Written by Cherilyn Hultquist, Ph.D.
Many people struggle with how to actually initiate an exercise program. While intentions are often sincere, an overwhelming amount of available information can make this healthy lifestyle adjustment a daunting task. While there are numerous strategies targeting behavior changes associated with physical activity increases, your reasons for starting an exercise program are unique to you. Considering the following points may help you begin and adhere to a program.
Understand that starting an exercise program will alter your daily routine, so a little thought and preparation will make for a smoother transition. Also, several factors influence long-term adherence, including how confident you are in your ability to continue exercising amid life’s challenges and whether or not you think the exercise program will yield the desired physical and mental results. Therefore, when considering an exercise program, choose something that is feasible, accessible, proven and enjoyable.
For feasibility, it is important to consider physical requirements, potential costs and time commitments. First, if you have known health concerns, or if you are unsure of your current health status, a physician’s clearance is recommended to identify types of exercise to pursue and/or avoid. The physical requirements of a new activity definitely influence adherence. Even though skills will develop, starting with exercises that are too intense or too difficult can lead to excessive soreness or injuries, which can lead to dropping out before benefits are realized. Choosing activities that are beginner-friendly and low-impact – such as walking, light resistance training or beginner-level classes – provide the appropriate intensity for new exercisers. Regular exercise does not have to be a huge expense, but understanding one-time and ongoing costs will help you choose a program that matches your budget. Possible costs can include monthly facility fees, special equipment, appropriate attire or professional assistance. As with any informed purchase, new exercisers should shop around and ask for referrals. Another important consideration is time. Since lack of time is often cited as a major barrier to exercise, choosing activities that fit within your available timeframe will help make exercise a comfortable part of your daily life and not a burden. Identify a time each day when exercise will be the least disruptive. This could mean a morning workout some days and an evening workout other days. Don’t forget to consider lunch hours and weekends, too.
Exercise must also be accessible, and making it as convenient as possible will help a habit to develop. Identifying exercise options close to home and work, such as fitness facilities, parks and trails, will provide several options for tight schedules. When exercising during the week, consider packing a bag to carry when you first leave home for the day. This will eliminate extra trips, which can cause distractions and take up valuable time. Also keep a pair of athletic shoes at work for a quick lunchtime walk. You could also keep a mat, dumbbells and exercise DVDs at home for days when weather, time or other barriers prevent planned activities.
Setting a personal goal of beginning an exercise program is a great start, but identifying specific desired results will help you stick with it. Whether results are related to overall health improvements or a physical transformation, it is important to get a baseline measure of all variables of interest, set short- and long-term goals, and match the exercise program to the goals that have been set. This will help identify the best type of physical activity, the intensity and duration, and how many days per week you need to meet those goals. Be sure to decide ahead of time when progress will be assessed and track daily and weekly activities on a calendar. By tracking physical activity and progress, it will be easier to make the appropriate adjustments to a program in order to achieve desired results and avoid burnout. If you find this daunting, consider turning to a fitness professional for help.
Finally, finding activities that are enjoyable will help transition to a healthy lifestyle. This includes determining if exercising alone, with a partner or with a group is more desirable. Some people will prefer the accountability of a partner or fitness professional while others enjoy the solitude of being alone during a workout. Also, there are endless options and combinations for exercise including cardiorespiratory, strength training and mind/body practices, and trying a variety of activities will lead to a well-rounded program with plenty of options.
Starting and sticking with an exercise program is a challenge for many individuals, but by planning ahead and giving consideration to personal needs and preferences, the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle will soon be evident.
View the full summer 2011 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page supported by Liberty Mutual online.