Exercise for Beginners

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Exercise for Beginners

Steps for easing into a routine

It’s been said that exercise would be a wonder drug if they could put it in a bottle. It can prevent or even reverse heart disease and type 2 diabetes, fight depression, and slow the progression of arthritis. For people who don’t exercise, the most obvious question is, “How do I start?”

Check with your doctor

It’s a good idea to check with your doctor and get a physical examination before you start a new exercise plan, especially if you’re 45 years of age or older or have health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, or anything that could increase your risk of injury. Your doctor may be able to suggest which activities are best for you and which ones to avoid. Most people can do some form of exercise regardless of any medical conditions they might have.


What Is Functional Fitness?

Functional fitness involves physical training that helps us carry out the activities of everyday life, such as getting in and out of chairs and carrying out household activities such as vacuuming, mowing the lawn, and raking leaves. Functional fitness exercises, each of which requires that multiple muscle groups be used together, include lunges, squats, push-ups and twists.


Start off slowly

According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, people should get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, most days of the week. But even if you can do just five or 10 minutes of exercise, that’s better than doing nothing, and you can gradually increase how much you exercise. In fact, doing too much too soon can cause fatigue, soreness, and injury and may not necessarily yield instant results, all of which could discourage you from exercising altogether.

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Make a plan

It’s easy — and not particularly productive — to say to yourself, “I really should exercise.” To make it happen, you really need a specific plan. What kind of activity will you do? How much will you do? When will you start? Walking is a good place to begin because most people do it and are used to it. You can start off planning to walk a certain distance, like walking several blocks or just taking one spin around the block. Once you’ve done that, you can gradually increase your distance and perhaps consider picking up the pace by jogging or running.

In the beginning, it’s helpful to have both short-term and long-term goals. A short-term goal might be to be more active, and a long-term goal might be to participate in a 5-kilometer race, shed x number of pounds, or get your blood pressure under control. Some people find it helpful to write down these goals.


What Is HIIT and Should I Do It?

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is all the rage in gyms and health clubs, but you may be wondering exactly what it is, what its specific benefits are, and whether it is safe and advisable for people with diabetes.

HIIT involves short bouts (about 30 seconds) of high-intensity aerobic exercise, such as jumping jacks, squats, or burpees, alternating with equally short periods of rest, for a total duration of under half an hour. Research shows that HIIT has basically the same benefits as moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or leisurely swimming or biking, in terms of weight loss, blood cholesterol levels, cardiorespiratory disease, and the overall risk of cardiovascular disease. Yet HIIT can offer these benefits in less time, which could make it an attractive option for people who have difficulty fitting exercise into their schedule. However, HIIT may pose a greater risk to people with health conditions. If you have heart disease, for example, you should speak with your health care team before starting HIIT (or any exercise program, for that matter). Also, most HIIT workouts are high-impact, which may make them less than ideal for people with arthritic conditions, although some gyms offer HIIT classes that are specifically low-impact.


Make it a habit

For exercise to be completely effective, you have to stick with it over the long run. There are ways to reinforce the exercise habit. First of all, try to make sure you exercise every day, or at least several times a week. It helps if you schedule it at the same time every day, such as right before or after work. If you don’t feel that energetic, just be sure to do something at the appointed time, even if it’s a fraction of what you usually do. (And once you get going, you may surprise yourself!)

Another consideration, obvious but often overlooked, is to do something you enjoy. Do you enjoy nature? Find nice wooded areas in which to bike, jog, or hike. Do you like being around people? Consider a group exercise class like aerobics, Zumba, cardio kickboxing, or yoga. Or exercise regularly with a friend (which will also help keep you both committed). Do you enjoy competitive sports? Try tennis, basketball, golf, volleyball, softball, or bowling.


The Four Components of Total Fitness

Ideally, any exercise routine should address the four basic components of fitness — cardiovascular activity, strength, flexibility, and balance.

Cardiovascular activity.

Cardiovascular activity refers to activity that raises your heart rate, and it’s important for losing weight and keeping your heart healthy. Some excellent forms of cardiovascular activity include walking, hiking, jogging, running, biking, and swimming. To reap the benefits, you should shoot for at least 20 to 30 minutes at least four times a week.


Strength training has a number of benefits. Being strong helps us stay active and independent. For people with diabetes, building muscle helps burn calories, aiding in weight loss, and it increases the body’s glucose uptake, helping to keep blood glucose levels in the normal range.

When you are starting out, experts recommend exercises that use your own body weight, which are safer and easier than some other types of strength training. Body weight exercises include push-ups, sit-ups, planks, squats, and lunges. Once you’ve become a little stronger, you can start to add more resistance, such as free weights (barbells and dumbbells) or elastic bands. You can ease into it even more gradually by choosing light weights or highly flexible elastic bands. To be effective, you should engage in strength training at least twice a week, but avoid using the same muscle groups two days in a row in order to give your muscles time to recover.


Flexibility is one of the most underrated forms of fitness, yet it’s important for preventing injuries and essential to staying active and independent. Most yoga classes emphasize flexibility, but there are also simple stretches, such as flexing your ankles while you’re sitting down, that can make life a little easier.


Balance is important for many sports, including biking and skiing, but it also becomes very important as we age, helping us to avoid falls. Yoga, as well as the “moving meditation” of tai chi or qigong, can help improve balance. For those just starting out, there are a couple of simple balance exercises to start you on your way. One is to balance on one leg and then the other, maybe with the help of the back of a chair to hold. Another great balance exercise is to practice walking across the room heel-to-toe.


Staying safe when you exercise

There are a few steps you should take to guarantee your safety when exercising:

  • It’s very easy to become dehydrated when you exercise, especially if you’re working out for long periods, so be sure to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after periods of physical activity. Staying hydrated can also help your body recover from exercise.
  • If you’re prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), always be sure to carry treatment, such as glucose tabs or gel or a fast-acting carbohydrate like fruit juice or regular (not diet) soda.
  • Before your workout, do something to warm up. It will increase your performance and minimize the risk of injury. For example, before you run or jog, walk for a period of five to 10 minutes.
  • A few minutes of cooling down can help your body, especially your heart rate, return to normal. After running or jogging, for example, walking for a few minutes can get your heart rate back in the normal range. After strength training, doing a few minutes of stretching exercises can help keep your muscles from getting tight and sore.

Remember: The key to regular exercise is just taking that first step.

Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”

Robert S. Dinsmoor

Robert S. Dinsmoor

Robert S. Dinsmoor on social media

A contributing editor at Diabetes Self-Management, Dinsmoor is an award-winning medical journalist who has written hundreds of articles on health and medicine, including dozens related to diabetes.

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