Returning to your former in-shape self can sometimes seem like a daunting task. Knowing how to take the the first few steps in this journey can help make it easier and more effective.
Assess your body
The first step is to know if you have any limitations or restrictions that could affect how you exercise. Depending on when the last time was you were exercising there could be some new injuries or health issues that have happened or developed during your period of abstinence. Do you have a bad back? Knees? New health condition such as a cardiovascular issue that could change your exercise routine? If you have ever noticed the legal disclaimers at the end of exercise advice encouraging you to be assessed by a medical professional, this is why. Not only is this to cover them legally but also to protect the readers. A commonly used questionnaire to help determine if you are ready to exercise is the PAR-Q+ (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) and PARQ-MEDX (Physical Activity Readiness Medical Examination). These questionnaires (available at eparmedx.com ) can help you decide if you may have an issue that would require more investigation. You can take the PAR-Q+ online here or the PAR-MEDX online here. Some common conditions that can affect how you choose to get back into exercise include previous or current joint injury, osteoarthritis, cardiovascular condition such as heart problems and high blood pressure, and metabolic issues such as obesity and diabetes. This is really just a very short list as everyone is an individual and many other conditions can affect your workout so it is always good to check with a medical professional if you have questions or concerns.
Know your limitations
Although you may feel like a superhero, your fitness level and tolerance can be significantly different than the last time you exercised. After just 2 weeks your body can start to decrease cardiovascular fitness with strength beginning to decrease in as little as 4 weeks. Muscle development will typically hang on a bit longer with decreases not truly noticeable until after 6 – 8 weeks or more. Increasing age unfortunately accelerates this process with decreases seen earlier on and with greater magnitude. In addition, a change in health status or a new injury can impose new limitations as to what is safe to do now and what is not.
Make a realistic schedule
The key word here is realistic. A schedule that you know you can follow routinely with little interruption is going to give you the best and fastest results. Can you exercise 3 times a week? 5 times a week? Only once a week? Can you spend an hour or only 20 minutes? You might counter that question as to what is best and I could say 7 days a week for 2-3 hours at a time and that would probably end the conversation right there. It really comes done to what is best for you and what you WANT to commit to, not SHOULD commit too. The cliché saying of “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is cringingly true here. For example, committing to walking just 20 minutes twice a week could lead to forming a habit which consequently might lead to adding some strength training once or twice a week and the formation of a routine that continues to build and develop overtime. The habit part is really the most important part of the process, but it doesn’t start until you start, You can always change the methods whenever you want, it’s much harder to change the habit.
Have a Vision and Avoid Past Deterrents
Why are you doing this? Why do you want to get back in shape? It may seem like an obvious answer but everyone will have a different take on it. For example, you may miss the camaraderie that comes with the fitness journey or the feeling of setting and achieving a physical challenge. Others might not feel comfortable with how they currently look or feel. Remember the reasons are yours and yours alone and it is a result of personal reflection on what you want to achieve. No goal is too small or insignificant as the goal is yours and no one else’s. When your vision becomes intrinsic and one that has value to yourself it is much more likely to become a reality.
Having a goal can help with consistency but keep it flexible and let it develop freely as you become more active. To take a contrarian point of view, not having a specific goal can also be strangely liberating and can psychologically give you “permission” to keep an open mind to a new approach to getting back into shape and reveal new options you may not have considered.
Equally important to knowing why your are starting back up is to examine why you stopped in the first place. Was it an injury? Did you get bored? Did you dislike it? You might say you just did not have enough time which could also be valid. Often the later is a result of a shifting of priorities that reduced your time to spend on yourself. Try and avoid the same scenario that had you take a hiatus in the first place.
Start slow and make it a habit
So far you might be thinking this is short on specifics, and you are right. In my experience from working with thousands of people on achieving their fitness and performance goals for 30 years, one thing that has surprised me is that it is not so much the specifics of the routine that brings success, but it is their consistency over time. In order to help reinforce this consistency it is always smart to start slow, maybe overly slow, for the first couple of weeks. This helps in bringing success to the habit, makes it more enjoyable, and gives a sort of “that was easy” feeling that helps you push forward. The benefit that comes with under-training those first couple of times far outweighs the risks from over reaching and the subsequent injury, forced breaks, and discomfort that comes with it.
Current Canadian recommendations for physical activity recommend 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity along with exercises that strengthen the major muscle groups twice a week ( https://csepguidelines.ca ). That being said, even once a week can make a difference in your fitness level and mental health status. Twice a week will give you better results than once a week and three times a week is moderately better than two. For those who are looking for optimal amounts strive to do four or more times a week if you really enjoy it.
In practice, 2-3 times a week is generally the most popular and gives good results when combined with other lifestyle changes including nutrition and daily activity levels. Strength train each muscle group once or twice a week in the form of some type of resistance training (weights, elastics, calisthenics, etc.) and choose a weight that makes 12 to 15 repetitions difficult to do. Repeat those reps once or twice more for a total of 2 to 3 sets per exercise.
For cardiovascular fitness, choose an exercise that you can sustain for 15 – 20 minutes or more (sports, run, walk, bike, swim, whatever you prefer) for 2 to 3 times a week. An easy way to make sure you are working at a good intensity is if you can talk to someone but would rather not because of the need to breathe. Heart rate can be a great tool to monitor intensity but heart rate response can vary significantly from person to person so if you choose to go this route consider a fitness assessment that results in heart rate training zones. With the current trend in wearables, all heart rate monitors are not created equal and some of the wrist worn ones can lose accuracy at the higher heart rates.
Stretching and exercises that move you through a full range of motion (flexibility exercises, yoga, pilates, etc.) are always important to include but tend to be left out the most. Try and squeeze some flexibility training at the end if you aren’t doing it regularly.
As trainers we love to structure and measure exercise load since it makes it easier to predict the results and chart progress. The reality is that at the beginning overall movement performed a few times a week is a great set up for future success.
If you are contemplating getting back into shape make it enjoyable, do the things you enjoy, try something new, and change the things you didn’t like from before. Do it regularly, several times a week combined with healthy eating and move more. Now, go exercise!