When it comes to exercise, I think about how to “get” started. But often, starting is not the problem. The big question is, maintaining it. The official Health.gov guidelines say adults should do strength exercises at least two times a week, as well as 150 – 300 minutes of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, every week.
We now know about more health benefits from physical activity — and how Americans can more easily achieve them. The second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans with the latest scientific evidence shows that physical activity has many health benefits independent of other healthy behaviors, like proper nutrition.
The first fundamental guideline for adults is to move more and sit less. New evidence shows a strong relationship between increased sedentary behavior and increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and all-cause mortality. All physical activity, especially moderate-to-vigorous activity, can help offset these risks.
We all know we should be doing more, but how do we keep moving when our motivation slips, the weather takes a turn for the worse, or life gets in the way? Try these 18 guidelines to keep you going.
1. Why Workout?
Our reasons for beginning to exercise are fundamental to whether we will keep it up. Too often, society promotes exercise and fitness by hooking into short-term motivation, guilt, and shame.
There is some evidence that suggests younger people will go to the gym more if their reasons are appearance-based, but past our early 20s that doesn’t fuel motivation much. Nor do vague or future goals help (I want to get fit, or I want to lose weight).
We will be more successful if we focus on immediate positive feelings such as stress reduction, increased energy, and making friends. The only way we are going to prioritize time to exercise is if it is going to deliver some kind of benefit that is truly compelling and valuable to our daily life.
2. Start Slow
The danger of the typical New Year resolutions approach to fitness, is that people jump in and do everything – change their diet, start exercising, stop drinking and smoking – and within a couple of weeks, they have lost motivation or got too tired. If you haven’t been in shape, it’s going to take time.
I like the trend towards high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but to do that every day will be too intense for most people. Do it once (or twice, at most) a week, combined with slow jogs, swimming and fast walks – plus two or three rest days, at least for the first month. That will give someone a chance to have recovery sessions alongside the high-intensity workouts.
3. You don’t have to love it
It is helpful not to try to make yourself do things you actively dislike. Think about the types of activities – roller-skating? Bike riding? – that you liked as a child. But don’t feel you have to enjoy exercise. There are elements that probably will be enjoyable, though, such as the physical response of your body and the feeling of getting more strength, and the pleasure that comes with mastering a sport.
For many people, the obvious choices aren’t necessarily the ones they would enjoy, so they need to look outside of them. It might be different sports or simple things, like sharing activities with other people.
4. Be kind to yourself
Individual motivation – or the lack of it – is only part of the bigger picture. Money, parenting demands, or even where you live can all be stumbling blocks. Tiredness, depression, work stress, or ill family members can all have an impact on physical activity.
If there is a lot of support around you, you will find it easier to maintain physical activity. To conclude that people who don’t get enough physical exercise are just lacking motivation is problematic.
Be realistic. Skip the idea of going to the gym five days a week. If you set yourself up with goals that are too big, you will fail, and you’ll feel like a failure. At the end of the week, reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Maybe fitting in a walk at lunch worked, but you didn’t have the energy after work to do it.
5. Don’t rely on willpower
If you need the willpower to do something, you don’t want to do it. Instead, think about exercise in terms of why we’re doing it and what we want to get from physical activity. How can I benefit today? How do I feel when I move? Or, How do I feel when I don’t move?”
6. Find a purpose
Try moving more at work. Anything that allows you to exercise while ticking off other goals will help. It provides you with more gratification, and the costs of not doing it are higher. For instance, walking or cycling to work or making friends by joining a sports club, or running with a friend. Or the goal is to spend more time in the countryside, and running helps you do that.
Try combining physical activity with something else. For example, in the workplace, try to reduce email, when it’s possible, walk over to people, walk to work, or walk a lot in the building. Try to make physical activity hit as many meaningful targets as you can.
7. Make it a habit
When you take up running, it can be tiring just getting out of the door – where are your shoes? Your water bottle? What route are you going to take? After a while, there are no more extended benefits associated with the activity. Doing physical activity regularly, and planning for it helps make it a sustainable behavior. Missing sessions doesn’t.
8. Plan and prioritize
What if you don’t have time to exercise? For many people, working two jobs or with extensive caring responsibilities, this can undoubtedly be true, but is it genuinely right for you? It might be a question of priorities.
The two types of planning: The first is “action planning,” where you plan where, when, and how you are going to do it, and you try to stick with it. The second type is “coping planning”: anticipating things that can get in the way and putting a plan into place for how to get motivated again.
9. Keep it short
A workout doesn’t have to take an hour. A well-structured 15-minute workout can be useful if you are short for time. As for regular, longer sessions, tell yourself you’re going to make time and change your schedule accordingly.
10. If it doesn’t work, change it
It rains for a week, you don’t go running once, and then you feel guilty. It’s a combination of emotion and lack of confidence that brings us to the point where, if people fail a few times, they think it’s a failure of the entire project. Remember it’s possible to get back on track.
If previous exercise regimes haven’t worked, don’t beat yourself up or try them again – just try something else. We tend to be in the mindset that if you can’t lose weight, you blame it on yourself. However, if you could change that to this method doesn’t work for me, let’s try something different, there is a chance it will be better for you, and it prevents you having to blame yourself, which is not helpful.
11. Add resistance and balance training as you get older
We start to lose muscle mass over the age of around 30. Resistance training (using bodyweight, such as push-ups, or equipment, such as resistance bands) is essential. It is going to help keep muscle mass or at least slow down the loss. There needs to be some form of aerobic exercise, too, and people should start adding balance challenges because our balance is affected as we get older.
12. Up the ante
If you do 5k runs and you don’t know if you should push faster or go further, rate your exertion from one to 10. As you see those numbers go down, that’s when to start pushing yourself a bit faster. With regular exercise, you should be seeing progress over two weeks and pushing yourself if you feel it is getting easier. You’re looking for a change in your speed or endurance or strength.
13. Work out from home
You don’t need sophisticated equipment. If you have caring responsibilities, you can do a lot within a small area at home. In a living room, it is easy to do a routine where you might alternate between doing a leg exercise and an arm exercise. It’s called Peripheral Heart Action training.
Doing six or eight exercises of going between the upper and lower body produces a pretty strong metabolism lift and cardiovascular workout. Try squats, half push-ups, lunges, tricep dips, and glute raises.
You’re raising your heart rate, working your muscles, and having a good general workout. These take no more than 15-20 minutes and only require a chair for the tricep dips – although dumbbells can be helpful, too.
14. Get out of breath
The measure is to get hot, out of breath, and work at a level where, if you have a conversation while you’re doing it, you’re puffing a little. For example, with gardening, you’d have to be doing the more substantial gardening – digging – not just weeding. Also, if you’re walking the dog, make it a good exercise session – run with the dog, or find a route that includes some hills.
15. Be sensible about illness
The general rule is if it’s above the neck – a headache or a cold – while being mindful of how you’re feeling, you are generally OK to do some sort of exercise. If it’s below the neck – if you’re having trouble breathing – rest.
The critical thing is to be sensible. If you were planning on doing a high-intensity workout, you should slow down the pace. After recovering from an illness, trust your instincts. You don’t want to go straight back into training four times a week. You might want to do the same number of sessions but make them shorter, or do fewer.
16. Seek advice after injury
How quickly you start exercising again depends on the type of injury, and you should seek advice from your doctor. Psychologically, though, even when we’re doing everything as we should, there are still dips in the road. It’s not going to be a linear progression of getting better.
17. Take it slowly after pregnancy
Again, listen to your body – and your doctor’s advice at your six-week postnatal checkup. After a cesarean section, getting back to exercise will be slower. At the same time, pregnancy-related back injuries and problems with abdominal muscles all affect how soon you can get back to training, and may require physiotherapy.
Once you’re walking and have a bit more energy, depending on where you were before (some women never trained before pregnancy), starting a workout regime after having a baby is quite an undertaking.
Be patient. Relax, take care of yourself, and take care of your baby. When you’re feeling a bit more energized, slowly get back into your routine. Start with simple stuff like walking and carrying your baby.
18. Winter is not an excuse
Winter is not a time to hibernate. Be decisive, put your gear by the door, and try not to think about the cold/drizzle/greyness. It’s the same with going to the gym – it’s that voice in our head that makes us feel like it’s a hassle, but once you’re there, you think: Why was I procrastinating about that for so long?
When it Comes to Exercise Summary
I have one rule which could apply to any fitness activity – I do not allow more than four days to elapse between exercising. So, if I know I have a couple of busy days coming up, I make sure to exercise before them so that I have some “banked” exercise days. Except for illness, injury, or family emergencies, I have stuck to this rule, and it works for me.
I hope you found this article helpful and informative. If you have anything that you’d like to share or any opinions about my website, please do speak up. I look forward to your comments, questions, and the sharing of ideas.
Disclaimer: I am not a personal trainer or a healthcare professional. The above guidelines are what work best for me and might not be the right guidelines for you. I always recommend consulting a doctor or health professional before making changes to your diet and/or fitness routine.