Often, the hardest step in beginning a new routine is simply starting the new routine. Old habits, insufficient motivation, lack of support, and time constraints all represent common challenges when attempting to begin a new exercise program. Success, in this case, is measured by a person’s ability to consistently participate in a fitness program and reap the fitness benefits associated with a long-term commitment.
Beginning a fitness program is a daunting task. To illustrate the concept of lifestyle, consider attendance at fitness centers during the month of January. Attendance increases dramatically, driven by the number 1 New Year’s resolution in America: losing weight. Unfortunately, as time marches on, most of these new converts do not. By some estimates, as many as 80% have stopped coming by the second week in February. As February and March approach, attendance continues to decline, eventually falling back to pre-January levels.
Why does this occur? Why aren’t these new customers able to persist and achieve their goal of a healthier, leaner body? One possible explanation: patrons fail to view their fitness program as a lifestyle. The beginning of a new year inspires people to make resolutions, set goals, as they envision a new and improved version of themselves. Unfortunately, most of them expect this transformation to occur in a short period of time. When this does not happen, they become discouraged and give up.
Returning to teen level weight and/or fitness may be an alluring, well-intended goal, but one that is simply unrealistic for most adults. The physical demands and time constraints of adulthood must be taken into consideration for any fitness program to be successful. Otherwise, any new fitness program will soon be abandoned and dreams of physical perfection fade, at least until next January.
Like any other lifestyle habit, optimal health and fitness do not occur overnight. Time and, more importantly, consistency, drive successful health and fitness outcomes. The very term lifestyle refers to changes that are long term and become incorporated into a person’s daily routine. Unlike many fad diets and quick fixes advertised on television, successful lifestyle changes are also balanced and reasonable. They do not leave you feeling depressed and deprived after a few days. Find a balance between what you want to achieve and what you are realistically able to do. Finally, you must do more than simply change your behaviors. You must also modify your mental perception to promote long-term health. Find a compelling reason for incorporating healthier behaviors into your daily routine.
The steps below will guide you through this process. Before beginning a fitness program, you should understand the safety concerns associated with exercise.
Safety First: Assessing Your Risk
The physical challenges of beginning a new exercise program increase the risk of injury, illness, or even death. Results from various studies suggest vigorous activity increases the risk of acute cardiac heart attacks and/or sudden cardiac death.3 While that cautionary information appears contradictory to the previously identified benefits of exercise, the long-term benefits of exercise unequivocally outweigh its risks. In active young adults (younger than 35), incidence of cardiac events are still rare, affecting 1 in 133,000 in men and 1 in 769,000 in women. In older individuals, 1 in 18,000 experience a cardiac event. 4
Of those rare cardiac incidents that do occur, the presence of preexisting heart disease is the common thread, specifically, atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis causes arteries to harden and become clogged with plaque, which can break apart, move to other parts of the body, and clog smaller blood vessels. As such, it is important to screen individuals for risk factors associated with heart disease before they begin an exercise program.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a thorough pre-screening to identify any risk of heart disease. The 7 major risk factors associated with increased risk of heart disease are identified below.5
- Family history
Having a father or first-degree male relative who has experienced a cardiac event before the age of 55, or a mother or first-degree female relative who has experienced a cardiac event before age 65, could indicate a genetic predisposition to heart disease.
- Cigarette smoking
The risk of heart disease is increased for those who smoke or have quit in the past 6 months.
Having blood pressure at or above 140 mm/HG systolic, 90 mm/Hg diastolic is associated with increased risk of heart disease.
Having cholesterol levels that exceed recommendations (130 mg/dL, HDL below 40 mg/dL), or total cholesterol of greater than 200 mg/dL increases risk.
- Impaired fasting glucose (diabetes)Blood sugar should be within the recommended ranges.
Body mass index greater than 30, waist circumference of larger than 102 cm for men and larger than 88 cm for women, or waist to hip ratio of less than 0.95 men, or less than 0.86 women increases risk of heart disease.
- Sedentary lifestyle
Persons not meeting physical activity guidelines set by US Surgeon General’s Report have an increased risk of heart disease.
In addition to identifying your risk factors, you should also complete a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q) before beginning an exercise program. The PAR-Q asks yes or no questions about symptoms associated with heart disease. Based on your responses on the PAR-Q, you will be placed into a risk category: low, moderate, high.
- Low risk persons include men younger than 45, and women younger than 55, who answer no to all of the PAR-Q questions and have one or no risk factors. Although further screening is a good idea, such as getting physician’s approval, it isn’t necessary.
- Moderate risk persons are men of or greater than 45, women 55 or those who have two or more risk factors. Because of the connection between cardiac disease, the seven risk factors, and risk during exercise, it is recommended you get a physician’s approval before beginning an exercise program.
- High risk persons answer yes to one or more of the questions on the PAR-Q. Physician’s approval is required before beginning a program.
Once you have determined your ability to safely exercise, you are ready to take the next steps in beginning your program. Additional safety concerns, such as where you walk and jog, how to be safe during your workout, and environmental conditions, will be addressed at a later time.
As you review the remaining steps, a simple analogy may help to better conceptualize the process.
Imagine you are looking at a map because you are traveling to a particular location and you would like to determine the best route for your journey. To get there, you must first determine your current location and then find the roads that will take you to your desired location. You must also consider roads that will present the least amount of resistance, provide a reasonably direct route, and do not contain any safety hazards along the way. Of course, planning the trip, while extremely important, is only the first step. To arrive at your destination, you must actually drive the route, monitoring your car for fuel and/or malfunction, and be prepared to reroute should obstacles arise.
Preparing yourself for an exercise program and ultimately, adopting a healthier lifestyle, requires similar preparation. You will need to complete the following steps:
- Assess your current fitnessWhere are you on the map?
- Set goals
What is your destination’s location?
- Create a plan
What route will you choose?
- Follow throughStart driving!
Assess Your Condition
To adequately prepare, you will need to take a hard look at your current level of
fitness. With multiple methods of assessing your fitness, you should select the one that most closely applies to you. Obtaining a good estimate will provide you a one-time glance at your baseline fitness and health and provide a baseline measurement for gauging the efficacy of your fitness program in subsequent reassessments.
Assessments are specific to each health- related component of fitness. You will have the opportunity to assess each one in the near future.
Using the map analogy, now that you know your current location, you must determine your destination and the best route for getting there. You can start by setting goals. In his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey suggests you should “Begin with the end in mind.”7 While Covey’s words may not be directly aimed at those seeking to complete a fitness program, his advice is useful to anyone making a significant lifestyle change. To be successful, you must develop a clear vision of your destination. Setting specific goals about how you want to feel and look, increases your chances of success. Without specific goals to measure the success of your efforts, you could possibly exceed your target and believe you failed.
The art of setting goals includes stating them in a clearly defined and measurable way. Consider exactly what you would like to accomplish, make certain your goals can be measured, and establish a reasonable timeframe in which to achieve your goals.
Goals that meet these guidelines are referred to as S.M.A.R.T. goals.
Be as specific and detailed as possible in creating your goal.
- Measurable: If your goal cannot be measured, you will not know when you have successfully completed the goal.
Consider whether you have the resources—such as time, family support, and financial means—to obtain your goal.
While your goal should be challenging, it should not exceed reasonable expectations.
Set a deadline to accomplish your goal.
A well-stated goal contains all of the SMART components listed above. Take a look at the well-stated example below:
I will improve my 12-minute distance by 10% within 2 months of the first assessment.
Note, all the ingredients of a well-stated goal are present. It is specific (improve 12- minute distance by 10%), measurable (10% improvement), attainable and realistic (the degree of improvement is reasonable in that time frame), and includes a time frame (a clear deadline of 2 months).
Less effective goals would be stated like this:
- I will run farther next time I assess my fitness.
- I want to jog faster.
- I will lose weight
And a common one:
- I will exercise 3 days a week at 60% max heart rate for 45 minutes per session for 2 months.
At a closer glance, none of these examples contain all of the ingredients of a well- stated goal. How can “faster” be measured? “Farther” is not specific enough, nor is “lose weight.” In the last example, this is not a goal at all. It is a plan to achieve a goal that has not been stated.
In the end, setting up well-stated goals will give you the best chance to convert good intentions into a healthier lifestyle.
To complete this step, write down 2-3 personal goals, stated in the SMART format, and put them in a place you will see them frequently.
Create a Plan
Once you know exactly what you want to achieve, generate a strategy that will help you reach your goals. As you strategize, your goal is to determine the frequency, the intensity, and the duration of your exercise sessions. While doing this, it is imperative to keep in mind a few key principles.
First, use your goals as the foundation for your program. If your goal is related to weight loss, this should drive the frequency, duration, and intensity of your daily workouts as these variables will influence your body’s use of fat for fuel and the number of calories burned. If you feel more interested in improving your speed, you will need to dedicate more workout time to achieving those results.
Another key principle is the importance of safety. The importance of designing a program that is safe and effective cannot be overstated. You can minimize any risks by relying on the expert recommendations of the US Department of Health and Human Services and the American College of Sports Medicine previously outlined and linked here. These highly reputable organizations have conducted extensive research to discover the optimal frequency, intensity, and duration for exercise.
Once you have assessed your current fitness levels, set goals using the SMART guidelines, and created your personalized fitness plan, you should feel very proud of yourself! You have made significant progress toward achieving a healthier lifestyle. Now is when the “rubber hits the road.” (Literally so, if your plan includes walking or jogging.) Now that you have invested time and energy to develop a thoughtful, well-designed fitness program, it is time to reap the returns of good execution. The assessment, planning and preparation are really the hardest parts. Once you know what to do and how to do it, success is simply a matter of doing it.
Unfortunately, the ability to stick with a program proves difficult for most. To prevent getting derailed from your program, identify barriers that may prevent you from consistently following through. One of the most common challenges cited is a shortage of time. Work schedules, school, child care, and the activities of daily living can leave you with little time to pursue your goals. Make a list of the items that prevent you from regularly exercising and then analyze your schedule and find a time for squeezing in your exercise routine. Regardless of when you schedule your exercise, be certain to exercise consistently. Below are a few additional tips for achieving consistency in your daily fitness program:
- Think long term; think lifestyle.
The goal is to make exercise an activity you enjoy every day throughout your life. Cultivating a love for exercise will not occur overnight and developing your ideal routine will take time. Begin with this knowledge in mind and be patient as you work through the challenges of making exercise a consistent part of your life.
- Start out slowly.
Again, you are in this for the long haul. No need to overdo it in the first week. Plan for low intensity activity, for 2–3 days per week, and for realistic periods of time (20–30 minutes per session).
- Begin with low Intensity/low volume.
As fitness improves, you will want to gradually increase your efforts in terms of quantity and quality. You can do this with more time and frequency (called volume) or you can increase your intensity. In beginning a program, do not change both at the same time.
- Keep track.
Results from a program often occur slowly, subtly, and in a very anti- climactic way. As a result, participants become discouraged when immediate improvements are not visible. Keeping track of your consistent efforts, body composition, and fitness test results and seeing those subtle improvements will encourage and motivate you to continue.
- Seek support.
Look for friends, family members, clubs, or even virtual support using apps and other online forums. Support is imperative as it provides motivation, accountability, encouragement, and people who share a common interest, all of which are factors in your ability to persist in your fitness program.
- Vary your activities from time to time.
Your overall goals are to be consistent, build your fitness, and reap the health benefits associated with your fitness program. Varying your activities occasionally will prevent boredom. Instead of walking, play basketball or ride a bike. Vary the location of your workout by discovering new hiking trails, parks or walking paths.
- Have fun.
If you enjoy your activities, you are far more likely to achieve a lasting lifestyle change. While you cannot expect to be exhilarated about exercising every day, you should not dread your daily exercise regimen. If you do, consider varying your activities more, or finding a new routine you find more enjoyable.
- Eat healthier.
Nothing can be more frustrating than being consistent in your efforts without seeing the results on the scale. Eating a balanced diet will accelerate your results and allow you to feel more successful throughout your activities.