So, you’ve made the resolution to get in shape for the new year – congratulations!
Regular exercise can elevate your mood, boost energy and promote better sleep. It has been linked to a reduction in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and even increased brain function. Studies have also found that aerobic exercise may even reduce your risk of developing dementia. People who are more physically active are less likely to experience mental decline and have better cognitive function. Cognitive function is our memory, thinking and judgment skills. These are just some of the benefits you will experience from starting an exercise routine.
Despite the known benefits of exercising for health, this resolution can still be a bit overwhelming. As a physical therapist, I’d like to offer a few tips for how to successfully start a new exercise program in a safe and effective way.
Set manageable and realistic goals. Getting in shape is an open-ended expression and can mean different things to different people. Spend some time thinking about how you want to start and try not to overwhelm yourself by taking on too much at once.
Make peace with the process.
Once you’ve set your goal and you’re ready to start, keep in mind that change will not happen overnight. Your new workouts may make you feel sore – you should expect it.
The most common question I get in the clinic is, “How long will it take until I see a change?” The short answer is that it will never happen fast enough. There are so many variables including age, sex, past exercise routines and past injuries that factor into your body’s ability to develop. The question you should ask yourself is, “How long will it take until I feel better?” That can be as soon as after just one workout!
Avoid injury by being smart.
Watch out for workouts that push you to your very limit on your first attempt. Pushing yourself past the point of fatigue may cause your body to use compensatory strategies, increasing your risk for injury. Instead, focus on preparing your body for a long-term change by gradually building up your strength and flexibility.
Here are some great tips from my colleague Nicholas Goyeneche, MD, on how to prevent injuries while you are working out.
Treat your back, shoulder, knee or elbow pain without an operation. Our physical medicine and rehabilitation team can help — learn more here.
Have a holistic approach.
If you want to run or walk further or for a longer period of time, I encourage you to do more than just running and walking. Consider adding strengthening exercises for your hips and core muscles so your body can take those extra miles without developing joint pain. If you want to try a specific workout like CrossFit, concentrate on strengthening your arms and legs prior to beginning. These small investments will limit stress on your joints and help prevent injury.
Variation is key.
Boredom is a real concern and can easily derail your efforts. The cure for boredom is simple: Vary your workouts. Don’t do the same routine in the same environment every time you exercise. If you are used to working out in a gym, plan a day to exercise outside. Don’t forget that one of the best parts of getting in shape is returning to an active lifestyle, so get out there and enjoy yourself. There will be days you don’t feel like exercising at all. Commit to making yourself move.
Don’t be shy.
If you haven’t been to the gym or the park to exercise in a while, it can take a little while to feel comfortable and get back into a routine. The machines may look a little different, and it can be intimidating to charge in among the experienced fitness pros. You may even feel self-conscious a bit self-conscious at first as you try to mimic the routines and protocols of others. Trust me – we have all been there! Gym staff can walk you through how to use the machines properly, as the last thing anyone wants is for you to get hurt trying to learn by yourself. Many gyms will also hang signs at the beginning of the year to remind members that we were all new once! Once you settle into a routine, you will begin to feel right at home.
Finally, once you have incorporated these tools, listen to your body. As I mentioned before, you may feel sore, but pain is different from soreness. If something doesn’t feel right, you could be developing an injury and injuries can be made worse by ignoring pain.
If a body part is nagging you, acknowledge it by making an appointment to see your physician before it becomes a real problem. An evaluation may be recommended with a physical therapist who will help identify the problem and steer you in the right direction to safely continue your quest for better health.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Jan. 29, 2015.