First Steps to Fitness: How to Start Exercising

First Steps to Fitness: How to Start Exercising

By WLR Contributor Christina Macdonald Personal Trainer and Accredited Life Coach

Anyone can exercise – whatever your age or fitness level. Personal trainer Christina Macdonald reveals how to find the motivation to start and how to choose the right activity for you

Whatever your age or fitness level, it’s never too late, or too early, to start an exercise routine. Provided you’re mobile and healthy, you can start anytime.

Exercise can significantly boost your weight loss success, but the health benefits are also well worth remembering if you need some extra motivation. So here’s a few interesting facts:

  • Regular cardiovascular exercise such as walking, running, swimming, cycling, or anything rhythmic and continuous that leaves you moderately out of breath will reduce your blood pressure and lower your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
  • Exercise can reduce your risk of developing diabetes, cut obesity risk and improve bone density, which will help to prevent osteoporosis.
  • Exercise reduces your risk of developing colon cancer up to 50 per cent and your risk of developing breast cancer by up to 20 per cent.
  • Cancer Research UK estimates that keeping active could prevent approximately 3400 cases of cancer in the UK each year.
  • Exercise can also reduce your risk of developing dementia by up to 30 per cent and cut your risk of osteoarthritis by up to 83 per cent.

You don’t have to be ‘sporty’ to exercise and it’s a myth to think that regular activity is just for those who are naturally athletic.

Yet the perception of our ability to exercise as we get older can be a huge mental barrier for many – without any real justification. Bupa commissioned some research in March 2014 and found that 60 per cent of middle-aged runners believed they wouldn’t be able to continue to exercise over the age of 50. This is just not true.

All ages and sizes can exercise. Age is no barrier.

Is age or size a barrier?

Not at all. All ages and sizes can exercise. Age is no barrier. World Record Holder Fauja Singh is a great example. He took up running in his eighties after losing his wife. At the age of 89, he began running marathons. Now aged 104 (yes, you read that correctly!), he has completed five marathons.

TV presenter Jennie Bond took up running at the age of 63. She ran her first 10K race in May 2014.

TV talk show Queen Trisha Goddard, aged 57, ran every day while having chemotherapy for breast cancer. She credits exercise for her complete recovery.

Positive thinking pays off

Getting started is about developing a positive mindset rather than being fit. You don’t need to be fit to exercise – but exercise will get you fit.

Before you start, it’s worth visiting your GP to get the all clear to exercise. Then think about what activity you might enjoy and when you might find the time.

For exercise to be truly effective you need to be able to do it regularly – at least three times a week for a minimum of 20 minutes each time. Write each planned session in your diary like an appointment so that you take it seriously.

If you hate crowds or noisy environments, avoid busy exercise classes. Find a quiet space (like a peaceful spot in the countryside).

What exercise should you choose?

Make exercise a personal choice. If you hate crowds or noisy environments, avoid busy exercise classes. Find a quiet space (like a peaceful spot in the countryside).

If you prefer company, join a walking or running group. Choose a form of exercise which appeals to you. Don’t let others influence you.

If your friend lost weight through running, it’s not going to work for you if you hate running. You may end up being dragged out on a run that’s too fast, and you might detest the experience. A bad experience early on may put you off.

There is no one type of exercise that offers a magic weight loss solution. It’s a personal choice. If you enjoy something, you’ll keep doing it, which will make it effective. Committing to three to four sessions per week because you enjoy it is the key to success.

How much time do you need?

Be realistic here. Vowing to exercise daily if you have many demands on your time won’t work in the long-term.

It’s better to set yourself a realistic goal of exercising three times a week and achieve those sessions than to miss two weeks and exercise five times the following week. Regular, consistent exercise plans work best.

For females, a good sports bra is a must for any exercise. If you are running, reduce injury risk immediately by investing in a good pair of trainers.

Is it OK to ache?

You may ache a bit when you first start, especially if you’ve not exercised for a long time. A little muscle soreness the next day is normal. As your body adapts to the demands of exercise, the aches should go away.

When you first start, listen to your body. If you’re walking or running, stop and rest if you need to. Start slowly. The NHS Couch 2 5K is a free app you can download that has a walk/run program aimed at beginner runners. It’s a great app to get you started.

If you are running, reduce injury risk immediately by investing in a good pair of trainers. Visit a specialist running store such as Runner’s Need or Sweatshop, where trained staff can advise you on the best shoe type for you.

For females, a good sports bra is a must for any exercise. If you’re running or jumping around, you’ll need a high impact sports bra such as Shock Absorber’s Run Bra.

For other more gentle forms of exercise such as walking or yoga, you’ll still need a sports bra but with a lower impact level.

The ligaments in the bust are inelastic, so if they get stretched during exercise, they will sag permanently! Interestingly, researchers at Portsmouth University identified that breasts can move anywhere from 4cm to 15cm during running and around 70 per cent of women wear the wrong sized bra.

Why choose technical kit?

Technical running apparel has ‘wicking’ properties, which means it is made from material that draws sweat away from the body. Some kit is also water-repellent, so that rain can’t soak into the material.

This makes running kit ideal for both runners and walkers. High visibility jackets or bottoms with reflective trims are also ideal for walkers or runners during the winter months.

If you plan to swim, invest in a comfortable costume and a good pair of goggles to protect your eyes from chlorine. 

What About Joining a Gym?

You may decide to join a gym. Most gyms offer free inductions and it’s worth having one to learn how to use the equipment properly. If the gym has a pool and you like to swim, you may find it quieter than a local council pool, especially later in the evenings.

When you are using resistance machines, use slow and controlled movements. Don’t lock out joints during pressing exercises and always maintain a good upright posture. Never hold your breath during any exercises.

Booking several sessions with a personal trainer to make sure you can learn good technique and have a tailored program is a good idea. Sessions cost anywhere from £30 to £60 depending on the gym and many will offer discounts for block bookings.

Booking several sessions with a personal trainer to make sure you can learn good technique and have a tailored program is a good idea.

How often should you exercise?

When you first start, three times a week is ideal. Have a rest day in between each session to allow your body time to recover. A typical week of exercise could include exercising on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

How should you start?

Always begin with a five-minute warm up to gradually raise the heart rate and gently prepare the muscles for the exercise you’re about to do.

The warm up should be very easy. Make sure you feel warm before you start. If you were running for instance, you’d start with five minutes’ of walking, gradually increasing your pace from a modest to brisk walking pace, then going into jogging and then running.

How long should you exercise at first?

20 minutes is ideal, but if you’ve not exercised in a long time, your first session may be shorter. If you feel very tired, extremely out of breath or sick, then stop and rest.

Build up gradually. Go for it again in a few days’ time and add an extra minute. Your fitness will soon improve if you are consistent.

Don’t beat yourself up if you find it difficult. Write down the duration of every session for motivation. If you can only manage ten minutes of exercise at first, you’ll be able to look back in two or three months’ time and see how far you’ve come.

In the long-term, build up to 30 minutes or more but don’t put yourself under pressure to do too much too soon.

How should you feel during your session?

You should feel moderately out of breath, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re sprinting for a bus. Use the talk test, which means being able to hold a conversation with the person next to you. If it feels very hard, slow down.  

Can you exercise with asthma?

It’s definitely worth discussing this with your asthma nurse before you start, but if your asthma is well controlled which means you rarely have any symptoms, and you carry your inhalers, you should be OK.

It’s normal for your heart to beat faster and your breathing to increase during exercise, but if you start coughing or wheezing, or feel very out of breath, then stop and rest. 

Stretch at the end of your workout to reduce the risk of post-exercise soreness.

Should you stretch?

Always. Stretch at the end of your workout to reduce the risk of post-exercise soreness. Stretch the front and rear thighs, the calves and back and chest. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds.

Some days are better than others

Some days you will naturally have more energy than others. Your energy levels will vary depending on quality and quantity of sleep, stress levels and nutrition.

Don’t get hung up on performance. If you have a tough session, be positive. You did it. The next session will be better.

Christina Macdonald is Editor-At-Large of Women’s Running magazine and the former Editor of Women’s Fitness, as well as a fully qualified Level 3 personal trainer and a running group leader. 

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