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Get Back Into Shape!

Woman leading a dance aerobics fitness class with partipants dancing behind her

Has it been a while since you’ve worked out?

Maybe you can relate to one of the following statements:

  • You can remember a time when you had more energy than you do today.
  • You feel hindered by a sore back or stiff joints.
  • You feel tired or sluggish during the day.
  • You feel overwhelmed or stressed.
  • You want to feel healthy and enjoy life.

If you agree with any of the above statements, then you can benefit from starting an exercise program.

Whether it’s been a few weeks, months, or years since you last exercised, you can start getting back into shape! You will have more energy and will find activities of daily living easier to complete when you are active compared to when you are sedentary. Exercise can relieve pain through improving your alignment, flexibility and quality of movement.

When you start and continue a consistent exercise program, you will experience:

  • An increase in maximal strength
  • An increase in muscular endurance
  • Reduced body fat
  • Improved cardiorespiratory fitness – which is related to a reduction in premature death from all causes
  • Lowered risk for coronary artery disease

And here’s even more good news: if you’ve ever been in good shape, then it will be easier for you to regain your athleticism than for a true beginner to exercise.

What to Expect

In this article, I will show you how to safely begin an effective exercise program after a period of inactivity.

This exercise program may benefit you if you are new to exercise, or you have not been working out consistently for three months or more, or you have taken a break from regular activity for six months or longer.

If you have any chronic health conditions, injuries or surgeries, then you may need to consult a medical or exercise professional before following these general recommendations. Regular exercise and increased physical activity have been shown to improve numerous types of musculoskeletal dysfunction and chronic disease.

This foundational exercise program has three goals:

1) You will strengthen your base level of fitness, which is important to health and to performance of almost all athletic events.

You will improve all components of fitness (muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance).

Muscular strength is the ability of your neuromuscular system to produce internal tension to overcome an external force. Your strength determines the total amount of weight that you can move.

Muscular endurance is the ability to produce and maintain force production for prolonged periods of time. Your endurance dictates your ability to move a weight repeatedly.

Body composition describes the amount of body fat you have compared to your lean body mass.

Flexibility describes the ability of your joints to move through their full range of motion. Flexibility has a major influence on mobility during dynamic motion.

Cardiovascular fitness reflects the ability of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to supply oxygen-rich blood to skeletal muscles during sustained physical activity.

2) You will prepare your body for more intense work to come.

3) You will learn proper form and technique while exercising.

Duration of this Workout Program

If you previously maintained a high level of fitness but you have taken some time off from exercise, then you can follow this workout routine for 1-2 months to get back into shape. After consistently following this program for 2 months, you should have a sufficient foundation to move on to a routine that will be even more effective for fulfilling your personal goals, such as weight loss, building muscle or sports performance.

If you are not used to exercise, then you will benefit from following this program for 2-3 months or longer.

What to Do

Workout Program Guidelines

Exercise 2-4 times per week.

Your workouts will be a blend of resistance (strength) training and cardiovascular (aerobic) workouts.

Each workout should include a warm-up and a cool-down.

Warm up your body at the beginning of each workout to prepare the body for exercise. A warmup consists of 5-10 minutes of low-intensity movement. If you have any knots or tightness in your muscles, then incorporate foam rolling and stretching into the warmup.

At the end of each workout, cool down to gradually return your heart rate to normal levels. Take time to stretch after each workout to increase your joint range of motion, decrease muscle soreness, and to reduce your risk for injury.

Resistance Training

Perform resistance training 2-3 times per week.

During each session, perform a total-body routine. Total-body means that you will exercise all of the major body parts during each workout.

Choose 8-12 resistance training exercises per workout.

You should include one or two exercises for each body part.

The following table lists some of my favorite exercises that you can include in your routine.
You are not limited to these exercises. There are numerous ways to modify any given exercise according to your mobility, stability, strength, and preferences.

Resistance Training Exercises

Complete 10-15 repetitions of each exercise.

Perform each repetition slowly in order to build your muscular endurance and stability and to lay a foundation for more intense training. Focus on completing the movements slowly and correctly rather than quickly or explosively.

I recommend that you start with one set of each exercise per workout. As your muscular endurance improves, then you can add an additional set for each exercise. When you add additional sets of an exercise, the subsequent sets will be more challenging than the first as you become tired. If you lift the same weight for each set even when tired, then you will improve your muscular endurance.

Rest for 30-60 seconds between exercises.

Rest time is the time that you take to recuperate between sets or exercises. The purpose of this rest time is to allow your muscular energy resources to replenish. If you do not rest, then you may become overly fatigued and unable to complete the workout safely. However, short rest periods are more effective than longer rests for building endurance and for stimulating muscle growth.

Take at least one day to rest between strength training workouts.

Strength training breaks down tissue fibers in the muscle, which contributes to the soreness that you may experience after a workout. The purpose of taking a rest day is to allow your muscles time to recover from exercise and to rebuild. As the muscles rebuild, they adapt to the demands that you place on them during exercise and become stronger.

Quick Reference: Resistance Training Guidelines

Aerobic Training

Perform a cardiovascular or aerobic workout 2-4 times per week.

Start slowly and work up to 30-60 minutes of continuous exercise per workout. The goal of cardiovascular training is improve your heart and lungs’ ability to provide oxygen-rich blood to your body.

To stay healthy, adults need at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity every week. A combination of moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity activity is also acceptable.

“Intensity” describes the level of demand that a given activity places on the body. The higher the intensity of an activity, the shorter the duration required to gain similar health benefits.
Moderate-intensity exercise should increase your heart rate and breathing rate, but you should still be able to talk comfortably. As a point of reference, walking briskly could be considered moderate-intensity exercise. Running or jogging could be considered vigorous-intensity.

Your options for cardiovascular training are not limited to formal exercise. Choose an activity that you enjoy, such as dance, swimming, cycling, or group fitness classes.

Examples of Moderate and Vigorous Activity

Move more and sit less.

If you are currently sedentary, then you can drastically improve your health simply by moving more and decreasing the time that you spend sitting. Any increase in your physical activity will benefit your health significantly.

Even if you don’t have time to complete a formal workout, you can make lifestyle changes such as:

Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
Walking or biking short distances instead of driving
Marching in place while watching television
Taking frequent breaks to move

Quick Reference: Cardiovascular Training Guidelines

Achieve Results Safely

Participating in physical activity is safe for most people.

Before beginning a new exercise program, you should complete a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q), which will tell you whether it is necessary for you to seek further advice from your doctor or a qualified exercise professional before becoming more physically active. If you have any health conditions or if you are pregnant, talk to your doctor or a qualified exercise professional to help you develop a safe and effective physical activity plan to meet your health needs.

Stay Hydrated

Water is essential to life. Approximately 60% of your body is water, and a human can only survive for a few days without water. A fluid loss of even 2% of body weight will adversely affect your circulation and performance. You may experience declines in attention, motor coordination, and the executive functioning your brain needs to focus, organize and remember details.

You may be accustomed to drinking fluids when you feel thirsty, but thirst is not a good indicator of your hydration level. Women need approximately 11.5 cups (2.7 L) and men need approximately 15.5 cups (3.7 L) of fluid per day. You should drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated. When you are exercising, you should drink an additional 12–16 oz of fluid every 10–15 minutes for activities longer than 60 minutes.

Intensity

“Intensity” is the level of demand that a given activity places on the body. You may be tempted to resume exercise at the same intensity that you maintained before you took a break from physical activity. However, it’s important to start from your current level of conditioning, rather than from your previous peak level of fitness. Your body adapts to the demands placed upon it and becomes less efficient when it is not challenged. After a period of inactivity, exercise is more difficult because muscles cannot get enough nutrients and oxygen to support increased demands.

Low- to moderate-intensity exercise is safe and can be very effective for the majority of sedentary adults. However, if the training intensity is too high initially, then you can experience injuries due to overtraining. If you are not used to regular exercise, then you may have muscle imbalances, limited flexibility, or a lack of core and joint stability. To avoid injury, these conditions should be alleviated through regular activity before you increase the intensity of your workouts.

Pay attention to your body, and don’t ever try to match or to outperform another athlete.

It is important to avoid overworking your muscles when you begin a new exercise routine.
Overtraining can be caused by performing exercise that is too intense for you. Including too many exercises, lifting too much weight, completing too many repetitions, or not allowing enough rest time can all contribute to overtraining. If the muscles are overtrained, then they can become weaker or prone to injury.

Each person’s body has unique attributes, so we respond to exercise differently.

Weights & Volume

The resistance that you choose for each exercise should be challenging but manageable. If you are able to easily perform three sets of an exercise with a particular weight, then you should increase the weight in your next workout. As your muscles adapt to exercise, you must continue to challenge them in order to improve your athletic performance. However, you should not lift a weight that is too heavy. If you reach failure, meaning that you cannot lift the weight with good form to complete the desired number of repetitions, then you should decrease the weight.

Form & Technique

When exercising, you must perform exercises with proper form to avoid injury.

Each joint in your body is held together by small muscles responsible for keeping the joint stable. These small, deep muscles of the joint must be primed and strengthened to allow the joint to safely take an increased load or manage a full range of motion. If you rush through the exercises or allow your form to get sloppy, then it is possible to sprain a joint or strain a muscle.

When you are initially learning a movement or exercise, perform the movement slowly. As you slow down the movements, you improve your body’s coordination and control across joints by focusing on correct movement patterns. If you deliberately perform movements slowly while maintaining perfect form, then your body will learn healthy movement patterns and maintain them when the speed or intensity is increased.

Conclusion

In this article I presented some general guidelines for safely resuming an active lifestyle after a period of inactivity. These guidelines should assist the majority of adults to achieve improvements in their strength, endurance, and conditioning over a period of 1 – 3 months.

Most people can benefit from starting an exercise program. At a minimum, we should move more and sit less. In addition to improving physical health and quality of life, exercise provides several psychological benefits that can enhance overall well-being, including improved mood, better sleep quality, increased self-esteem, improved body image, and fewer depression and anxiety symptoms.

When you exercise, you are training your body for movement. I want to reiterate that no two individuals are built alike, so it is important to listen to your own body. These activity recommendations may not be appropriate for you if you have certain health conditions, injuries, or surgeries, so you should consult a medical professional before changing your physical activity routine.

This is Part 1 of Get Back into Shape Without Hurting Yourself. In Part 2, I will teach you a workout routine to jump start your return to fitness!

References

Archer, Shirley, JD, MA. “Why Being Sedentary Makes Exercise Harder.” IDEA Health & Fitness Association, 2 May 2022, https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/why-being-sedentary-makes-exercise-harder/.

Filley, Alicia, MS, PT. “Help Clients Return to Training Safely, Smartly.” IDEA Health & Fitness Association, 21 Dec. 2020, https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/help-clients-return-to-training-safely-smartly/.

Henriques, Tim. NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training. Human Kinetics, 2015.

John, Nora St. “Training Muscles for Joint Stability.” IDEA Health & Fitness Association, March 14, 2022. https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/training-muscles-for-joint-stability/.

Kadey, Matthew, MS, RD. “Why Hydration Should Be on Your Mind.” IDEA Health & Fitness Association, 21 March 2019. https://www.ideafit.com/nutrition/why-hydration-should-be-on-your-mind-0/.

Kravitz, Len, PhD. “Inside the Latest Physical Activity Guidelines.” IDEA Health & Fitness Association, 9 Feb. 2022, https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/inside-the-latest-physical-activity-guidelines.

Sutton, Brian G. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. 7th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2021.

Warburton DER, Jamnik VK, Bredin SSD, and Gladhill N on behalf of the PAR-Q+ Collaboration. The Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire for Everyone (PAR-Q+) and Electronic Physical Activity Readiness Medical Examination (ePARmed-X+). Health & Fitness Journal of Canada 4(2):3-23, 2011.

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