Getting Started with Exercise
Most of us understand that exercise can make us feel stronger, look younger, sleep deeper and live better. Health experts have been drumming that message into us for years.
But instead of getting more exercise, we're getting less. The U.S. Surgeon General says that more than 60 percent of American adults don't do the recommended amount of exercise -- and about 25 percent of us don't exercise at all.
Just as frustrating, most of us who do start exercising don't stick with it. Studies show that more than half of all exercise programs fade away within six months.
Why is it so hard?
Why can't we embrace a routine that need only occupy the time we spend on three sitcoms a week? The answer is more mental than physical. Adopting an exercise plan requires a change in schedule, lifestyle and perhaps self-image. We need to be realistic-and find activities that are fun.
Several factors make starting to exercise so difficult, says Rodney K. Dishman, Ph.D., a University of Georgia professor of exercise physiology. "For starters," he says, "beginning to exercise isn't just a single behavior. You have to pick an activity, make time for it and then keep it up. And telling yourself to change your attitude is just not enough."
The first ingredient is the desire for change. Don't be discouraged if your first attempt falls short, says Dr. Dishman. Even regular exercise buffs can face burnout.
When it comes to starting an exercise program, nearly everybody has an excuse. Psychologist Alan S. Kagel, Ed.D., has heard them all. A specialist in sports psychology, he works regularly with people who want to exercise but can't get started or keep going.
"The first thing I ask people is to verbalize all the reasons for exercising," Dr. Kagel says. "This lets them understand the real benefits from changing their behavior. Then I ask them for all the reasons not to."
That helps people realize that excuses are just that: There will always be reasons not to exercise.
Dr. Kagel also asks people to examine their exercise history, "because that's often the reason for failure. For some people, exercise represents a traumatic experience, like the time they didn't make the team."
Finally, Dr. Kagel makes sure people understand what they must do to succeed. This includes motivating yourself with a calendar or journal, setting flexible goals, and setting up a program with a choice of activities.
To avoid soreness and injury, you should start out any exercise program slowly and gradually build up. People with chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes or obesity and those who are at high risk for these problems should talk to their doctor before beginning a new program of physical activity. Men over age 40 or women over age 50 who want to begin a vigorous physical activity program also should consult a doctor first.
Sticking with it
The experts have a fancy name for sticking with it: "exercise adherence." To reach that goal, Dr. Dishman suggests some guidelines.
First, don't expect instant results. It can take 10 to 20 weeks of sustained effort to make a noticeable fitness difference, so be realistic.
"Also, don't gauge your progress in the first few weeks by a weight scale," he says.
Another common problem: lack of confidence. That's why Dr. Dishman suggests you give yourself as much support as necessary, ranging from constant reminders to joining an exercise group.
Finally, remind yourself that the benefits aren't all visible. Moderate exercise for 30 minutes three to four times a week helps reduce stress, fight depression and make you feel better. The American Heart Association defines moderate-to-vigorous exercise as exercise that increases your heart rate to 55 percent of its maximum or higher.
"Don't just focus on adding years to your life," Dr. Dishman says. "Adding life to your years is just as important."
Other tips for staying motivated
• Make exercise a priority. Schedule time for exercise and treat it like an appointment you can't break.
• Keep track of your exercise days on the calendar. Studies show that some people are more likely to exercise when they keep track of their workouts. Try marking an X on your calendar every day that you work out. This may give you a sense of accomplishment. Or, try putting an X on the days you skipped, to motivate you to get back at it.
• Keep an exercise diary. Jot down how long and how far you bike, how much weight you lift, or how many laps you swim. Or, if you own a computer, you may want to keep track on a spreadsheet.
• Join an event. Sign up for a 5K run, a charity bike ride or walkathon. Getting in shape to compete in a race can be a good motivator. A charity event can be motivating because when you cross the finish line, other people will benefit, too.
• Exercise with a partner. Finding a friend to share your workouts gives you a chance to be social while you get fit. And knowing that your friend is relying on you will help keep you motivated.
Moderate amounts of activity
A moderate amount of physical activity -- roughly defined as using about 150 calories of energy a day -- can be achieved in a variety of ways. People can select activities they enjoy and that fit into their daily lives. They can get the same amount of activity in either longer sessions of moderately intense activities such as brisk walking or in shorter sessions of more strenuous activities such as running.
Following are examples of moderate amounts of physical activities, listed from less vigorous activities requiring more time to the more vigorous activities taking less time.
Washing and waxing a car: 45 to 60 minutes
Washing windows or floors: 45 to 60 minutes
Playing volleyball: 45 minutes
Playing touch football: 30 to 45 minutes
Gardening: 30 to 45 minutes
Wheeling self in wheelchair: 30 to 40 minutes
Walking 1 3/4 miles: 35 minutes
Basketball (shooting baskets): 30 minutes
Bicycling 5 miles: 30 minutes
Dancing fast: 30 minutes
Pushing a stroller 1 1/2 miles: 30 minutes
Raking leaves: 30 minutes
Walking 2 miles: 30 minutes
Water aerobics: 30 minutes
Swimming laps: 20 minutes
Wheelchair basketball: 20 minutes
Basketball (playing a game): 15 to 20 minutes
Jumping rope: 15 minutes
Running 1 1/2 miles: 15 minutes
Stair walking: 15 minutes
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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