How to Start Exercising: A Beginner’s Guide

Exercise guide for beginners

Congratulations on deciding that it’s time to workout! You’ve made a smart decision. Improving your fitness level is one of the best ways to weight loss, improving your health, and increasing your longevity. But when you are starting your fitness journey, there are so many options to chose from and it can seem overwhelming. I have good news.

This article will give you everything you need to start an exercise routine and set your fitness goals.

Why Workout?

You probably know already many of the reasons physical activity is good for you. That’s why you are here. But let’s look at some of the health benefits of regular exercise. Knowing these benefits can help you stay motivated, even when you don’t feel like throwing on your sneakers and workout clothes. One of the best ways to stay motivated is to know your “why.” One good “why” is your overall health.



Weight Loss

This is why a lot of people start a fitness program. Losing weight requires a calorie deficit. This means you burn more calories than you take in. One way to create a deficit is through eating less and having a healthy diet, and there are some great articles on this site about that. But the other way is to add some form of exercise in a workout plan.

The good news is you don’t have to have a gym membership or run a marathon to see results! Any kind of exercise burns calories. However, different exercises do have different results, some burn more calories or work different muscle groups. Read on for tips on choosing the best workout for you.

Prevents Heart Disease and other Illnesses

Any exercise that gets your heart pumping will improve your heart health. Your heart is like any other muscle, and as you use it, it gets stronger. In addition, exercise improves HDL cholesterol, (the good cholesterol) and decreases the unhealthy triglycerides. This combination helps improve cardiovascular health by lowering your blood pressure and reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease.

According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise can also help prevent illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, metabolic syndrome, and many types of cancer, which is why a good fitness program can increase longevity over the long haul (1).

Increases Energy Levels

It may seem counterintuitive that exertion will help boost your energy levels, but it is true. If you always take the elevator because you get winded walking up a flight of stairs, a workout program can help! A solid workout routine is a great way to build strength, stamina, and endurance.

Can Reduce the Medication You Take

Exercise can help with a number of health issues. It can help you sleep better, improve your sex life, and because it releases endorphins, will boost your mood. Of course, talk to your doctor or a Ph.D. before you make any changes, but if you are looking for long term wellness, exercise is a good place to start. ,

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), general guidelines say that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week (2). This works out to 30 minutes for five days of the week, or less time depending on the intensity of your exercise. Remember though, if you are looking to lose weight quickly, you may have to ramp up the time and intensity of your workout routine.

The Mayo Clinic also suggests that you strength train all major muscle groups at least two times a week. A strength workout could be bodyweight moves, working with free weights, or using exercise machines. Whatever your exercise preferences, over the long term, mixing cardio movements with strength training is best for your overall health.

When to Workout?

There is some evidence that morning workouts can be more effective than evening workouts, however, don’t worry if you aren’t a morning person! You can get a good workout in at any time of day, whenever your schedule allows. The important thing is that you plan ahead and make it part of your daily routine. For example, in my own life, I prefer an evening workout on work workdays, and in the mornings on Saturday. I take Sunday off as a rest day. But in the past, I have had morning workouts at 5:30 AM before work. Really, it is whatever works best for you.

My best advice is that it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. If your original time doesn’t work out for some reason, have a secondary plan in mind, like a brisk walk on your lunch hour on a workday or log on for virtual classes in your living room when you get home. Why? It is much easier to establish and keep a regular routine if you have options. Otherwise, you can have a small setback and use that as an excuse not to get back to it. A backup plan helps you stick to your goals.

As you are building your exercise habit, it’s a good idea to set realistic goals. Think about how much time you can spend, then chose a type of workout that you think you would enjoy and plan to do it a few times a week. Once you have that down, you can increase the time you are spending exercising. Start small and build up.

Where to Workout?

There are advantages to home workouts and there are reasons you might want to hit a local gym. Here are some of the pros and cons:

As a beginner, you might feel more relaxed in the comfort of your own home. You don’t need a lot of equipment to get your heart rate up, there are many bodyweight exercises that are very effective. And there are fitness apps and workout videos that can help you get started and offer motivation for your home workout.

There are also many exercise options that can take place outdoors. Walking, biking, group sports, kayaking, and running are all great ways to enjoy movement outside.

However, gyms and fitness centers have a lot to offer. For example, an instructor or personal trainer can help make sure you have proper form, which can reduce the risk of injury. If you are a beginner, this can be particularly important. If you are interested in weight training, spending time with a coach or a trainer will help you lift the right way. That means you will get the most out of your time lifting and help you stay safe.

Here’s a tip: if you are taking a class for the first time, make sure you introduce yourself to the instructor and let them know. Don’t be nervous about being new, relax. Trainers won’t think bad of you for being a newbie – they will be happy you are there and will know that you might need a little extra help. Plus that is exactly what they are there for – to help you get the swing of things!

Basic Equipment to Get Started

The first step is to have some workout clothes. You will want clothing that is lightweight and comfortable. Look for clothing that is made for athletic activities and is designed to wick away sweat. While you can certainly exercise in your old t-shirts and shorts, any runner will tell you “cotton is rotten.” This is because it will hold sweat and can lead to chafing in intense activities. Athletic clothing is better suited to heavy workouts. You will also want good, supportive footwear appropriate for you your exercise of choice.

If you are working out in the morning, try setting your workout clothes the night before. It will keep you from having an excuse not to get up and get to work.

If you plan on working out a home, you may want to also invest in some basic equipment. Some good purchases, depending on the type of exercise you do, are an exercise mat, a lighter weight pair of dumbbells, or a resistance band. As your strength increases you can move to heavier weights or kettlebells. Another great piece inexpensive of home equipment is a jump rope.

What Happens if I Fall Off the Fitness Wagon?

Everyone has setbacks. Whether it is a lack of time because you are busy at work or hitting other obstacles, running into problems is normal. In the first month of a new program, you may experience ups and downs. Keep in mind that exercise is a journey, you don’t have to work out every single day. Don’t let one missed work out throw you off. Your mentality should be focused on the long run.

There is a popular belief that once you stop working out your lose all your fitness, but that isn’t true. It takes more time than you might think. The best way to get started again is with a new workout or a new fitness goal that can reignite your spark.

The other thing that can happen is burnout. In enough time, even your favorite exercise, if done over and over can lead to fatigue and boredom. Reduce the burnout risk factor by trying different things. If you always lift weights, try a circuit of bodyweight exercises. You can also change things up by trying another time of day. If you have always been a morning workout person, try evening or lunch hour workouts.

Exercise Terms

Exercise has some unique terms. Let’s go through some different things you might hear:

High-Intensity Interval Workout (HIIT)

In a high-intensity workout, you alternate between a short bout of intense activity followed by a short period of rest. The main focus is to get to your maximum heart rate and then have a brief rest. For example, a common HIIT workout performed on a stationary bike is 20 seconds of pedaling as hard as possible followed by 10 seconds of rest.

Cardio

Cardio is short for cardiovascular and is also called aerobic exercise. This is a physical activity that gets your heart rate up and your lungs working harder. Cario is great for building stamina, lowering blood pressure, and burning calories. Examples would be a fitness dance class, a brisk walk or run on a treadmill, or a set of jumping jacks.

Body Weight Exercise

This is just what it sounds like – this workout type is doing movements with your own body weight, without additional resistance. A pushup or holding the plank position is a good example of a bodyweight movement.

Resistance Training

Resistance or strength training is when you working on building muscle. You can lift weights, use machines, or do body weight movements. Almost every body part has a strength-building workout. You could be building strength in your hamstrings with barbell deadlifts or working hips and glutes with weighted glute bridges. 

One great thing to take into account about resistance training is that it builds lean muscle, which helps boost your metabolism. This means it is also good for weight loss.

Core Work

Your core is the muscles in your upper body. It includes your abdominal muscles, (which aren’t just the washboard abs you see in magazines, they also go around your sides to your spine.), your obliques, and muscles in your lower back. Core work is an essential exercise because having a strong core is one of the best things you can do for your body. It helps with balance, stability, and good posture.

DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

When you first start to workout you may get muscle soreness. You will find it tends to be the worst not the next day, but the day after that. This is called DOMS, and it is perfectly normal. For example, your biceps might be sore after a set of dumbbell rows or you might feel it in your pecs after you lift weights. You are more likely to experience DOMS after trying a new exercise, but anytime you stress your muscles you may experience soreness.

If you have been a couch potato, this soreness will be a part of your regular life at first. Keep in mind that when you feel that soreness you are increasing strength and muscle size. It is part of the building process. Cooldown stretches after an intense workout can help.

Repetitions (reps)

Reps refer to the number of times you continuously repeat an exercise in a single setting called a set. For example, if you are doing lunges, each lunge is a rep. 

Sets

Set is a group of repetitions performed without resting. A sample workout might be 15 reps of a bodyweight squat for 2 sets mean you do 15 squats without taking a break. This is your set. Take a rest and do another round (set) of 15 squats. Now you completed 2 sets.

You might also hear the term Total Set. This is a combination of movements. For example, your first move might be 15 squats at a brisk pace followed immediately by 10 lunges, then rest. The squats and lunges together would be your total set.

Intensity

Exercise intensity is how hard you are exercising. This term is most often used to describe the aerobic activity. Faster tempo leads to high intensity. Slower movements mean lower intensity.

Rest

Rest is taken between sets. Rest periods vary depending on the intensity of exercise and depending on the exercise program, rest may only be taken as needed or after a round of several exercises. This can be a time of inaction, or you may be programmed to have active recovery – going for a slow walk to cool down, for example.

Compound Movement

A compound movement is an exercise that works several muscle groups at once. For example, a squat works your glutes, quads, and calves. Compound movements are also good for increased mobility. Again using a squat as an example, they help with balance and mobility of your hips and ankle joints.

Modification

A modification is a change to an exercise to suit your fitness level. It might mean lowering the intensity of your workout, reducing the amount you lift, or changing the movement entirely. For example, if someone is having elbow pain, a trainer might have them do lateral lifts, instead.

There is nothing wrong with modifications! It is a simple way for a trainer to make sure you get a great workout you can do.

Some Exercise Dos and Don’ts

Exercise dos and don’ts

Consult With Your Doctor

Before you start a new exercise program, the first thing you should do is get the green light from your doctor. This is especially true if you have heart, lung, or joint problems.

Set a Reasonable Goal

We all have a tendency to want to see massive changes right away. Sometimes the hardest part is holding back and starting small. But the flip side of “go big or go home” is going home with an injury! That’s no way to start. Instead, build up with small goals that are achievable. This includes starting with light weight in strength training. Doing the work as prescribed, and not adding in that extra rep. As the workouts become easy, then you can start to take it up a notch.

Get In Tune With Your Body

There is such thing as working out too hard. Rest days are essential. Giving your body free time to recover is a part of a well-crafted workout regimen, despite what you might see on social media. Over the course of a week, make sure you are getting one to two days of rest.

A huge part of making exercise a part of your regular life is listening to what you need. Maybe you need to spend less time in the gym, and go outside and get fresh air. Or perhaps you only have the energy for a quick 15-minute workout instead of the hour-long class you had planned on. 

Warm-Up 

The best place to start your routine is with a short warm-up. A warm-up can be five to ten minutes of basic movements or ten minutes of walking before a run.

Get a Workout Buddy

If you are an obliger or someone who enjoys having someone to check in with, a workout buddy can be a lifeline. 

There is No Finish Line 

Your first day of exercise sets you on the path of wellness. And as you prepare to go down the fitness journey, what is on the horizon? Better health, less weight, more energy, and longevity are all available. Exercise can improve your whole life. But it is a lifelong pursuit.

My 79-year-old aunt still goes to CrossFit with me. The exercises you choose to do may change. What’s been working for years, may not be the best fit the next week. Maybe you will want to try something new, I know runners who became weightlifters and boxers who enjoy yoga. The beautiful thing is there is a whole wealth of fun, interesting, and challenging things to do and try that will continually improve your health and your whole life.

  1. “7 Great Reasons Why Exercise Matters.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 May 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise/art-20048389.
  2. “How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm.
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