So you want to start working out, but you have no idea where to start. Awesome! Let’s chat.
First off, you should know that you have muscle imbalances.
Muscles work in pairs, with one tightening and the other relaxing simultaneously to allow the body to move. For example, to lift the forearm, the bicep must contract (tighten) and the tricep must relax (lengthen). Without this muscular synergy, we would all be stuck in one place! However, a lifetime of poor posture, repetitive movements, or sitting all the time can chronically tighten some muscles, leaving others weak and a bit limp.
The brain and body like to take shortcuts (which could be described as either lazy 0r efficient, depending on how you think of it). When this happens, they ignore the weak, limp muscles in favor of ones that can perform the movement with less resistance. This leads to all kinds of funky, harmful adaptations which increase risk of injury and decrease performance. The first step of becoming more fit is to figure out where your imbalances are and correct them.
Certified personal trainers and exercise physiology specialists are your go-to guys (and gals) to help with this. If, however, I just can’t convince you to get an expert on board, here are some very common issues:
1) Overactive calf muscles and a slightly turned-out way of walking and standing, partly due to constantly shifting our foot like a windshield wiper between the gas and brake pedals while driving.
2) Tight shoulders and hip flexors combined with weak back muscles and glutes thanks to too much sitting, especially hunched over at a desk, computer, or phone.
3) Weak core stabilizers due to, well, kind of ignoring them altogether.
Long story short: stretch the tight muscles regularly and devote some time to strengthening the weak ones.
Now it’s time to choose an activity.
Great! Now that you’ve addressed those muscle imbalances, let’s get to the fun part. What activity do you want to do? Here’s a quick list to get you started, but it is by no means complete:
· Dance or classes that incorporate rhythm and music.
· Martial arts in many shapes and sizes.
· Gym equipment (weights, ropes, cardio machines, and medicine balls, to name a few).
· Running and walking (leisurely, in groups, or training for a race).
· Community-driven fitness options, like CrossFit.
· The always-intense art of Parkour. (Ok. Maybe don’t start here.)
· Outdoor activities, like cycling, hiking, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding.
· Traditional aerobic-inspired routines.
· Mindfulness-based activities, like Qigong and yoga.
So many options may feel overwhelming, or it could be a positive thing: with so many paths to fitness, you’re bound to find one you enjoy eventually! Your best bet is to pick one and go for it. The only way to know if you’ll like it is to get some first-hand experience. If it doesn’t stick, try something else.
When choosing an activity, consider how you spent your time as a kid. If you played sports, you might like something group-based or competition-oriented. If you danced, try Zumba or Barre. And for those of you who really weren’t too active, try a gentle form of yoga or walking.
Even if you are confident of where to begin, don’t be afraid to venture into new territory as well. Exploring a variety of options is a good practice to get into early on, because it not only prevents that dreaded exercise rut, but will actually challenge your body more than one activity will over time.
Once you decide on an activity, figure out where you’re going to do it.
In this day and age, there are about as many options for activity location as there are activities themselves. To figure out which setting is best for you, consider the following:
If you aren’t confident with your technique, opt for an instructor. This could be in a group setting or individualized, whichever you prefer. You can find a personal trainer to work with you one-on-one, or you can join up with a group of individuals interested in the same activity. Physical activity can pose risks when done using improper form, though, so if you’re trying something new it is a good idea to seek help in some way, shape, or form.
If you have trouble holding yourself accountable and finding motivation, don’t do it alone. Classes or even workout buddies will be essential to keep you on point. If it’s all up to you to schedule the time, choose the workout, and execute it, there are too many opportunities for you to get distracted, discouraged, or disinterested. Signing up for a class that someone else schedules and organizes, and others expect you to join in on, can help you establish this new habit.
If the idea of working out in public intimidates you or causes you anxiety, explore at-home or private options. Sure, you could hire a trainer to visit your home, or you can go the cheap route and explore YouTube videos, fitness DVDs, or active gaming. These are excellent options for individuals with time constraints as well, because you can do the activities for any length of time, on your own schedule.
Start small and go slow.
Like, really small and really slow if you need to. I think sometimes we think that if we’re not going full throttle, we’re wasting our time, and that initial enthusiasm can set us up for unrealistic patterns when the newness of it all begins to wear off.
Instead, figure out how much you’re currently exercising (or not) and decide what a reasonable increase is for you. It might be taking a walk around the block or, heck, just to your mailbox and back. It might be stretching for five minutes or learning one yoga pose.
Starting small might not involve working up a sweat at all! Maybe for you that means buying the right equipment or watching a YouTube video a few times to start to feel comfortable with the movements. I don’t want you to underestimate your capabilities (you are far more capable than you can imagine), but it’s important to recognize that everyone has to start somewhere, and sometimes, that’s going to be the very beginning.
This concept applies to the intensity of each session, too. Starting slow means lighter weights, lower reps, shorter durations, lesser frequencies, and lighter impact. Going too hard, too fast increases your risk of injury and burnout, decreases the workout’s effectiveness and can even lead to very serious conditions like rhabdomyolysis.
If you set a pretty minimal goal, you can snowball your successes and keep the whole experience positive. Those little successes will boost your confidence and make the bigger goals, longer durations, greater frequencies, and higher intensities feel less daunting. Plus, you might find that once you get started you wind up going beyond what you imagined possible!
Don’t forget to rest.
If once you get started you’re tempted not to stop, you might find yourself burning out eventually. This goes back to that initial surge of energy that naturally comes from a new experience. However, if some of an activity is beneficial, more is not necessarily better, and this is particularly true of exercise.
In fact, most of the progress that you seek in working out actually occurs in the recovery between workouts, not in the workout itself. Exercise can be pretty brutal on the body. You’re basically beating it up and causing physical stress to your system in that sweat session. But as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; your body adapts to those stresses by growing stronger and more resilient.
In order to see those adaptations, you need to take days off. This is another reason why it’s important to simply start working out one or two days a week. Now, if you’re doing light stretching or slow strolls through the neighborhood, you don’t need full days off; with any other kind of workout, aim for at least one, if not two or three days to rest.
Some people prefer to take fewer total rest days and instead rotate the muscles they stress each session. For example, weight lifters might split their muscles into groups, working one group out each day so that the other group(s) get a break. However, even if you are rotating muscle groups like a pro, it is still a good idea to rest completely at least one day per week. If you really want to do something on this rest day, try stretching or walking.
Bust the barriers, whatever that means for you.
This is coming from someone who has worked out in her pajamas (more than once) because the thought of changing into workout gear on a cold, dreary day was enough to want to skip the workout altogether.
For me, the barrier on those days is the idea of getting changed into official workout gear. But rather than let that stop me, I just did my workout in the comfy, flexible clothing I was already wearing! Other solutions could mean wearing your workout clothes to bed, or keeping a stash at work just in case (I do this one too).
Some people struggle to prioritize their own self-care, as there is always something “more pressing” to address. In cases like this, try scheduling the workout like any other appointment or obligation. It’s just like budgeting: if you attempt to save whatever is leftover at the end of the month, there won’t be anything there; but if you budget a certain amount in at the start of the month to set aside, you won’t accidentally spend it on something else.
It can also help to up the accountability factor by enlisting the help of workout buddies, paid instructors or trainers, online communities, social media check-ins, or just a friend with whom you share your intentions.
Basically, identify what’s getting in your way, and find a way past it. Sometimes barriers stem from much deeper issues, like fear, anxiety, and poor self-esteem. If you suspect some of these (very normal!) barriers are contributing to your struggles, it might be time to speak with a licensed professional to get to the root of the barrier.
Remind yourself of your “why.”
If you’re working out because your doctor threatened to put you on diabetes meds if you didn’t lose a few pounds or because someone made a comment about a change in your body size, you’re probably not going to stick with it very long. Making such a huge change based on someone else’s opinion or values doesn’t tend to work out so well. After all, you’re the one who has to put in the effort! If you’re not personally invested, why bother spending your time doing something so hard?
Wanting to look a certain way or fit into a certain size might sound like your "why," but there’s a good chance that that won’t work long-term either. You need something really compelling, so dig deep and ask yourself why you’re bothering to exercise in the first place.
Maybe you’re afraid of a health consequence that runs in your family, like heart disease or diabetes. Maybe you’re sick and tired of struggling to keep up with your friends, kids, or dogs. Maybe your knees hurt, and if you don’t start taking care of yourself, an expensive and painful knee surgery is in your future. Maybe you suffer from low energy, and you’re ready to do anything it takes to feel less like a zombie each day.
Once you get started, I’ll bet you’ll discover that working out feels pretty good, too, and that will become part of your “why.” Sure, it might involve sore muscles and some heavier breathing in the moment, but all kinds of feel-good hormones surge following a workout. Plus, once you find an activity that resonates with you, you might genuinely have fun!
Don’t forget to reward yourself and move forward!
We always forget these last parts of goal setting in establishing new habits.
First, you need to reward yourself. No, an ice cream sundae is not considered an effective reward. No food should be involved. However, the reward does need to be something meaningful to you. Some people put money in a jar every time they work out, every month when they hit the gym a certain number of times, or whenever they hit a milestone achievement in fitness, such as walking or running a certain distance without stopping for a break. That money might go towards tickets to a sports game or concert, a massage, a new pair of sneakers, or any number of activities or (non-edible) treats that excite you.
The reward doesn’t have to involve money, by the way. You could ask a spouse or family member to take the kids for a night while you have a quiet, relaxing evening at home. You could give yourself permission to plop down on the couch for a good, old-fashioned afternoon of Netflix binging of that show you keep putting off but love.
It’s important to have some extrinsic motivators mixed into that deeper “why” that you’ve identified, as this can keep things fresh and exciting. It’s equally important to keep making progress on your goals. Increase the intensity, duration, or frequency; try a new routine or activity.
Basically, keep challenging your body and your brain so that neither gets bored or complacent. If you don’t progress your workouts over time and instead stick to the same beginner stuff you started out on, you’ll quickly find yourself in that dreaded plateau. Not good!
My take-away advice? Don’t overthink it. Just start moving more, and check in with how your mood and body respond to different fitness modalities. Pursue the activities that leave you feeling inspired, upbeat, and empowered; reconsider the ones that feel like cruel and unusual punishment. There is something out there for you, I promise.
Now get out there and discover it!