How to Start Working Out When You Haven't In a While (Or Ever)

Find an exercise routine that's right for you—and actually stick with it.

In addition to eating healthy, getting physically active is a great start to living a healthy lifestyle. But beginning a regular exercise routine can seem unnerving—so much so that it may keep you from starting up a routine at all.

Still, it doesn't have to be that way: You just have to figure out where to begin.

To help, Health turned to fitness pros for their best advice on how to start working out, if it's been a while or you're completely new to exercise. No matter how you prefer to move, their advice can guide you to getting in a good sweat session—and keep coming back for more.

Find Your Motivation and What You Enjoy Doing

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, told Health.

Maybe that drive comes from wanting to keep up with your kids, feel better in your body, or have an outlet for some stress relief—or a combo of all three. But 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, said Tsiumis.

Also, the key to consistency—which is the key to seeing results from your workouts—involves finding movement you actually enjoy. Doing so can make wanting to do regular exercise easier.

But 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, told Health. To help you find what type of exercise brings you pleasure, Perkins suggested that you take a piece of paper and a pen and write down a list of activities that are:

  • Potentially new
  • Different
  • Ones you previously loved

Then, try out three activities each week. After each workout, assess if you enjoyed it. If not, cross it off the list. "Do that for a few weeks, until you find something you love," said Perkins.

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, told 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 had fun doing. 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, said Rahmlow. That emotional link to your workout is bound to bring you back for more.

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, said Perkins.

Beginning slowly and then gradually building up your commitment level is the smart way to go. That means, for example, 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," said Perkins, suggesting at least one recovery day after your workout days. "This will build up your confidence to stick with it, so you keep going," added Perkins.

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 offered a few, more specific ways to set your fitness objectives:

  • Think about what you want to achieve on a particular day and week and three months later.
  • 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 suggested following a weeklong, 3, 2, 1 goal-setting exercise. For example, aim to try three different workouts this week at lunchtime, follow two new trainers on Instagram for exercise ideas, and take one long walk.

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. That way, you can 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," said Rahmlow.

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, said Tsiumis, which is always a strong motivator.

Create Your Workout Space

More important than equipment, it's a good idea to designate a spot in your living space where you can fit a mat—and fit in your workout, particularly if some of your workouts will happen at home, said Rahmlow.

Make sure you have enough room to move around and the space is easily accessible without doing too much rearranging. And 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, said Perkins.

But the equipment doesn't have to be expensive. There are things you can use at home, such as cans or bottles for weights and old nylons or tights for resistance bands. You can also be on the lookout for used equipment when you go to a yard sale or visit a thrift shop.

Spend Some Time Doing Short or Low-Intensity Workouts

All of your workouts don't have to span an hour, said Tsiumis. The recommended weekly exercise time for adults is 150 minutes, but you can get those minutes by doing 30-minute workouts across several days.

You also don't need to do a super sweaty, heart-pumping workout every time you start exercising, added Tsiumis. 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—will also help you avoid burnout and injuries, said Tsiumis.

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, said Tsiumis. Our bodies learn from repetition. So when you're starting with bodyweight, you gain a stronger sense of proper form and better awareness of where your body is in space (which also helps with form).

Watch Your Exercise Intensity, Time, and Frequency

These are three major components of exercise.

Intensity

Checking your heart rate is a good way to figure out how intensely you're exercising. You can use heart rate monitors or fitness trackers that can keep tabs on your heart rate automatically. However, you can also check your pulse manually.

Tsuimis said 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 lighten your weights. 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).

Timing

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, said Perkins.

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," added Perkins.

Frequency

Fatigue and pain are both signs that you may be overdoing the exercise. 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, said Perkins.

That likely 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," explained Perkins. "That's a cry from your body that you're doing too much and you need some time off."

Look to Your Support System

When it comes to starting a workout program, you don't have to go at it alone, said Rahmlow. One option for support: 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 any workouts properly.

But while you might work out with a trainer or find plenty of online class options to hop into, you may find that you enjoy exercise when you find someone to move with you.

Of course, it might still be tough to actually meet up with someone for a workout. But you could call a friend, family member, or another person you're close to chat with while walking. You could also sign up for the same virtual class as your chosen support person so the two of you can discuss it during the class or at the end.

If you know someone close to you who loves fitness, it could help to start a conversation with them too, suggested Rahmlow. That person 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.

Even if you don't know anyone who's into fitness or can exercise with you, you could always join an in-person class at the gym or a club dedicated to a specific type of physical activity.

Be Patient With Yourself—And Consider the Payoffs

Finding your way, or your way back, to a regular workout routine won't happen right away. "Don't expect, if you've taken a break from fitness for a bit, that you'll be at the same place," said Tsiumis. "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."

Go 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," added Tsiumis.

And if you start feeling your workout motivation wane, or you need something to jumpstart your drive again, think about the concept of cost and pay-off, said Perkins.

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," said Perkins. "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, added Perkins.

A Quick Review

There are a few things that go into starting and maintaining a regular workout routine. For example, finding your motivation and ways to exercise that you'll enjoy are great places to begin. You also want to do things like set goals you can reach and actually make time for exercise. But ultimately, remember to be patient with yourself when you're trying to navigate the path to starting physical activity.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Target heart rate & estimated maximum heart rate.

  6. MedlinePlus. Sports fitness.

  7. MedlinePlus. How to avoid exercise injuries.

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