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, writes Anahad O’Connor.
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 toreductions 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: Theyhelp 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.