I was home from college one hot, muggy summer day in Indiana, and I decided to go running with a couple of friends. I hadn’t run since I was forced to in high school gym class, and I was pretty sedentary, and this seemed to be a good place to start. Sure, it was horrible, but I knew professional athletes somehow learned to get through grueling workouts — I just had to stick it out. When I was finished 20 minutes later, I was sweating heavily, gasping for air, and sure I was going to throw up. I’m never, ever doing this again, I thought. But eventually, about five years later, I did, going on to run regularly and take part in some very challenging 25K road races and sprint triathlons.
What had I done wrong that day? First, I went from zero to 60 in a single bound instead of gradually increasing my distance and speed. Second, I chose the worst possible weather in which to run. Years later, following another friend’s advice, I eased back into running gradually, first by walking, then alternating walking and running, and then running short distances. I did this in an air-conditioned gym with a padded running track. After each workout, I felt both energized and relaxed. In other words, I made the experience pleasant.
Most people know the benefits of exercise: It lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, aids in weight loss, alleviates stress, elevates mood and — in people with diabetes — helps control blood glucose levels. Experts recommend exercising at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Yet, many people are less than enthusiastic about exercise.
It is a simple law of learning theory that gets lost in the “no pain, no gain” sports culture: If an action produces rewards, you’re apt to keep doing it and do it more often. Rewards can include having fun, feeling better, enjoying the surroundings or the people you’re with, or a feeling of achievement. Most people can stick with exercise if they focus on making it rewarding and fun.
Before you begin exercising, particularly if you’re older or have not been very active, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor. Find out if there are any reasons you should not do any particular exercises.
For many people, walking is an excellent place to start. It’s good exercise, it burns calories, it requires no special equipment, it can be done virtually anywhere, and most people can do it. As always, start slowly and work your way up. Walk as far as you can before you get too tired, and then gradually increase the distance you walk — and, perhaps, your speed.
Walking also is a good starting point for people who want to take up jogging or running. Training experts often recommending alternating running and walking, gradually increasing the running time. For example, you might start off walking for 30 minutes daily for one week. The next week you might alternate walking a few minutes with running a few minutes, for a total of 30 minutes, and so on, until you’re running most or all of the time.
Gentle yoga also is a good way to embark on regular exercise. It emphasizes the pleasant sensations involved in movement and, for many people, it is the gateway to exercise of all kinds. In fact, the strength, flexibility, and mental focus yoga provides can help make any future activities all that much easier.
And you don’t have to do your 30 minutes of exercise all at once. According to the National Institutes of Health, you can get many of the same exercise benefits by breaking it up into three 10-minute sessions.
Without specific goals, it often is difficult to stick with a program, and it is very easy to slide back to doing little or no exercise. Some people enjoy running road races, such as 5K races (the equivalent of 3.1 miles). Some people decide to get in shape for specific hikes (such as a group hike up a mountain) or a fundraiser (such as The Walk for Hunger). Once you’ve set a goal, you can build up your endurance slowly over time in preparation for the event.
Setting goals also is important in the short term. You might decide, for example, to run a certain number of miles or to walk a certain number of minutes. A friend who had been very sedentary kicked up his physical activity when he received a fitness tracking device. There now are several on the market, and some smart phones have fitness apps. My friend’s daily goal has been to take 10,000 steps, and it works for him. There are days he feels lethargic, but he still wants to make sure he gets in his 10,000 steps, no matter what. And he feels satisfied every day that he meets his goal. However, it has been shown in one study that some people using fitness trackers actually exercise less, so they may not be helpful for everyone.
Making it convenient
The more convenient you make your regular exercise routine, the more likely you are to stick with it. Find ways to incorporate more activity into your daily life. If possible, commute to and from work by bike or on foot. When you go to the mall, park far away from the entrance so you walk farther. Consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Perhaps you could do nearby errands on foot or by bike instead of driving.
Making it fun
All too often, people treat exercise as a bitter pill they must swallow. You see them doing the slow death march on the treadmills at the gym, waiting for their 10 or 15 or 20 minutes to be over. Chances are, if you hate your workout as much as these folks do, you won’t stick with it. In fact, studies have shown that people are much more likely to stick with regular activities they enjoy. Here are a number of ways to make your workouts more fun.
Never mind what other people are doing — find something you enjoy. It can be anything from a long, solitary walk outdoors to a highly competitive game of tennis or golf or a group aerobics class such as Zumba, cardio kickboxing, or water aerobics. At first, the type of activity may not be as important as the routine of exercising regularly.
Join a softball, basketball, or soccer team. Most leagues are open to all levels of skill. Team sports can be fun, and the camaraderie may keep you motivated.
Exercise outdoors, especially in natural settings. Several studies have shown that exercising outside — through fields and wooded areas — can enhance mood even more than indoor exercise. This could include wilderness adventures such as hiking or kayaking or competitive sports such as tennis or golf.
Vary your routine. Try different activities on different days to keep it fun. Try different golf courses. If you walk, bike, or run, experiment with different routes.
Consider adding music. When you’re on a treadmill, exercise bike, or cross-trainer, listening to music on your headphones can make the time go by more quickly and may even help energize your workout. Studies have shown people work harder and enjoy their workouts more when set to music. However, be careful about listening to music when you need to be alert, such as while walking, running, or biking on city streets.
Keeping it up
Activity is a habit, and the more you do, the more you’ll feel like doing. Try to keep your activity regular and avoid missing too many days in a row, because you may lose your momentum. If you’re feeling lethargic and don’t feel like meeting your set daily goal, it is important to do something. You might decide you’re going to walk only a few blocks. (And once you’re up and moving, you might surprise yourself and walk farther.) The important thing is to reinforce the habit of exercising.
Motivation experts stress exercising because it makes you feel better — not because someone else thinks you should. Behaviorists call this intrinsic (internal) motivation, as opposed to extrinsic (or external) motivation, and it is much more likely to make you stick with your program over the long term.
Here are some other tips for sticking with it.
Keep a log of your activity. Add a happy face if you achieve your goal for the day. Pat yourself on the back.
Exercise with a friend. Running, walking or biking with a friend can make exercise more fun, and you can help each other stay committed.
Consider hiring a personal trainer. A trainer can suggest new exercises, help you reach your fitness goals, and help keep you motivated. He or she should be certified by a national organization such as the American College of Sports Medicine.
Don’t be afraid to try new activities. Fear of failure may keep you from trying new things, but once you try them, you may surprise yourself and find you enjoy them. Classes at your local gym can be a good way to try yoga, barre, kickboxing, tai chi, or Zumba. Outside, try hiking, swimming, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or kayaking.
Have realistic expectations. It may take months before you notice some of the benefits of exercise, including weight loss, greater stamina, and reduced stress.
Congratulate yourself. According to the Centers for Disease Control, four out of 10 adults in the U.S. say they never engage in exercise, sports, or physically active hobbies, so if you’re doing anything at all, you’re ahead of the curve. And even small amounts of exercise can be beneficial to your health.
Not everyone enjoys the same exercise. Some people like group activities, while others prefer their solitude. Some enjoy loud music; others seek the quiet of the outdoors. Determine what motivates you and get moving.