Starting an Exercise Program

Starting an Exercise Program

Question: I want to get in better shape, but don’t know where to start. How much exercise is enough? What type of exercise is best, and how much time do I need to spend on it?

Answer: The answers to those questions depend on a number of factors, including your age, general health, present fitness level, and metabolism. There are, however, a few general guidelines for a successful exercise program.

• Find one or more forms of exercise that you enjoy, because then you’re more likely to stick with it.
• Start slow, with modest goals, and build up gradually. You can’t become fit from one day to the next. Expecting too much too soon is likely to result in injury and discouragement.
• Your program should combine cardiovascular exercise* to strengthen the respiratory system with resistance exercise** to strengthen muscles and bones.
• It needs to be regular (at least four times a week).
• It needs to be for an extended period of time (build up to 40–60 minutes).
• It needs to be vigorous enough to get your heart pumping and make you break a sweat.
• Warm up at the beginning of your exercise routine, and cool down at the end.
• Inform yourself. Understand the benefits and potential risks of the specific exercises you’d like to do. Get your information from respected sources, shy away from sources that advocate extremes, and balance the advice given by several sources, when possible.
• Have a plan. Choose your forms of exercise, make a realistic plan, and stick to it.
• Change your routine from time to time. Your body adapts to any form of exercise over time, and then that exercise loses some of its benefits.
• If you are over 40, seriously overweight or out of shape, or suffering from a medical condition, consult your doctor before starting on a new exercise program.
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The people who say they don’t have time to take care of themselves will soon discover they’re spending all their time being sick.—Patricia Alexander

* Cardiovascular exercise, also called aerobic exercise or “cardio” for short, is any activity that gets your heart beating at 60-80% of its maximum rate for a period of time—at least 20 minutes, as a general rule. To calculate your maximum heart rate on the safe side, subtract your age from 220.

** Resistance exercise is any activity that brings weight to bear on your muscles, bones, and joints by means of weight-training equipment (barbells, dumbbells, weight machines, etc.) or body weight (pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, etc.). Resistance exercise is even more important when you get older and bone and muscle loss occur naturally, if not combated. Choose exercises that target each major muscle group once or twice each week. Unless you have special needs or are an amateur or professional bodybuilder, three 20- to 30-minute routines each week is enough to strengthen bones and tone muscles.

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