A Guide to Exercise for Beginners

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We all know exercise is good for us. It offers documented health benefits and is probably one of the best tools we have to fight obesity, some types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.

At the same time, it can be hard to put that knowledge into practice. There are so many different suggestions on the types of activities and the ideal frequency, it can lead to information overload and overwhelm.

The most important thing to know is some exercise—any type of exercise—is better than no exercise. Here's a complete breakdown of exercise and all the components you need to set up a workout program that meets all your needs.

Benefits of Exercise

It's always a good idea to remind yourself about all the amazing things exercise can do for you, both physically and mentally.

Not only is it motivating to remember why it's so important, but it also helps shore up the commitment you need to get up every day and move your body.

The wonderful thing about exercise is that you don't need much to get the benefits. Even just a few minutes a day can improve your health and well-being. Here are just some things exercise can help you do:

  • Lose weight
  • Reduce stress
  • Relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Reduce your risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer
  • Boost your mood
  • Give you more energy
  • Help you sleep better
  • Increase bone density
  • Strengthen the heart and lungs
  • Improve your quality of life
  • Improve your confidence

Just think about it. Exercise is the one thing you can do every day that you'll always feel good about. Even if it's just a 5-minute walk, you'll improve your health and do something good for your body.

Exercise Philosophies

There are different schools of thought when it comes to exercise. Here's a look at some of the varying principles behind different workout routines.

The FITT Principle

There are some basic principles that govern the world of exercise, and knowing them can help you set up and manipulate different components of your workout.

Use the FITT acronym to remember the exercise variables you can change to avoid plateaus and to keep your body challenged:

  • Frequency: How often you exercise
  • Intensity: How hard you exercise
  • Time: How long you exercise
  • Type: The type of exercise you're doing (e.g., running, walking, etc.)

When you work out at a sufficient intensity, time, and frequency, your body will improve (also called the Training Effect) and you'll start to see changes in your weight, body fat percentage, cardio endurance, and strength. When your body adjusts to your current FITT levels, it's time to manipulate one or more of them.

For example, if you've been walking three times a week for 20 minutes and you've stopped seeing improvement, you could change your program in one or more of the following ways:

  • Frequency: Add one more day of walking.
  • Intensity: Add short bursts of jogging, speed walking, or hill training.
  • Time: Add 10 to 15 minutes to your usual workout time.
  • Type: Do a different activity, such as cycling, swimming, or aerobics.

Changing any of these variables every four to six weeks can help you keep that training effect going.

The Overload Principle

In order to improve your strength, endurance, and fitness, you have to progressively increase the frequency, intensity, and time of your workouts. A simple way to stimulate your body is to try different activities.

If you normally walk on the treadmill, try riding the bike which will use different muscles and allow you to burn more calories. If you've been doing biceps curls with dumbbells, change to a barbell.

Specificity

This principle is just what it sounds like. It means your workouts should be specific to your goals.

If you're trying to improve your racing times, you should focus on speed workouts. If your main goal is simply health, fitness, and weight loss, you should focus on total body strength, cardio, and a healthy diet. Make sure your training matches your goals.

Types of Exercise

The FITT Principle helps you with the broad view of exercise, but to really get that strong, fit body, you need three major components. These include cardio, strength training, and flexibility training. Having all of these elements gives you a balanced exercise program that will help you build strength and endurance while working on flexibility, balance, and stability.

Knowing the guidelines for each component will help you set up the perfect exercise program.

Cardio

Cardio exercise is any rhythmic activity performed continuously and can include activities like walking, running, aerobics, cycling, swimming, and dancing.

Cardio strengthens the heart and lungs, increases endurance and burns calories, which helps you lose weight. While you should always stick with a cardio program that fits with your fitness level, there are general guidelines for cardio programs based on your goals.

To gain general health benefits, participate in 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five days each week OR vigorous cardio activity 20 minutes per day, three days a week. For weight loss, 60 to 90 minutes per day of physical activity is recommended.

Working at a moderate intensity means you're working but still able to talk, which is about a Level 5 on this perceived exertion scale.

Keep in mind that you can also split your workouts throughout the day and get the same results.

Cardio Resources

Strength Training

Strength training works the body in a different way than cardio and is equally as important for good health and weight loss. With strength training, you lift weights (dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, machines, etc.) to strengthen the muscles, bones, and connective tissue.

Strength training builds lean muscle tissue, which raises metabolism helping you to reduce body fat provided you're also keeping your calorie intake in line. If you are new to resistance exercise and intimidated by using weights, bodyweight exercises, like squats, pushups, and planks, are a great way to start.

The general guidelines for strength training are:

  • Choose eight to 12 exercises, targeting the major muscle groups (lower body, chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and abs).
  • For beginners, do one set of eight to 16 reps of each exercise to fatigue. More advanced exercisers can do two to three sets.
  • Train each muscle group two to three non-consecutive days a week.
  • Work each exercise through its full range of motion and use good form.

Strength Training Resources

Flexibility

While stretching is often the most overlooked exercise, it's important for keeping us agile as we get older. And, unlike the rigors of cardio and strength training, it's relaxing and it feels good.

Stretching can be done anytime throughout the day, but it's also important to stretch after your workouts, especially if you have any chronically tight areas. The guidelines for stretching are:

  • Stretch your muscles when they're warm (after your warm-up or, even better, after your workout).
  • Do static stretches with a focus on tight areas, such as the hamstrings and lower back.
  • Stretch a minimum of two to three days a week. Even better would be every day.
  • Stretch within your range of motion. Stretching shouldn't hurt.
  • Hold each stretch for about 15 to 30 seconds and do two to four reps of each stretch.

Don't forget that yoga workouts are a great way to both stretch your body at the same time you build endurance and promote relaxation and stress-reduction. Pilates also promotes flexibility along with core strength and stability. Both of these activities are a great addition to a traditional cardio and strength training routine.

Flexibility, Yoga, and Pilates Resources

Rest and Recovery

While we often focus on getting in as much exercise as possible, rest and recovery are also essential for reaching your weight loss and fitness goals. While you can often do cardio every day (though you may want to rest after very intense workouts), you should have at least a day of rest between strength training workouts. Make sure you don't work the same muscles two days in a row to give your body the time it needs to rest and recover.

Putting It All Together

All of these guidelines are great, but how do you put together a complete exercise program where you get your cardio, strength, and flexibility all at once?

There are multiple ways to set up a schedule, but this sample schedule shows how you might start if you're a beginner:

There are plenty of other ways to go about it as well. The important thing is to set up a complete, well-rounded program that you can make work for your life and fitness goals.

Finding Motivation

While it's important to know basic exercise guidelines and principles, the most important step in starting an exercise routine is exploring the idea of motivation. Without that, all the advice in the world won't do you any good.

It's important to remember that motivation doesn't just happen. It's something you make happen each and every day. If you have multiple reasons to exercise, you'll always have something to get you moving, even when motivation is hard to come by. The hardest part of exercise is getting started. If you can get that far, you've won half the battle. Some ideas:

  • Remind yourself of your weight-loss goals.
  • Think of a future event to get ready for (a wedding, a vacation, etc.).
  • Consider how much energy you'll have to get more things done.
  • Imagine how relaxed you'll feel after a workout.
  • Think of your exercise time as the only time you may get to yourself all day.
  • Remind yourself how good you'll feel by following through.
  • Promise yourself a reward for completing your workout.
  • Think of all the diseases and illnesses your workout could protect you from.
  • Remind yourself that this workout is necessary to reach your goal

Motivation Resources

The best way to exercise is to start with something simple and accessible. Try walking a few days a week and let that be enough until you're ready to try more activities. The important thing is to move your body as often as you can.

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