Getting Started in the Gym: How Much Exercise You Need, How To Make it a Habit & How To Make it Fun!

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How to Start Exercising and Stick to It

Making Exercise an Enjoyable Part of Your Everyday Life

You already know there are many great reasons to exercise—from improving energy, mood, sleep, and health to reducing anxiety, stress, and depression. And detailed exercise instructions and workout plans are just a click away. But if knowing how and why to exercise was enough, we’d all be in shape. Making exercise a habit takes more and you need the right mindset and a smart approach. Whatever your age or fitness level—even if you’ve never exercised a day in your life before—there are steps you can take to make exercise less intimidating and painful and more fun and instinctive.

What’s keeping you from exercising?

If you’re having trouble beginning an exercise plan or following through, you’re not alone. Many of us struggle getting out of the sedentary rut, despite our best intentions.

While practical concerns like a busy schedule or poor health can make exercise more challenging, for most of us, the biggest barriers are mental. Maybe it’s a lack of self-confidence that keeps you from taking positive steps, or your motivation quickly flames out, or you get easily discouraged and give up. We’ve all been there at some point. Here’s what you can do to break through mental barriers:

Ditch the all-or-nothing attitude. You don’t have to spend hours in a gym or force yourself into monotonous or painful activities you hate to experience the physical and emotional benefits of exercise. A little exercise is better than nothing. In fact, adding just modest amounts of physical activity to your weekly routine can have a profound effect on your mental and emotional health.

Be kind to yourself. Research shows that self-compassion increases the likelihood that you’ll succeed in any given endeavor. So, don’t beat yourself up about your body, your current fitness level, or your supposed lack of willpower. All that will do is demotivate you. Instead, look at your past mistakes and unhealthy choices as opportunities to learn and grow.

Check your expectations. You didn’t get out of shape overnight, and you’re not going to instantly transform your body either. Expecting too much, too soon only leads to frustration. Try not to be discouraged by what you can’t do or how far you have to go to reach your fitness goals. Instead of obsessing over results, focus on consistency. While the improvements in mood and energy levels may happen quickly, the physical payoff will come in time.

Busting the biggest exercise excuses

Making excuses for not exercising? Whether it’s lack of time, energy, or fear of the gym, there are solutions.

“I hate exercising.”
Many of us feel the same. If sweating in a gym or pounding a treadmill isn’t your idea of a great time, try to find an activity that you do enjoy—such as dancing—or pair physical activity with something more enjoyable. Take a walk at lunchtime through a scenic park, for example, walk laps of an air-conditioned mall while window shopping, walk, run, or bike with a friend, or listen to your favorite music while you move.

“I’m too busy.”
Even the busiest of us can find free time in our day for things that are important. It’s your decision to make exercise a priority. And don’t think you need a full hour for a good workout. Short 5-, 10-, or 15-minute bursts of activity can be very effective—so, too, can be squeezing all your exercise into a couple of sessions at the weekend. If you’re too busy during the week, get up and get moving at the weekends when you have more time.

“I’m too tired.”
It may sound counter intuitive, but physical activity is a powerful pick-me-up that actually reduces fatigue and boosts energy levels in the long run. With regular exercise, you’ll feel much more energized, refreshed, and alert at all times.

“I’m too fat,” “I’m too old,” or “My health isn’t good enough.”
It’s never too late to start building your strength and physical fitness, even if you’re a senior or a self-confessed couch potato who has never exercised before. Very few health or weight problems make exercise out of the question, so talk to your doctor about a safe routine for you.

“Exercise is too difficult and painful.”
“No pain, no gain” is an outdated way of thinking about exercise. Exercise shouldn’t hurt. And you don’t have to push yourself until you’re soaked in sweat or every muscle aches to get results. You can build your strength and fitness by walking, swimming, even playing golf, gardening, or cleaning the house.

“I’m not athletic.”
Still have nightmares from PE? You don’t have to be sporty or ultra-coordinated to get fit. Focus on easy ways to be more active, like walking, swimming, or even working more around the house. Anything that gets you moving will work.

 

How much exercise do you need?

The key thing to remember about starting an exercise program is that something is always better than nothing. Going for a quick walk is better than sitting on the couch; one minute of activity will help you lose more weight than no activity at all. That said, the current recommendations for most adults is to reach at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. You’ll get there by exercising for 30 minutes, 5 times a week. Can’t find 30 minutes in your busy schedule? It’s okay to break things up. Two 15-minute workouts or three 10-minute workouts can be just as effective. And a recent study in the UK found that squeezing a week’s worth of activity into one or two sessions at the weekend can be almost as beneficial for your health as spreading it out over the week.

How hard do I need to exercise?

Whether an activity is low, moderate, or high intensity varies according to your personal fitness level. A brisk jog, for example, may be low intensity for an athlete but high intensity for someone who’s never exercised before. As a general guideline:

  • Low intensity activity: You can easily talk in full sentences.
  • Moderate intensity: You can speak in full sentences, but not sing.
  • High intensity: You are too breathless to speak in full sentences.

For most people, aiming for moderate intensity exercise is sufficient to improve your overall health. You should breathe a little heavier than normal, but not be out of breath and your body should feel warmer as you move, but not overheated or sweating profusely. While everyone is different, don’t assume that training for a marathon is better than training for a 5K or 10K. There’s no need to overdo things.

Vary the intensity for faster results

Boosting your fitness while spending less time working out is the Holy Grail for everyone who exercises. But while most proposed short cuts are simply too good to be true, “interval training”—alternating low- and high-intensity activity—can actually deliver results.

Once you’ve warmed up, instead of walking at a moderate-intensity pace for 30 minutes, for example, try interval training for 20 minutes. Walk at a low-intensity pace for one minute followed by jogging at a high-intensity pace for one minute, then back to low-intensity walking for a minute, and so on.

Alternating intensity in this way will help you to squeeze a better workout into a shorter period of time. And as long as your doctor has cleared you to safely exercise in this way, it can also help you to lower your blood pressure, lose weight (especially around your middle), and maintain muscle mass.

 

Getting started safely

If you’ve never exercised before, or it’s been a significant amount of time since you’ve attempted any strenuous physical activity, keep the following health precautions in mind:

Health issues? Get medical clearance first. If you have health concerns such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, or high blood pressure, talk with your doctor before you start to exercise.

Warm up. Warm up with dynamic stretches—active movements that warm and flex the muscles you’ll be using, such as leg kicks, walking lunges, or arm swings—and by doing a slower, easier version of the upcoming exercise. For example, if you’re going to run, warm up with walking. Or if you’re lifting weights, begin with a few light reps.

Cool down. After your workout, it’s important to take a few minutes to cool down and allow your heart rate to return to its resting rate. A light jog or walk after a run, for example, or some gentle stretches after strength exercises can also help prevent soreness and injuries.

Drink plenty of water. Your body performs best when it’s properly hydrated. Failing to drink enough water when you are exerting yourself over a prolonged period of time, especially in hot conditions, can be dangerous.

Listen to your body. If you feel pain or discomfort while working out, stop! If you feel better after a brief rest, you can slowly and gently resume your workout. But don’t try to power through pain. That’s a surefire recipe for injury.

 

How to make exercise a habit that sticks

There’s a reason so many New Year’s resolutions to get in shape crash and burn before February rolls around. And it’s not that you simply don’t have what it takes. Science shows us that there’s a right way to build habits that last. Follow these steps to make exercise one of them.

Start small and build momentum

A goal of exercising for 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week may sound good. But how likely are you to follow through? The more ambitious your goal, the more likely you are to fail, feel bad about it, and give up. It’s better to start with easy exercise goals you know you can achieve. As you meet them, you’ll build self-confidence and momentum. Then you can move on to more challenging goals.

Make it automatic with triggers

Triggers are one of the secrets to success when it comes to forming an exercise habit. In fact, research shows that the most consistent exercisers rely on them. Triggers are simply reminders—a time of day, place, or cue—that kick off an automatic reaction. They put your routine on autopilot, so there’s nothing to think about or decide on. The alarm clock goes off and you’re out the door for your walk. You leave work for the day and head straight to the gym. You spot your sneakers right by the bed and you’re up and running. Find ways to build them into your day to make exercise a no-brainer.

Reward yourself

People who exercise regularly tend to do so because of the rewards it brings to their lives, such as more energy, better sleep, and a greater sense of well-being. However, these tend to be long-term rewards. When you’re starting an exercise program, it’s important to give yourself immediate rewards when you successfully complete a workout or reach a new fitness goal. Choose something you look forward to, but don’t allow yourself to do until after exercise. It can be something as simple as having a hot bath or a favorite cup of coffee.

If your workout is unpleasant or makes you feel clumsy or inept, you’re unlikely to stick with it. Don’t choose activities like running or lifting weights at the gym just because you think that’s what you should do. Instead, pick activities that fit your lifestyle, abilities, and taste.

Set yourself up for success

Schedule it. You don’t attend meetings and appointments spontaneously, you schedule them. If you’re having trouble fitting exercise into your schedule, consider it an important appointment with yourself and mark it on your daily agenda.

Make it easy on yourself. Plan your workouts for the time of day when you’re most awake and energetic. If you’re not a morning person, for example, don’t undermine yourself by planning to exercise before work.

Remove obstacles. Plan ahead for anything that might get in the way of exercising. Do you tend to run out of time in the morning? Get your workout clothes out the night before so you’re ready to go as soon as you get up. Do you skip your evening workout if you go home first? Keep a gym bag in the car, so you can head out straight from work.

Hold yourself accountable. Commit to another person. If you’ve got a workout partner waiting, you’re less likely to skip out. Or ask a friend or family member to check in on your progress. Announcing your goals to your social group (either online or in person) can also help keep you on track.