Reading about exercise when don’t do it is like looking up at a speeding train on an overpass. I’d be doing fine if I were up there, you think, but I’m down here, and I’ve got no momentum.
Some people naturally gravitate towards active lifestyles, whereas others (read: me) find that hill a little tougher to get over. Once you’re out of the habit (or maybe you’ve never been in the habit before) returning to regular exercise can feel like an impossible task.
To help with that process, I thought I’d take a look at the basics of “getting back in the game” and all the ways to make the experience a little easier for those of us who are not natural sportspeople.
If you have a fitness background, but it’s been a while
It can be tough to get back into exercising, if only because you understand just how far you are from where you used to be. You know how to run, but your old “easy run” pace now feels like a sprint. You’d love to set new personal records or chase your old goals, but you can’t even do that until you spend months—maybe years—clawing your way back to where you used to be.
Getting back into things requires an attitude shift. You might do the same exercises you did before, but your old mindset isn’t necessarily the right one to adopt now. Be nice to yourself, and be honest about where you are now. You’ll have to go a slower pace or use lighter weights than you used to. Stay in the moment, and just focus on being a little better today than you were yesterday.
If you’re brand new to exercise
It’s never too late to start. You’ll have things to learn, habits to build and skills to develop. Accept that you’re on a journey, and things won’t be easy right at first. You also won’t see results instantly. Remember that you’re in this for the long haul, and that consistency matters more than the specifics of what you’re doing. Take the best advice you can find, but don’t be terrified of making a mistake. Nobody is perfect at the start. You can outlast whatever problems you encounter.
Start very—very small
When you start reading up on exercise programs and talking to fit friends about what they do, you’ll quickly build a mental list of things that you “should” do. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you remember one thing: do not try to change everything at once.
Pick one thing, just one. An easy one. Maybe you can do a few pushups (even if they’re just wall pushups) every day, or maybe you can start going for walks.
If you want to do workout videos, pick ones that you can actually follow along with, not something that wipes you out in the first five minutes and leaves you feeling sad that you can’t keep up. Never, ever blame yourself for being too out of shape to keep up with a certain program or workout. When this happens, it means the workout is just not the right one for your level.
I like to think about progress in two-week blocks. Pick something small that you can add to your life for two weeks. Not “I’m going to do this killer workout today,” but rather, “I’m going to do this medium-difficulty workout three times a week.”
After the two weeks are up, you can add something else. Maybe you’ll go for a walk or run on the days you don’t do the home workout so you have an activity to do every day. Or maybe you’ll make a change to your diet. Or maybe you’ll swap out the workout you’ve been doing for a more difficult one. Whatever you choose, make one small change and give it another two weeks. Then repeat.
Find a guide
There’s a reason Couch to 5K is so popular: because it gives you a whole plan. You can follow it for nine weeks (or longer, if you repeat some of the weeks) and you’ll always know what to do today and what you’ll be doing next week.
The two-week structure I suggest above is a plan—of sorts. You get to decide what you’re doing at each stage. If you like the sound of that, great! Stick with it. But if you have particular goals, you’ll want to find a plan that meets them.
Starting Strength is a popular program for beginner powerlifters because it gives a structure for weekly workouts and promises progress if you stick with it. Stronglifts 5×5 does the same, and has a particularly easy-to-use app. Neither of these is really for super beginners—you need somebody to help you learn the lifts—but the structure and the simplicity make them easy to follow.
For a list of workout programs geared toward different goals, I like this one that the r/fitness subreddit has assembled. At the very beginning, it doesn’t matter much what program you choose so long as you’re doing something, and it allows you to be consistent about getting more active. As you get more fit, you’ll have a better sense of what you like and dislike and a base of fitness that will let you hit the ground running no matter what type of exercise program you try next.
You may not find an exercise routine you truly love right away. There are two ways to approach this.
One is to see exercise as something that’s worthwhile even if it’s boring. Some people can really get into the zen of doing the same thing every day. It doesn’t excite them, but it grounds them.
The opposite approach is to keep trying different things until you find something that captures your heart. Try couch to 5k and see if you love running. No? Maybe it’s time to dust off your old bike and see if cycling is for you. No? Grab a pair of dumbbells and try lifting. You get the idea.
Here are some things to try:
- cycling outdoors
- jumping rope
- home boxing workouts
- bodyweight exercises
Stick with it
When you start exercising, you’re asking your body to do things it’s never done before. It’s normal to get sore. (You’re also probably asking your brain to do new things, like select the right sports bra or add up the weights on a barbell. Cut yourself some slack.)
Let’s talk about soreness, though. You’ll feel it the worst when you try something new, which is all the more reason to start with the easiest possible workouts. If you constantly switch up your routine, you may get sore with each change. Consistency will help.
Beginners often approach soreness as a problem: a thing that must be aggressively solved, as if there’s a particular stretch or treatment that will cure it. But the truth is that soreness just happens, and it will happen less as you get stronger. All the things people recommend you do to ease the soreness are more about distracting you from the pain in the moment. My best advice is simply to accept that soreness happens sometimes, and that it will pass.
Sometimes beginners will ask me, an avid exerciser, are you just sore all the time? And the answer is: I don’t know? Maybe? I often feel a tiny bit of soreness here or there, but it’s not painful. With rare exceptions—like right after a competition or a particularly rough week in the gym—I barely notice it. And once you’re used to your new workout routine, you won’t either.
This article has been updated since its original publish date.