30-Day Quick-Start Exercise Guide for Beginners

This Plan Puts You on the Right Path to Better Fitness and Weight Loss

Woman working out at home
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One of the easiest parts of starting an exercise program is deciding to do it. Usually there's something inspiring you to make a change: Maybe you tried on a pair of jeans that were too tight or there's an upcoming event—a reunion, wedding, or party—where you're going to see people you haven't seen in a while. Whatever it is, you're motivated, you're excited, and the fantasy of a new, slimmer you is enough to inspire you.

Then comes the hard part. Where do you even start? How do you set up a plan that you know will work for you? And once you do, how do you follow through?

4 Steps to Getting Started

Planning and preparation are important when you're getting started with exercise, but to be successful, you also need momentum—and the more you can create, the easier it is to stay motivated. The best way to build and maintain momentum is with action. While it's great to ponder your weight-loss goals, think about motivation, and work on your commitment to exercise, there's something to be said for just doing it—before too much contemplation drains your energy. It's easy to spend too much time researching, reading, and exploring rather than actually doing the exercise.

Step 1: Record Your Measurements 

This isn't a must, but tracking your progress has many benefits, especially if your goal is to lose weight. In addition to keeping you accountable to yourself and committed to achieving your goals, it makes it more likely you'll reach—and even surpass—them.

Weighing yourself and keeping an exercise journal are two ways to track your progress, but taking your measurements (chest, arms, waist, hips) will give you a little more information. For example, you may be losing inches even if your scale weight doesn't change. In that case, monitoring your measurements every few weeks can reassure you that you are, in fact, slimming down.

Step 2: Get Your Doctor's Clearance 

If you have any injuries, illnesses or conditions, or are on any medications, talk to your doctor to make sure it's okay to exercise. Some medications may affect your heart rate, and it's important to know how that may relate to your workouts.

Step 3: Prepare to Work Out

When it comes to slimming down and toning up, there are two key types of workouts: cardio, which burns calories by raising your heart rate, and strength training, which builds the lean muscle that boosts metabolism, the rate at which you burn calories. Together, this pairing can produce powerful weight-loss results.

The cardio workouts included in this program are designed to be done on any cardio machine (treadmill, elliptical, bike, or rowing machine). If you prefer other activities (for instance, running, cycling, fitness videos, or group-fitness classes), choose another option as a substitute.

For the strength workouts, you'll need some equipment:

  • Various weighted dumbbells. Some exercises require heavier weights, while others will need lighter weights or none at all. Try to have a range of dumbbells: a light set (3 to 5 pounds for women, 5 to 8 pounds for men), a medium set (5 to 10 pounds for women, 10 to 15 pounds for men), and a heavy set (10 to 20 pounds for women, 15 to 30 pounds for men).
  • An exercise ball. These giant balls are one of the best tools to strengthen the abs and back and increase stability. They come in different sizes to accommodate your height. When you sit on one, there should be a 90-degree angle at your hip joints and knee joints.
  • An exercise mat. Yoga mats are thinner and have more gripping ability to hold poses. Thicker mats are best for Pilates and abdominal exercises because they cushion the spine while you're lying on your back. 

It will also help to know the basics of weight training, including two key terms: rep and set. Rep, or repetition, is a single instance of an exercise—a dumbbell bicep curl, for instance. A set is the number of repetitions performed sequentially. For example, you can say, “I did 2 sets of 10 reps of bicep curls."

Also important to know is how to determine how much weight you should use. Start with a light weight and perform a set. Continue adding weight until you can do the desired number of reps with good form, which includes moving slowly enough that you're using muscle—and not momentum—to lift the weight. The last rep should be difficult, but not impossible, and you should be able to keep good form while doing it.

Step 4: Your First Cardio Workout

Choose any cardio machine, set it on a manual mode (versus pre-set programs), and find your warm-up pace.

For the bulk of the workout, you'll change the settings (incline, speed, resistance, etc.) every few minutes to work at a moderate level, ending with a cooldown. Throughout, you'll use the perceived exertion scale, which gauges the intensity at which you're exercising from 1 to 10, to work at the suggested levels.

This workout is really designed just to get an idea of how cardio feels to your body. Feel free to change the settings and adjust it to fit your ability.

  • 5 minutes: Warm up at an easy-moderate pace. Perceived Exertion Level (PE): 4
  • 5 minutes: Increase speed, incline, and/or resistance so you're just out of your comfort zone but still able to talk. This is your baseline. PE: 5
  • 2 minutes: Increase your speed, incline, and/or resistance until you're working a little harder than baseline. PE: 6
  • 3 minutes: Reduce your speed, incline, and/or resistance back to baseline. PE: 5
  • 1 minute: Increase your speed, incline, and/or resistance until you're working a little harder than baseline. PE: 6
  • 4 minutes: Reduce speed, incline, and/or resistance back to a moderate level. PE: 4

Total workout time: 20 minutes

Flexibility Workout

Cardio and strength training may be the cornerstones of any solid workout program, but you don't want to end your workout without stretching. Stretching when your muscles are warm has a number of benefits, from building greater flexibility to offering relaxation and stress relief.

The great thing about stretching is that you don't have to spend a lot of time to get the benefits. This total-body flexibility workout, which includes eight stretches, can be done in as little as 2 minutes.

Your First Week

Now that you've completed your first workout, it's time to plan your first week of workouts. Here's an idea of how to schedule your cardio and strength-training activity. 

Day 1

Perform the 20-minute cardio routine outlined above.

Day 2

For this basic strength-training workout, you'll do 1 set of 15 reps of each of the nine exercises listed below, resting briefly between exercises as needed. The workout targets all the muscles in the body, including the chest, shoulders, arms, back, hips, glutes, and thighs. It's short and simple—a great way for beginners to get started with strength training. 

Keep in mind that it's normal to be sore after lifting weights for the first time, or if it's been a long time since you've pumped iron. If you find you're very sore the next day, you might need to take an extra rest day and back off of your strength workout the next time.

Day 3

Today you'll do the same 20-minute cardio routine as Day 1, followed by the 10 lower-body stretches included in this lower-body stretching workout.

Day 4

For today's workout, you'll go through the following eight yoga poses, holding each for 3 to 5 breaths. Do the workout anytime you like—it will refresh you in the morning and help you unwind before bed. Take your time when performing each exercise and focus on your breath: Breath in and out through the nose, taking the air in through the back of your throat. Do each pose at least once, twice or more if you have time.

Day 5

Today's workout involves the basic strength-training workout you did on Day 2. As before, perform 1 set of 15 reps for each exercise, resting briefly between moves as needed. If you feel that's too easy, you can always add another set or use heavier weights.

Day 6

Today's cardio workout involves interval training, which is when you alternate work sets (working at a higher intensity) with rest sets using the perceived exertion scale to monitor your intensity. This workout can be done on any cardio machine.

  • 5 minutes: Warm up at an easy pace. PE: 4
  • 3 minutes: Rest Set: Increase speed and resistance/incline to a moderate level. PE: 5
  • 1 minute: Work Set: Increase incline and resistance 1 percent to 5 percent to raise the intensity level. PE: 7
  • 3 minutes: Rest Set. PE: 5
  • 1 minute: Work Set. PE: 7
  • 3 minutes: Rest Set. PE: 5
  • 5 minutes: Cool down. PE: 4

Week 1 Recap

On Day 1, you completed your first workout. During Week 1, you got through a full week of cardio, strength, and flexibility workouts. Now you're ready to build on that success with progressively more challenging workouts.

That said, keep in mind that the schedules are only suggestions. You may want less cardio, more rest days, or you may even want to stick with the same workouts for a more than a week. Use this program as a place to start and adjust the schedule so that it works for you.

Week 2

You'll continue with the same schedule as last week but progress with a few small changes to keep you challenged. 

For cardio, you'll do the same workouts with an added 5 minutes to build endurance and increase your exercise time.

  • 5 minutes: Warm up at an easy-moderate pace. Perceived Exertion Level (PE): 4
  • 6 minutes: Increase speed, incline, and/or resistance so you're just out of your comfort zone, but still able to talk. This is your baseline. PE: 5
  • 3 minutes: Increase your speed, incline, and/or resistance until you're working a little harder than baseline. PE: 6
  • 4 minutes: Reduce your speed, incline, and/or resistance back to baseline. PE: 5
  • 2 minute: Increase your speed, incline, and/or resistance until you're working a little harder than baseline. PE: 6
  • 5 minutes: Reduce speed, incline, and/or resistance back to a moderate level. PE: 4

Your strength-training workouts include the same exercises, but you'll be doing 2 sets of each for added intensity. Interval training increases by 4 minutes, to 25 minutes.

Modify the workouts as needed to fit your fitness level and goals.

Week 3

This week, the changes to your workouts are more drastic with higher-intensity cardio workouts, a new and more challenging strength routine, as well as a new yoga workout to try.

Your cardio workouts go up from 25 minutes to 30 minutes and the interval workout takes you to higher levels of intensity. The strength routine includes new exercises and heavier weights, and there's a yoga routine performed on an exercise ball, which offers extra support and challenge.

Remember, if these changes feel too fast, keep the same workouts for as long as you need. When they start to feel easy, you'll know you're ready to move on to more challenging workouts.

Week 4

With three weeks of workouts under your belt, you'll maintain your previous schedule with a few small changes to keep things interesting.

You'll continue with your 30-minute cardio workouts, but try a new interval routine that includes making more frequent changes throughout the workout.

Your strength workout remains the same, but you'll add a second set to challenge your muscles and continue progressing.

Week 5 and Beyond

To continue making progress, you need to change things up—in exercise lingo, what's called exercise adaptation. Change can come in a variety of ways: You can modify weights, repetitions, intensity, speed, duration, variations on exercises, and more. You only have to make one change at a time to make a difference and continue reaching new goals.

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