couple of hours on Saturday, and if I get all of my workouts in that week, I have a couple of hours to relax and take some self-care time.
Take-aways: plan your time, work your plan, be flexible.
Let’s start with goals. Commitments fall apart when there are no goals to attain. “My doctor said I should exercise” is not a goal, and not very motivating. The best goals are SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. For example, my current goal is to back squat 205 pounds for one repetition in three months. The amount of weight and number of repetitions is specific; “one repetition” is determined by a one-rep max test, making it measurable; I know it is attainable based on my current max at 185 pounds and realistic based on my current exercise routine and level of fitness; it is timely because I will accomplish it in three months (not “eventually”).
Your goals may be related to cardiovascular fitness or more functional, like walking/running a certain distance, or being able to ascend and descend stairs without getting tired or sore, and that is great! SMART goals can be applied to anything and can (and should) be used for both long- and short-term goals. The example above is a long-term goal for me, my short-term SMART goal is to back squat 165 for 5 sets of 3 repetitions at the end of my next month of training, which will indicate that I am on track toward my long-term SMART goal.
The other importance in setting goals it that it will inform the type of exercise you pursue. For example, if your goal is to be able to lift more weight, you probably would not plan to run six days per week. For health centered goals, I recommend a combination of cardiovascular and strength training. It is important for health to achieve variability in heart rate, having some light days and some more intense days. For performance goals, it is also important to vary intensity, as well as general and specific skills training. With my squat goal, I need to work both total muscle strength (general) and my actual squat technique and musculature (specific).
Some of this may seem overwhelming, and you can always enlist a personal trainer, physical therapist, or a coach to help you get your goals and training options clear. Having a friend, a coach, and/or a trainer who knows your goals and is committed to keeping you accountable can be powerful in your journey toward your goals. It can also be motivating to have someone exercise with you. Enroll your friends and family into your healthy lifestyle, and you will all benefit!
Some people find motivation and success by holding themselves accountable with trackers, check lists, or small rewards. My one request is that you do not use “junk food” as a reward: firstly, because you are not a dog, and mostly because you do not deserve to take even one baby-step backward after the hard work you have put into your fitness.
Take-aways: set long- and short-term SMART goals, form a support system, set up structures for ongoing motivation.
This section is tough, as it is another great limiting factor in physical activity; however, it is necessary to make your fitness plan and goals realistic. If you have an idea of your interests, take a look at your resources: can you budget for a gym membership and/or the equipment required for your activity? Is the location and travel time doable for you? You may also need to add in travel time when you budget your time. Money and fitness have a funny relationship in that some do not want to spend money on something they are not sure they are committed to, and others are able to commit to something more easily if they spend money on it. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, do what will work for you.
If you are a beginner, most gyms that you join will include free group fitness classes and a consultation with a personal trainer: USE THIS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE! Even if you cannot afford or do not want personal training sessions, trainers are excellent resources for goal setting and assistance on machines, technique, and safety in the gym. And while trainers working on commission do have an incentive to sell their services, most are more than willing to give free advice (NOT free workouts).
I will also make a short plug for physical therapy (PT): if you require exercise for health benefit and/or have any type of movement dysfunction or exercise precautions, setting up appointments with a physical therapist will ensure that you are getting started with a safe routine that is appropriate for you. It is also a perk that insurance covers PT, and most states offer direct access, meaning you do not need a prescription from your doctor to set up an appointment.
Take-aways: Get real about your budget, use (trusted) resources.
This is probably the most obvious: DO WHAT YOU LOVE! It is challenging to commit to something that you do not like, and it is good to know that multiple modes of exercise can help accomplish the similar goals. If you are looking for cardiovascular benefits, you can walk, run, cycle, swim, dance, hike, etc. If you are looking for strength benefits, you can perform strength training through traditional free weight lifting, cross fit, kettle bells, body weight exercise, resistance bands, yoga, pilates, etc. If you are not sure what you like, joining a gym with free group fitness classes, or searching for community specials on class trials can be a great way to experiment. A word to the wise: stay on track by giving yourself a time limit on how long to experiment. The longer you stay in indecision, the less likely you will be able to commit to a regular routine.
Take-aways: experiment, align your preferences with your goals, enjoy yourself!
Getting into exercise or switching up your routine is not always simple, and it is important that you are acknowledged for taking this step for your health and/or your function. Making the time, committing to goals, expending the resources, and participating in activities you enjoy are important steps in a foundational lifestyle change. Your new lifestyle will impact your family, friends, and communities in ways you never could have imagined, and I am grateful to be a resource for you as you take on the challenge to be one less portion of the population affected by preventable deaths.
I cannot stress enough the importance of finding reliable resources, and performing safe, appropriate exercise for you. The internet is a wonderful tool, and there can be misleading information regarding certain activities. I highly recommend finding sites with research-based evidence, and even better, talking with a professional (certified personal trainer, physical therapist, etc.). The considerations in this article should be used to outline your exercise commitments and may give you a general idea of where to start looking for your ideal type of exercise.
The rest is up to you: get out there! Try something old, new, or just plain fun. The sooner you get moving, the sooner you will see results.