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Expert advice from trainers on finding an exercise routine that's right for you—and actually sticking with it.

By Mallory Creveling, ACE-CPT
December 18, 2020
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If you haven’t worked out consistently before or you haven’t rolled out your workout mat for a few weeks (or months), kicking off a regular exercise routine can seem intimidating and overwhelming—so much so that it may dissuade you from starting up a routine at all.

But it doesn't have to be that way: There are tons of online options and at-home equipment choices out there, you just have to figure out where to begin. To help, we turned to fitness pros for their best advice on how to start working out, whether it’s been awhile or you’re completely new to exercise. No matter how you prefer to move, let their advice guide you to getting in a good sweat session—and keep coming back for more.

Find your motivation.

Before you start exercising, it’s smart to determine what’s motivating you to work out in the first place, Dyan Tsiumis, ACE-CPT, founding coach at MYX Fitness, tells Health. Maybe that drive comes from wanting to keep up with the kids, feel better in your body, or have an outlet for some stress relief—or a combo of all three. Whatever it is, just think about that “why” (maybe even write it down) and keep coming back to it whenever you feel your determination drop, Tsiumis says.

Figure out what you actually enjoy doing.

The key to consistency—which is the key to seeing results from your workouts—involves finding movement you actually enjoy. And uncovering that joy in exercise might require some experimentation, Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean and founder of Women’s Strength Nation, tells Health.

To help you find what type of exercise brings you pleasure, take a piece of paper and a pen and write down a list of potentially new, different, or previously loved activities you’ve done, Perkins suggests. Then, try out three activities each week. After each workout, without overthinking, assess if you enjoyed it. If not, cross it off the list. “Do that for a few weeks, until you find something you love,” she says.

If you’re having trouble finding what type of workout to try first, think about your history with movement, Brad Rahmlow, NASM-CPT, founding trainer at Rumble Training, tells Health. Whether you played sports growing up, loved snowboarding, or had a go-to workout routine that just faded away, think about what you really enjoyed, and use that as inspiration for what you might turn to next and see if it ignites your regular routine again.

You should feel a connection to the workout when you’re done—so take stock of whether you feel physically and emotionally good, Rahmlow says. That emotional connection to your workout will bring you back for more.

Look to your support system.

When it comes to starting a workout program, you don’t have to go at it alone, Rahmlow says. While you’ll find plenty of online options to hop into classes or work out with a trainer, it’s also super beneficial to your enjoyment factor and your dedication to find someone to move with you. Of course, it might still be tough to actually meet up with someone for a workout right now, but you can easily call a friend and chat as you both walk, or sign up for the same virtual class as your pal so you can discuss throughout or at the end.

If you have a friend who you know loves fitness, it could help to start a conversation with them, too, Rahmlow suggests. That friend might have a suggestion for workouts you should try, or they might invite you to join them in whatever activity they’re doing and loving.

Set realistic goals.

If you’re trying to make a change by getting started with exercise and staying consistent with it, you’ll want to start with a realistic and repeatable workout schedule, Perkins says. Beginning conservatively and then gradually building up your commitment level is the smart way to go. That means, instead of waking up on January 1 and aiming to work out every single day for an hour for the rest of the year, you'll want to start much smaller.

“I’ve found that it’s mentally better—and from an adherence perspective more beneficial—if you start out with a goal of two to three days a week of exercise,” Perkins says, suggesting at least one recovery day after your workout days. “This will build up your confidence to stick with it, so you keep going.” Often, when people miss a workout (which is easy to do if your goal is seven days a week), they feel bad or defeated. You don’t want that knocking you down. If you start with two or three days, and meet (or even exceed that), you’ll feel proud and ready for more.

If you thrive on goal setting, Rahmlow also offers a few, more specific ways to set your fitness objectives. For starters, think about what you want to achieve today, this week, and three months from now. And then create SMART [specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based] goals for each of those. Write those goals down and come back to them as you move throughout your week and months. As another option, Rahmlow suggests following a weeklong, 3, 2, 1 goal-setting exercise. For example, aim to try three different workouts this week at lunch time, follow two new trainers on Instagram for exercise ideas, and take one long walk.

Put it on the calendar.

One of the most tried-and-true ways to make sure you get in your workouts for the week is to actually put them on the calendar—and make them non-negotiable meetings you don’t delete. It's a smart way to stick with your workouts and one of the best ways to make time in your life for exercise, no matter how busy you get. “If your life is built around calendar invites, then your workout schedule should be too,” Rahmlow says.

You can also use those calendar entries to write down how long your walk lasted, the weights you used for your strength sets, or other details of your workouts. That way, when you look back, you can see your progress, Tsiumis says, which is always a strong motivator.

Create the space you need for your workout.

More important than equipment, it’s a good idea to designate a spot in the house where you can fit a mat—and fit in your workout, particularly if all your workouts will happen at home, Rahmlow says. Make sure you have enough room to move around and the space is easily accessible without doing too much rearranging.

When you figure out the workout you really love—maybe it’s cycling, jump rope, or strength training—then it’s time to start investing in the equipment you need for it too, Perkins says.

Consider the payoffs.

If you’re feeling your workout motivation wane, or you need something to jumpstart your drive again, think about the concept of cost and pay-off, Perkins suggests. Ask yourself: What are the benefits you’re gaining from your behavior and what are the problems you’re experiencing from your behavior? “If you can practice the daily consciousness around this, it’ll help,” she says. “Consider the cost of not working out regularly, as well, plus any benefit to that.” Verbalize these questions and answers to your partner or write it down, Perkins says.

Don’t dismiss short or low-intensity workouts.

All of your workouts don’t have to span an hour, Tsiumis says. You can get a great workout in 20 minutes, so if that’s the only time you have, take it. You also don’t need to do a super sweaty, heart pumping workout every time you start exercising, Tsiumis adds. A class like Pilates or barre might not always get your heart rate revving, but it’ll definitely improve your strength and stability. Mobility work will also make you feel great, but it won’t necessarily make you sweat. Mixing more intense workouts and weightlifting sessions with exercise routines that go easier on the body—and blending different types of training modalities—will also help you avoid burn out and injuries, Tsiumis says.

What’s more, if you’re just starting out, doing bodyweight-only exercises is a smart way to go, rather than jumping into weighted movements, Tsiumis says. Our bodies learn from repetition and when you’re starting with bodyweight, you gain a stronger sense of proper form and better proprioception, or awareness of where your body is in space (which also helps with form).

Gradually increase the time or frequency.

In addition to building your confidence by starting slow, your body will also better adapt to the new uptick in exercise when you ease into it, which will help you avoid burnout, Perkins says. Even if you’re excited to jump back into exercise after a long hiatus, take your time and don’t go all out. “Be cautious and careful to keep your mental enthusiasm and desire in check to meet your physical capabilities,” Perkins adds.

If you’re experiencing chronic soreness, enhanced hunger, or just a lack of drive or enthusiasm for exercise about 10 to 14 days after you started, you’re probably experiencing overtraining, Perkins adds, which means you went a little too hard. “If you’re going from doing nothing to 500 times more minutes per week of exercising, that’s beyond what your body can sustain from a recovery perspective,” she explains. “That’s a cry from your body that you’re doing too much and you need some time off.”

Invest in a trainer—or technology.

Tsuimis says heart rate training is a beneficial tool, because if something is too challenging, your heart rate will tell you. If a load is too heavy and your heart rate spikes, that’s a sign to drop down in weight. Or if you’re pushing through a HIIT session and your heart rate skyrockets, you’ll know it’s time to take a break and have a rest day after. On the flip side, a heart rate monitor can also tell you if you’re not pushing as hard as you think, and help you track your overall progress (as you get stronger and fitter, your heart rate will be lower during exercises that previously made it spike).

Another option: Hiring a personal trainer who will teach you proper form and how to safely progress your workouts. If you don’t have the funds for one-on-one training, consider looking for classes (even online ones) with an instructor who checks form and gives modifications for each exercise so you can make sure you’re doing it properly. 

Overall, be patient with yourself.  

“Don’t expect, if you’ve taken a break from fitness for a bit, that you’ll be at the same place,” Tsiumis says. “Our bodies are amazing, and you’ll get back there, and you’ll get stronger, but we don’t come back in the exact same place we left.” So be easy on yourself and give yourself time to get back to where you were—or where you want to be. If you’re just starting out, be proud of yourself for starting, too. “You don’t know where you’ll end up, but you just have to start,” she says.

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