Two women running outside.
Photo by Pegleess Barrios from Burst

A beginner’s guide to exercise: starting at square one

The odds are pretty good that you’ve exercised before. Maybe you didn’t think you were exercising, and maybe you weren’t even wearing exercise clothes, but it still counts.

Exercise beginners, here’s how to start fresh

If you’ve been considering getting into more structured physical activity, you might need a few pointers.

Figure out what you enjoy

Imagine how you see yourself engaging in physical activity, both the environment and the activity: Do you like gyms and fitness centers? Would you prefer to work out in the comfort of your own home? Do you love being active outdoors? Have you always loved to dance? Do you love the idea of getting in a quick run before work everyday? Or maybe you think a group fitness class will be great for motivation? If you like the physical activity you’re engaged in – or like the atmosphere or the company – you’ll be that much more likely to stick with it. The only reason you should dread working out is if you have unpleasant dinner plans waiting for you afterwards. Otherwise, physical activity should be relatively enjoyable!

Consider your goals

It also helps to think about if you have any specific goals in mind, aside from engaging in more physical activity to improve your health, of course – and that’s a huge one! Because let’s be honest, you’ll also enjoy exercise that much more – and be that much more likely to stick with it – if you have a good sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Maybe you feel stiff from sitting at a desk all day and want to work to get more flexible and pain-free with yoga. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to run a 5K comfortably. Maybe you want to get stronger before having children. This can help you hone in on and connect with meaningful goals that will help you stay motivated and feel good about your choice to be more active.

Get comfortable (in your clothes)

You certainly don’t need to completely redesign your wardrobe here, but you definitely need to be comfortable in what you’re wearing. If the activity calls for it – whether running or biking or walking – this might be a good time invest in some properly-fitting sneakers. Beyond that, you should just make sure you have clothes that allow you for a comfortable range of movement and are appropriate for whatever activity you’ll be engaged in – whether you’re wearing brand new yoga pants or comfy old concert t-shirts.

Ask a professional

If you’re very new to physical activity, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get some guidance first. After all, you don’t want to start working out in a way that might be too intense too fast or just not quite right for your particular health concerns. Reaching out to your primary healthcare provider for guidance is a great way to get started – make sure to share your goals for physical activity with them, ask any questions you have, and they can let you know more about what healthy physical activity for your particular body might look like. Once you have the green light from them, if you’d decided to attend a gym or fitness studio, ask a staff member to show you around and help you get a general sense of how to get started there, including what what the space is like, how to use the equipment, and when classes take place. Some fitness centers provide a complimentary fitness evaluation for new members, so if yours does, be sure to take advantage of it. And many also employ personal trainers, which might be something you’re interested in if you’d like some very hands-on, tailored-to-you guidance.

Come up with a plan

When starting from scratch, it can be hard to know where to begin. Taking some time to create a plan can help your new venture have some comforting structure. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out a plan that’s best for you, but here are some basic details you’ll want to extablish:

  • Different types of exercise: For most people, a combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, and flexibility training is preferable. Aerobic exercise, like running or swimming, works your heart and lungs. Strength training helps you get stronger, and involves using weight machines or doing things like pushups and squats. Flexibility training includes stretches that help your body stay flexible and limber.
  • Different exercises on different days: You shouldn’t do every type of exercise every day, because your body actually needs time to recover after certain types of activity. Instead, plan different exercises on different days. Generally, most individuals will want to aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, and two sessions of strength training a week. Flexibility training can be part of a cool down after exercise, and you can fit that in as often as you feel you need it.

So there are a lot of different ways you can combine these kinds of exercise. You might alternate days at the gym spent running on a treadmill and lifting weights, stretching after each. You might take a dance class with friends a few times a week, and then also do some YouTube yoga at home. You might bike to and from work everyday, and attend a group fitness class a few nights a week. There are so many options, so you can definitely find a rhythm that’s right for you. Again, your provider can provide you with some great guidance here.

You do you

All of this being said, recommendations and plans like the above might not work for everyone. Some individuals, maybe yourself, have health conditions or injuries that simply won’t allow for certain kinds of physical activity. If this describes you, you might work with professionals like your healthcare provider, a physical therapist, or a personal trainer to explore what sort of movement is safest and most appropriate for you. For some people, even gentle movement incorporated into their everyday can help keep their body as healthy and strong as it can be. Every body is different, and just because you don’t hit up the gym five days a week or will never be able to hit the pavement running, that’s entirely okay – it doesn’t mean you can’t stay healthy in a way that’s right for you. And this goes for everyone: When starting a new routine, stay on the lookout for signs of overdoing it. That’s not to say you might not experience some of that very normal, hurts-so-good pain that comes from an intense workout, but you don’t want to injure yourself.

Don’t overthink things

Physical activity can improve your life in so many ways, and you likely have so many great reasons for making this change. This being said, having too many goals – particularly goals that are pretty rigid – is a common source of frustration for people who are new to working out. Definitely take some time to appreciate what exercise can do for you and consider just what you’re hoping to get out of adding more physical activity into your days, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself right now – you’re just getting started, after all. If so very structured goals keep you going, that’s great! But if, say, you’ve decided you’ll bike for 30 minutes, five days a week, but you have a busy work week that rolls around and you’re only able to bike two days, don’t stress. Keep going, be kind to yourself, and stay positive. You’re making a great change!

Don’t wait

For beginners (and beyond), t’s totally normal to have concerns when you get started with a new exercise routine – you might feel overwhelmed by all the new info you’re learning from your personal trainer, feel like you’ll never be as flexbile as that human pretzel in yoga class, or feel worried that you’ll never really be able to stick to a regular walking routine – but don’t let these worries stop you from taking the first steps. It may take a while to find a routine that you like, and, besides, you want to start small anyway. Being active in way that’s right for you – whether vigorous exercise or gentle movement – is meant to enhance your life and make you feel better. So there’s no time like the present to get started!

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