Exercise can protect you from disease, slim your waistline and extend your lifespan. But doing it regularly is easier said than done. Work, stress, relationships and a lack of time can all stand in the way, which is why the vast majority of Americans don’t exercise nearly enough. But the right plan and knowledge about how to structure an exercise routine can help you make it a regular part of your life. Here are ways that you can start a fitness routine – and stick to it – so you can reap the vast benefits of exercise.
The Benefits of Exercise
Understanding and framing your goals can help you stick to an exercise plan.
Everyone should exercise. But not everyone decides to do it for the same reasons. One critical thing you should ask yourself when starting an exercise program is this: What is your primary motivation?
Did you get some alarming test results from your doctor that you want to change? Are you on a mission to lose 20 pounds? Is your goal to gain muscle and increase your energy levels? Do you just want to look good naked?
“One of the most important things when you kick start your journey is to know your ‘why,’” said Lynne Johnson, a lead health and wellness coach at the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Understanding your motivation — your primary purpose for starting a fitness routine — will help you stay on track when unexpected barriers cause you to think about quitting. Figure out which of the many reasons to exercise is most important to you. Then keep it in the back of your mind as you go through your fitness journey and remind yourself why you started if you ever get the urge to quit.
Need some help choosing your ‘why’? Here are what studies have shown to be just a few of the many important reasons to exercise.
- Exercise Slows the Aging Process: Aging muscles have trouble regenerating and have fewer and less efficient mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of our cells. But exercise, especially when it’s high intensity, increases the number and health of mitochondria — essentially helping to reverse aging at the cellular level.
- People Who Exercise Are Happier: Exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression and help you better cope with stress and anxiety. Even just getting up and moving around may make you feel happier, studies show.
- It May Lengthen Your Lifespan: Exercise has been linked time and time again in studies both large and small to reductions in mortality from all causes. But some of the most fascinating research comes from extensive analyses carried out at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, which show that compared with nonrunners, runners tend to live about three years longer. Every hour of running you do adds an estimated seven hours to your life expectancy. In fact studies have found that as little as five minutes of daily running is associated with longer life spans.
- Exercise Improves Your Body Composition: Most people gain fat as they get older. It’s essentially inevitable. But lifting weights and following a good diet have the opposite effect: They help you put on muscle and lose fat, even if you are older than 60.
- It Can Boost Your Brain Health: Studies of aerobic exercise have found that it protects your memory and helps stave off cognitive decline as we age.
- Exercise Improves Your Microbiome: Studies show that exercise can drastically improve the composition of the trillions of microbes that live in the gut, which may be one reason it strengthens the immune system, fights inflammation and helps with weight control.
Most people know they should exercise — and yet most don’t do it. Adopting a methodical approach can help you succeed.
Starting an exercise program can be daunting, especially if you’re aware of the statistics. As many as 65 percent of all people who begin an exercise program end up dropping out in three to six months. That might explain why less than 5 percent of adults obtain the minimum amount of regular exercise recommended by the federal government: At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or some combination of the two.
The problem is that most people simply don’t have the right strategies to adhere to a program when barriers get in the way, said James Annesi, the vice president of research and evaluation at the YMCA of Metro Atlanta and a professor of health promotion at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. In his research, Dr. Annesi has found that one of the most powerful ways to ensure that you adhere to an exercise routine is to set very specific goals. “With goal setting, the natural tendency is to set a very lofty goal — and then you get disappointed when you don’t obtain it quickly,” he said. That can derail your long-term progress. “You have to find a way to empower yourself to get through these barriers,” Dr. Annesi said. So here are some strategies that work.
- Be very specific. Rather than setting a vague goal “to exercise more,” set a specific goal to exercise a certain number of days each week. Formulate a plan. For example, aim to exercise three days per week.
- Set short-term goals. Rather than setting a goal to be able to run 10 miles within a year, set a short-term goal to run one mile in your first month. Then set another short-term goal after that — perhaps, say, to run two or three miles. Setting short-term goals, even if they are minor accomplishments, can help you stay motivated.
- Emphasize “process” short-term goals over “outcome” short-term goals. If you’re new to regular exercise and your activity is walking on the treadmill, focus on a goal of increasing the amount of time you spend on the treadmill (the process) rather than reaching an outcome that is harder to control, like getting your resting heart rate down to 70 beats per minute.
- Be realistic. If you have just started working out and can only do 10 pushups at one time, don’t set a goal to be able to complete a set of 50 pushups within a month. Focus on getting to a set of 20 pushups in your first month. Then work your way up first to 30, then 40 and then 50 pushups as time goes on.
In one study published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, Dr. Annesi found that a group of people assigned to follow these types of goal-setting tactics while starting a new exercise program had a 59 percent lower dropout rate over the course of a year than a control group.
PUT IT ON YOUR CALENDAR
A lot of things keep people from exercising. But one of the most common barriers is simply a lack of time. “Everybody is busy, and so just adding exercise to your plate can make it seem like more of a stress than a benefit,” said Ms. Johnson of the Mayo Clinic. One way around this is to schedule exercise appointments on your calendar so they become part of your routine. Look at your schedule and figure out the most ideal times for you to exercise each week. Can you fit a 30-minute jog into your schedule every Tuesday morning? What about that 7 a.m. spin class at your local gym on Fridays? Can you pencil in a 45-minute strength training session on Saturday afternoons? “Once you’ve decided that you’re going to dedicate some time to it, then schedule exercise like you’d schedule anything else — work meetings, life commitments,” said Ms. Johnson. Make it a recurring appointment in your calendar and plan on sticking to it.
BUT COME UP WITH A PLAN B
Even if you have a standing appointment in your calendar, life can get in the way and force you to cancel. That’s fine. But it’s why you should always have a backup plan. If you’re too busy to make the 7 a.m. Friday spin class on your calendar, then perhaps you can resort to a backup plan to do a 20-minute jog around your local park. “You can adjust the duration or adjust the activity,” Ms. Johnson said. “Maybe you were going to go to a class but now you don’t have time so you’re just going to do a walk around the neighborhood.” Whatever your plans are, it’s important to always have a backup plan in case something comes up.
If you need help planning your workouts, there are apps for that.
- Workout Plan helps you create custom workouts and plan your weekly fitness routine.
- Fitlist lets you log your workouts and track your fitness whether you’re doing cardio, weight lifting, circuit training or other types of exercise.
- Fitbod keeps track of your workouts and takes into account which muscles are sore. Then it recommends strength-building workouts for you to do and suggests rep counts and weight ranges.
EARN WHILE YOU BURN
Burning calories can save you money — and potentially make you a lot of it. A study in The Journal of the American Heart Association reported that people who engage in 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week had significantly lower health care costs than those who did not. And patients with heart disease who exercised regularly slashed their health care costs by $2,500 a year compared with heart patients who did little or no exercise.
In this age of technology, you can also use apps and other services that will pay you to work out. Here are four.
- HealthyWage is a health and wellness company that lets you set weight loss goals and bet on them, with the potential to win cash prizes. It also allows you to compete for prizes in weight loss challenges with friends, family and colleagues.
- DietBet is an app that lets you start your own weight loss challenge or join an existing one. Participants put money in a pot, and those who lose 4 percent of their body weight after four weeks get to split the pot.
- Achievement is a service that pays you for tracking your healthy behaviors, such as diet and exercise, water intake and the amount of sleep you get. It connects to apps like FitBit and MyFitnessPal and pays you for the points you accumulate.
- Higi is a consumer health company with a fun app that lets you track your health and fitness, participate in challenges and earn points. The points that you earn can be used to redeem rewards at a variety of retailers.
Getting in shape is much easier if you have a plan. Without one, you are likely to be setting yourself up for failure.
CREATE A PROGRAM
Have you ever walked into your gym and had no idea what you were going to do that day? Or maybe you’ve walked into the weight room, picked up a few dumbbells, and then walked out after a half-hearted attempt to work up a sweat.
If you’re walking around the gym unsure of what to do, then chances are you won’t get the most of out of your time there, said Brad Schoenfeld, an assistant professor of exercise science and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Lehman College in New York. Those who fail to plan, plan to fail, said Dr. Schoenfeld, paraphrasing a famous quote.
Exercise is a science and it’s a good idea to approach it that way. Your weekly exercise routine should include resistance training to build or maintain muscle and some form of aerobic exercise to improve your cardiovascular health. One of the simplest and most efficient ways to achieve this, Dr. Schoenfeld says, is with a three-day-per-week gym routine. Here’s what it entails, along with some sample workouts.
- Do three gym sessions per week. Each session should consist of at least 30 minutes of weight training and about 20 minutes of high intensity interval training for cardio.
- Plan on alternating gym days with rest days, so you have at least 48 hours in between each session to recover.
- Each weight session will involve circuit training. You’ll be doing eight exercises in each session, and you’ll be alternating upper body exercises with lower body exercises.
- The goal is to do one set of the first exercise, then a set of the second exercise, then a set of the third exercise and so on, with as little rest between each set as possible. Aim for eight to 15 repetitions on each set.
- After completing the first circuit of eight exercises, rest for two minutes and then repeat twice more for a total of three circuits. Then move on to the cardio portion of your session.
High intensity interval training, or HIIT, is one of the best ways to get your aerobic exercise. It requires very little time but a lot of effort, and studies suggest that it is more effective than traditional aerobic exercise at improving your cardiovascular and metabolic health. The main takeaway it is that you alternate short bouts of intense effort with short bouts of recovery.
Here’s one way to do it:
- Get on a treadmill and warm up for a minute or two. Once you are warmed up, crank the speed up and sprint or run at high effort for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Lower the speed and recover for the same amount of time. Walk if you have to.
- Repeat this sequence for a total of about 20 minutes and then you’re done.
FIND SOMETHING YOU ENJOY
Most people dread the thought of exercise. But finding the right routine can make exercise both enjoyable and more likely to be something you stick with. Think about the type of physical activity that feels fun to you. Do you like biking, running, going on hikes, swimming or perhaps taking dance classes at your local gym? Pick a fun activity and make it your routine. Research suggests it’s more likely to last. “We know that when people do activities that they enjoy, they’re more likely to stick with them,” said Ms. Johnson of the Mayo Clinic.
Before you get started, be sure to check with a doctor or health professional to verify that there’s no reason you shouldn’t be starting an exercise program. And if you’re new to exercise, it’s best to start off slow and gradually increase the volume and intensity of your workouts. Here are some ideas.
- Try the 7-Minute Workout. In just a dozen exercises using only your body weight, a chair and a wall, this app will guide you through a high-intensity workout that’s been scientifically proven to improve health and fitness. It reduces a long run and a trip to the weight room down to about seven intense minutes of exercise
- Join a running club. Visit the website of the Road Runners Club of America to find a running club in your area. They have everything from beginner’s running programs to distance training programs and regular group training runs. You can also sign up for a race. Whether it’s a 1K, a 10K or a marathon, it’s good to set a goal.
- Sign up for CrossFit. It provides structured workouts that are tough and metabolically taxing but also certain to whip you into shape. Many people find CrossFit addictive and hugely rewarding. While it can look intimidating, the workouts are designed to be scaled so that anyone can do them, and the classes are led by trained instructors who can help you ease into it if it’s your first time. You can find one of their worldwide affiliates here: https://map.crossfit.com/
- Download ClassPass. This is a service that lets you access different gyms, workout classes and fitness studios for a flat-rate monthly subscription. You can use ClassPass to try yoga, spinning, martial arts, Barry’s Bootcamp, and an array of other classes. It’s great for people who want to experiment with different workouts to find out what they like before committing to a full membership. The service allows you to attend up to six classes per month for $65 a month. There is also a free, one-week trial membership.
- Check out Zumba. It’s an exercise class that combines low-intensity and high-intensity dance moves to create an interval-style workout set to hip hop, salsa, merengue and other styles of music. You’ll get elements of aerobic exercise and muscle conditioning in a fun atmosphere.
Make it easy to stick to your exercise plan by controlling or eliminating things that can get in your way.
SET UP BEHAVIORAL PROMPTS
Having specific goals and a well-designed plan are crucial to maintaining an exercise program. But there are other factors that can influence whether you fail or succeed. One important tactic you can use is known as stimulus control, which essentially means altering your environment in ways that push you to exercise. Here are some examples:
- Keep a packed gym bag in your car. Or pack your gym bag at night and block your door with it so you won’t forget to take it with you when you head to work in the morning.
- Plan on working out early in the morning? Put on a fresh set of gym or running clothes at night and sleep in them. Sounds extreme. But when you wake up the next morning, you’ll be dressed and ready to go.
- If sleeping in your workout clothes isn’t for you, try another prompt, like folding and placing your workout clothes near your bed so you see them first thing in the morning.
- Prepare a batch of coffee at night and put it in your refrigerator. In the morning, just pour some in a thermos, add some ice, and enjoy your iced coffee on your way to the gym.
- Use your phone to set daily or weekly reminders to exercise. You can set electronic prompts that say things like, “Reminder: 6 p.m. Spin Class tonight.”
- Print out a copy of the class schedule at your local gym. Then stick it on your refrigerator, hang it above your desk, by your front door or some place else where you’re likely to see it often.
RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN
Picture this: You’re at the office, it’s 5:30 p.m., and you planned on leaving work and heading to the gym for a 6 p.m. workout. But you had a long day, you’re tired, and a voice inside your head is telling you to scrap your plan and go home. Eventually, almost everyone who starts a new exercise routine finds him or herself making these types of excuses. But you can overcome these self-imposed obstacles by preparing for them with a strategy known as cognitive restructuring. This helps you squelch the internal dialogue that can derail your progress. Dr. Annesi at Kennesaw State University uses this approach as part of a program he developed called the “Coach Approach” protocol. Here’s how it works:
- As soon as you start to hear the voice inside your head telling you to skip your workout, immediately squelch it by yelling “Stop” as loud as you can internally.
- Now, replace that negative thought with another statement or mantra that motivates you. You can tell yourself things like, “Once I get started exercising I feel energized” or “Exercise is one of the best things I can do for myself so I have to stay consistent.”
- You can remind yourself that you have goals to accomplish. “If I don’t stick to my plan, then I won’t reach my weight loss goal.” Or you might say to yourself, “I’ve made a lot of progress up to this point and it’s important that I don’t fall backward.”
- Don’t engage in hyperbole or try to get yourself to believe things that aren’t true. For example, don’t tell yourself that exercise is your favorite part of the day if you know it’s not. But do tell yourself truthful things that will get you back on track.
The point of cognitive restructuring is simple. Train yourself to recognize unproductive thoughts. Cut them off abruptly and forcefully, and then replace the negative thoughts with other thoughts that will motivate you. Research shows that new and returning exercisers assigned to employ this strategy were about 56 percent less likely to drop out of fitness programs in the first nine months.
USE THE POWER OF DISSOCIATION
One psychological trick that can help with your fitness plan is dissociation. It’s a simple way to reduce the amount of discomfort you feel during exercise. That’s important because research shows that the better people feel after they exercise, the more likely they are to keep doing it. So anything that reduces pain or discomfort is a good thing.
Dissociating means mentally separating yourself from the behavior that you’re engaged in. If you get on the treadmill or stationary bike at the gym and you start a grueling 45-minute workout, it can be painful to stare at the screen and watch the time slowly pass by. A better strategy would be to distract yourself by focusing on other things around you, said Dr. Annesi.
“Exercise is inherently punishing,” he said. “People avoid it because it’s inherently discomforting. What naturally happens to people as they’re exercising is that they focus on the sensations in their bodies. Those are not usually pleasant sensations. So your goal should be to reduce that.”
You can use the power of dissociation in a number of ways:
- Use the built-in television screen (or your tablet) on the treadmill to watch your favorite shows or movies..
- Put a towel over the exercise monitor and listen to music, audiobook or your favorite podcast.
- Instead of riding a stationary bike, ride a bike outside if you can.
- Instead of running on a treadmill, you can go for a run in the park, where you can distract yourself by looking at birds, people or pleasant surroundings.
- Play a sport like basketball, softball or soccer. When people play a sport, they are often so focused on the game that they forget that they’re exercising.
“It’s very important that you have strategies to focus away,” Dr. Annesi said. “It takes a little forethought to not just be there on the machine counting down the numbers and the time and thinking about how slowly it’s going.”
Think Long Term
Regardless of your initial motivation or your short-term exercise goals, your ultimate plan should be to exercise for life.
No matter how determined you are to reach your fitness goals, there are going to be some setbacks along the way. Occasionally you’re going to miss some workouts. Sometimes, you’re going to end up eating a burger and fries, or two slices of pizza instead of the healthy meal you had planned. Should you throw your hands up and call it quits?
Of course not. Setbacks happen. Just tell yourself that when they do occur, you’re not going to let them throw you completely off course. It’s fine to have a terrible day once in a while. Just tell yourself you’ll get back on the wagon tomorrow. It’s much better than saying, “I give up. I’ll try again next month.”
Instead of beating yourself up, forgive yourself. The goal is not to be perfect. The goal is to be better. If you only did three days of exercise this week instead of the four or five days you had planned, it doesn’t mean you failed. Always remember that some exercise is better than no exercise. Just get back to it and try to be more consistent. Keep going. Keep pushing yourself. And remember that you’re in this for the long haul.
USE YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK
Studies suggest that social support motivates people to exercise. So you should surround yourself with people who share your goals. The best way to do this is to tap your social network. Plan activities with your friends and family. Start an exercise routine with your spouse. Plan trips to the gym with a buddy who enjoys exercise. Or join a local running group with a friend. That way they can support you, motivate you and hold you accountable — and vice versa.
If you plan to take a spin class Friday morning at 7:30 a.m. you’ll be less inclined to skip it if you know that a friend will be there waiting for you. You won’t want to disappoint them.
“Accountability is huge,” said Ms. Johnson at the Mayo Clinic.
START OFF SLOW
You don’t have to run a half marathon the first time you go for a jog. And you don’t have to break any world records when you start lifting at the gym. Start with some simple type of exercise and ease into it. See how your body responds and then gradually increase the pace or load over time.
You don’t want to exercise too intensely too soon. As you start your new program, you’re likely to experience some muscle soreness, which is normal. Just be sure you’re not in pain. “If you’ve been sedentary, we would expect some muscle soreness,” Ms. Johnson said. “What we don’t want is any sharp, pulling or pinching pains. That could be a sign of injury. One way to avoid that is to allow yourself a good adequate warm up each time you exercise and a good adequate cool down.”
Having a structured exercise plan is key to getting in shape. But it shouldn’t be the only exercise you get. One of the best ways to increase your physical activity levels is to just get up and move throughout the day. Studies have found that standing up and walking around for five minutes every hour during the workday can improve your mood and concentration and even have beneficial effects on your appetite.
A major study in The Annals of Internal Medicine last year found that increasing the amount of time you move throughout the day could reduce your mortality from all causes. The study, which followed nearly 8,000 people, used hip-mounted activity trackers to objectively measure daily movement patterns. It found that the people who were the most sedentary – meaning they sat for more than 13 hours each day, and frequently for more than 60 minutes at a time – had nearly double the likelihood of dying during the study period than the subjects who were the least sedentary. Here are some of the many ways you can interrupt long bouts of sitting throughout the day.
- Take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator.
- Set a timer to remind you to get up every one to two hours at work and walk to the water fountain. Or just get up and take a brief walk downstairs or around the office.
- Instead of eating lunch at your desk, go for a short stroll on your lunch break several days a week. A 2015 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that workers assigned to walk for 30 minutes several days a week during their lunch hours felt less tense and more relaxed and generally saw improvements in their overall moods.
- Take your dog for longer or more frequent walks. (Fido will appreciate it, too.)
- Get a standing desk at work if you are able to. It doesn’t mean you have to stand all day. You can get an adjustable desk that allows you to alternate between standing and sitting.
- Instead of sending e-mails to a colleague, get up and walk over to him or her so you can relay your message in person.
- Get a Fitbit or a pedometer and try to walk 10,000 steps each day. You’ll be amazed at how much it motivates you to move.