While most of us know that exercise is good for our health, it can be difficult to begin a regular workout regimen. For those newbies, it may be unclear as to where to start, given the plethora of information available today about workouts. The good news is that it is never too late to exercise, and you can always start again if you have quit a former routine.
Today there are many options when it comes to workouts for beginners. You can exercise outside, at home or at a health club, where you’ll have access to a variety of machines, fitness classes and personal trainers. Or you can go to the gym sometimes and exercise at home periodically, depending on your schedule. What matters is getting started and being consistent over time.
One of the best ways to maintain health, exercise offers multiple benefits, including:
- Weight loss and/or management
- Reduced body fat
- Greater strength and stamina
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
- Decreased blood pressure
- Stronger bones
- Improved flexibility
- Stress management
- Better quality of sleep
- More confidence
Before beginning an exercise program, if you are over age 45, significantly overweight or have any orthopedic issues (such as knee pain), it is recommended that you see your doctor for a routine check-up and clearance. Your physician also may provide specific recommendations for your exercise routine based on your health history.
Also, gear up with the proper footwear. If you’re going to begin jogging, for instance, get running shoes – and don’t use that worn-out pair of sneakers in your closet. If you are going to do a variety of activities, choose cross training shoes. While you don’t have to spend a lot of money, having the right shoes can improve your comfort, safety and form.
Learn how to take your heart rate so that you can monitor intensity during workouts to help ensure that you are exercising in the appropriate zone. You can buy a heart rate monitor, which you wear to automatically read your heart rate, use the hand contact sensors on some cardio equipment or take your pulse manually by applying gentle pressure with the index and middle finger at the carotid artery on the lateral side of the neck. Count the number of beats in 10 seconds and multiply by six, or in 15 seconds and multiply by four to estimate your heart rate for one minute.
During workouts, beginning exercisers should aim for 65-70% of their maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is 220-your age, so if you are 40, it equals 180. Calculating 65% of 180 is 117 beats per minute (bpm), and 70% is 126 bpm. So, you should keep your heart rate between 117-126 bpm during cardiovascular sessions.
Finally, make a plan for when you will exercise and where (health club, home, park). Schedule workouts into your calendar and block off this time, ideally 3-4 times per week for 20-30 minutes to begin, and then increasing the frequency and duration over time as you become more fit. While beginners can be eager to get going, it is easy to overdo it, which can lead to injury or burnout. It’s better to start slowly and with light intensity, and then build on this gradually.
Beginners should start with cardiovascular exercise, which elevates your heart rate for a sustained period to condition the heart and lungs and build endurance. Depending on your access to fitness equipment, many options exist, including:
- Brisk walking
- Swimming laps
- Elliptical machine
- Cross training/alternate motion machine
- Aerobic dance
- Aquatic exercise classes
Cardiovascular workouts for beginners should always include a brief warm-up (3-5 minutes) of low-intensity exertion to prepare the body for the upcoming session. Then the workout phase should be 15-25 minutes, where the heart rate stays in the recommended training zone, followed by a 2-3-minute cooldown, where the intensity again is reduced and the pace slows.
During exercise sessions, monitor your heart rate periodically, and increase the resistance level or pace if your pulse is too low. Conversely, if your heart rate is very high and you feel like you can’t catch your breath, then slow down and reduce the resistance level. Always listen to your body, and stop exercise if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, winded or unable to continue. Seek medical advice if these symptoms continue.
While it is acceptable to have a favorite exercise modality, your body will respond better to cross training, or incorporating different modalities. So, if you like to swim, perhaps swim twice each week and cycle for the third workout. Or alternate jogging with the elliptical or rower to challenge your body differently and get better results.
Add more time, a greater resistance level or a faster pace to workouts over time, modifying only one of these factors at a time, and not more than 10% in one week. So, if you have been exercising for 20 minutes and are ready to go longer, try 22 minutes and adapt to that before increasing again.
Stretch after workouts to keep muscles loose, improve range of motion and help reduce the risk of injuries. Target the major muscle groups, including the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes/hips, calves, chest, upper and lower back, shoulders and triceps. You can ask a fitness professional at the gym to show you some effective stretches, or find a variety of popular options online.
Hold stretches each for 10-30 seconds statically for best results, without bouncing. Keep breathing relaxed while gently pushing through the stretch, but never to the point of pain.
Well balanced exercise regimens also include resistance training to condition the muscles, increase stability and improve stability. Here, you can exercise with body weight, dumbbells or barbells, strength machines or resistance bands. Perform exercises that work the major muscle groups, completing one to two sets of 10-15 repetitions.
Some of the most effective exercises include:
- Squats (body weight first, then with external resistance)
- Lunges (body weight first, then with external resistance)
- Push-ups (can start on knees and progress to toes)
- Planks (can start on knees and progress to toes)
- Chest presses
- Lateral raises
- Biceps curls
- Triceps overhead extensions
Again, a fitness professional or online resources can demonstrate the proper execution of each exercise. Remember, start with lighter weights or resistance bands first; then progress as the last few reps become easy. You should feel like you are really working to complete the last few reps of each set; if not, increase your weight slightly. Never jerk the weights, but use slow, controlled motion while breathing naturally.
As you become stronger, boost the resistance level or number of sets. Always focus on maintaining your form before adding more resistance.
You also can combine cardio and strength training into one workout, and many group fitness classes or exercise DVDs do just that, adding stretching at the end, for a comprehensive, efficient sweat session where all the thinking is already done for you.
Good luck on your fitness journey. Stay fueled and never quit!