How to Get in Shape With Exercise

Woman walking a trail
Woman walking a trail. Patrik Giardino/Getty Images

Many of us want to get in shape, but what exactly does it mean and how do you do it? Getting in shape is an individual experience, depending on your age, preferences, lifestyle and other factors. A mom with four kids may have very different goals from a mountain climber, for example.

But, at its heart, getting in shape simply means getting your body strong enough to do what you need it to do day after day. A mom with 4 kids may need to get in shape to have energy, stress relief and the patience to raise 4 kids.

A mountain climber needs to build strength and endurance for all the muscles he'll use while hiking.

For the average person, it really means working your body more than you are right now. Any time you do more than what you're used to, your body grows stronger, getting you in better shape than you were before.

If your goal is to get in shape, you'll need a few basics:

  1. Cardio to burn calories and help your heart and lungs work more efficiently
  2. Strength training to build lean muscle tissue while strengthening your bones, muscles, and joints
  3. Flexibility exercises to improve your range of motion, and rest so your body can recover and grow stronger.

Here's how to start.

Cardio Exercise

Cardio exercise includes any rhythmic activity that gets you into your target heart rate zone. The options are endless, including walking, running, aerobics, cycling, swimming, and dancing. You can even use daily chores like raking leaves or shoveling snow if you can keep the movement consistent enough to raise your heart rate. How to get started:

  1. Choose any cardio activity that's accessible and enjoyable.
  2. Schedule your cardio workouts for at least 3 days a week.
  3. Begin your workout with a comfortable 5-10 minute warm up to gradually increase your heart rate.
  4. Increase your intensity by going faster, adding hills, resistance or incline (or a combination) until you're just out of your comfort zone (Level 5 or 6 on the Perceived Exertion Scale).
  5. Maintain that pace for 15-30 minutes or for as long as you can, adjusting your intensity as needed to stay at Level 5 or 6.
  6. End your workout with a cool down and stretch.
  7. Each week, increase your workout time by a few minutes until you can work continuously for 30 minutes a session.
  8. Progress by adding more workout days, trying new activities and/or adding more intensity.

Sample Cardio Schedule:

Monday: 20-Minute Basic Cardio and Total Stretch
Wednesday: 10-15 Minute Beginner Walking or Cycling and Total Stretch
Friday: 20-Minute Basic Cardio and Total Stretch​

Strength Training

The other part of your workout program is strength training where you'll work all your major muscle groups. How to get started:

  1. Choose about 8-10 exercises, targeting the major muscle groups, including the lower body, chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and abs.
  2. If you're a beginner, do 1 set of 15 reps for each exercise. Choose weights that allow you to complete 15 reps - the last rep should be hard, but not impossible.
  3. Do your strength workout 2-3 times a week with at least one day of rest in between.
  4. Progress each week by adding a set (until you're up to a total of 3 sets per exercise), using heavier weights or trying new exercises.

Sample Strength Training Workout

Rest and Recovery

It may surprise you, but a big part of getting in shape is giving your body rest. While you can often do cardio on consecutive days, your muscles need more recovery time from lifting weights. Give yourself at least a day of rest between strength workouts and schedule regular rest days whenever you feel tired, sore or your performance is suffering.

Putting It All Together

Sample Workout Schedule for Getting In Shape

Monday: 20-Minute Basic Cardio Total Stretch Tuesday: Total Body Strength
Wednesday: Rest Thursday: Walking or Cycling Total Stretch
Friday: Total Body Strength Saturday: 20-Minute Basic Cardio Total Stretch
3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Agarwal SK. Cardiovascular benefits of exerciseInt J Gen Med. 2012;5:541–545. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S30113

  2. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012;11(4):209-16. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8

  3. McCall P. American Council on Exercise. 8 Reasons to Take a Rest Day.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."