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Getting Back in Shape: What You Really Need to Know

Canyon Ranch exercise physiologist Dawn McCrystal answers some common questions for beginning exercisers
Written by 
Canyon Ranch Staff

You haven’t had a consistent workout routine in a while (life gets busy, right?)—maybe a big project at work or an injury has sidelined you for a few months or much longer. Or perhaps you’ve never been much of an exerciser. Whatever the reason you're not exercising now, starting up a more active lifestyle can feel like climbing a mountain. It doesn’t have to, though. While getting back into exercise—or starting from scratch—can be a challenge, when you progress at your own pace (that's the key!), exercise can be energizing, rewarding and motivating—especially when you begin to see and feel the results of your hard work. Dawn McCrystal, M.S., R.C.E.P., C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., answers some questions you may be wondering about as you begin your journey back to fitness.

 

Q: Is it worth it to talk to a personal trainer?

A: A refresher session with a trainer really can be helpful; she should talk to you about what you were doing prior to stopping exercise (types of cardio and strength training, fitness classes, yoga) and if there was a specific reason you’ve been inactive (an injury, lack of motivation, a busy schedule). With those details, she can give you pointers on how to start back up safely.

If you’re brand-new to exercise, it’s ideal to work with a trainer, especially for strength training (you may not need guidance getting started with aerobic exercise, especially if you're beginning with a low-impact activity, like walking, as you re-build your aerobic endurance). Working with a trainer on strength exercises for at least a few sessions ensures you’re using the proper amount of weight and prevents you from adopting incorrect form, which can lead to injury.

Depending on your personality, though, you may not want to get too comfortable working with a trainer, especially if you can’t make it to the gym often or you travel a lot; ideally, you’ll want to establish a routine you can do on your own. Starting with a pro’s guidance and then checking in with them down the line—after, say, two or three months—strikes a good balance and allows you to re-check your form and ask about ways to improve your workout so you keep seeing results.
 

Q: Is joining a gym the best place to start?

A: It’s really your preference. Going to a gym is not a necessity; some people would rather get started on their own at home, but you may feel more motivated when you’re around others who are exercising, too. Keep in mind that you don't have to join a big gym (which can sometimes be intimidating to those just getting back into shape); you might feel inspired in a smaller space, like a dance or Pilates studio. Often people returning to exercise are worried about how their fitness has deteriorated so they feel more comfortable in a more personal setting when starting back up.
 

Q: I’m hesitant about group classes. What if I can’t keep up?

A: It’s natural to be nervous about whether you can keep up in a class or not; this is especially common for people trying a high-intensity cardio class (like body sculpting) or even yoga. While you don’t want to take a class that’s too hard—it can kill motivation and possibly lead to injury—beginner or "level one" classes are usually a good choice since they’re typically slower-paced and offer modifications to make an exercise or pose easier if you're struggling.

You can ask about observing a class first—even for just 15 minutes—so you can see what moves are involved and get a sense of how you might feel if you participated. Or you can try a one-on-one session with an instructor for a few times (this is common with Pilates) to increase your comfort level before joining a class.

Don't forget that you can walk out of a class if you feel you’ve reached your limit, especially during a high-intensity activity, like Spinning®. Do what you can; that may just be the first 20 minutes of an hour-long class. Listen to your body. The important part is that you’re starting to move; there’s no shame in leaving early and an instructor should never question that choice. If they do, that’s not the class for you.
 

Q: Do I have to do cardio every time?

A: Before you even start cardio—which is any type of exercise that gets your heart rate up—adopting a strength training routine is very helpful. That's because when you're re-starting exercise you may lack muscle strength and joint stability. Jumping right into cardio, even walking, can cause discomfort, especially in areas like in your knees.

Building core strength is also an important first step, especially for anyone with back pain, in order to maintain balance and stability when you do incorporate cardio. A full-body strength routine will work multiple muscle groups, including your core, and prepare you for the challenges of aerobic exercise.

People often think they have to sweat a lot every time they work out, but that’s not the case. If you haven’t been exercising at all for at least six months, you’ll see improvements in strength within the first few weeks, so focusing on strength conditioning for the first month or two is ideal before you add cardio. If you can’t wait that long, at least try strength training exclusively for the first couple of weeks, doing two to three sessions a week.
 

Q: What kind of equipment do I need to start strength training?

A: If you haven’t been exercising regularly your body will typically have a lot of muscle imbalances and your core probably isn’t very strong. Bodyweight moves—like push-ups—are harder to start with because they require so much core strength. Instead, begin with isolated exercises that focus on one muscle group at a time, using resistance bands or free weights (these take up minimal space and you can use them anywhere) or the machines in the gym. This way, you’ll work muscles separately (chest press to work your chest, bicep curl to work your biceps and so on) instead of doing more demanding full-body moves, like squat jumps. Once you’ve seen gains—meaning you’re able to increase the weight you're using—and feel comfortable upping the challenge, you can progress to bodyweight moves that engage more muscle groups at once.

The amount of weight you use should simply be what you feel comfortable handling; any injuries you've suffered or chronic joint issues may also affect the amount you lift, but in general, women can start with three- to five-pound free weights, while men can start with eight- to 10-pound weights. Keep in mind, though, that you'll probably need different weights (or resistance) for different exercises because your muscles have different strengths. For example, a woman might use five-pound dumbbells for a triceps extension, but need eight pounds to challenge her biceps (men are likely to need more weight).

If you’re working out at home and have limited or no free weights, resistance bands are very handy. If you’re trying a machine, start at the lightest weight and see how you feel, adjusting it to your comfort level. Whatever equipment you’re using, you should be able to do at least 10 reps; if you can’t do at least 10 the weight is too heavy, which can lead to incorrect form and injury. If you can do more than 20 reps the weight is too light, which can minimize strength gains.
 

Q: When I'm ready to add cardio is 30 minutes a day enough?

A: I like to think about cardio in terms of volume. You should get at least 90 minutes per week of high-intensity aerobic exercise, like running or hiking; it could be from a total of two 45-minute sessions, or three 30-minute sessions or some other combination.

If you’re just starting out and are walking for aerobic exercise, you want to get 150 minutes a week, because walking is lower intensity so you need to put in more time. Planning for a total number of minutes works better for most people because everyone’s schedule is different and often varies. Think about how you can fit in the recommended amount in a way that's realistic for your lifestyle. If you can’t manage 30 minutes five days a week, break it down in another way. That might mean a morning workout one day, an evening session another and putting in more time on the weekends. Be sure to factor in activities like tennis or dancing—these definitely count as cardio, too!
 

Q: Should I be sore after every workout?

A: It’s normal to have soreness after the first few workouts, but as you progress you shouldn’t be sore after every session. If you are, that might mean you have muscle damage. If you continue to experience soreness, you’re likely not letting your muscles recover properly; when you’re just getting back into exercising, it’s important not to push yourself too much, which puts you at risk for overuse injuries. Stretching before and after a workout is essential, but self-massage and foam rolling (rolling a foam cylinder under your legs, back, neck, and so on) are especially helpful for sore muscles. Most important, while post-workout soreness can hurt, you shouldn't feel excruciating pain after workouts—that may signal joint or muscle damage.
 

Q: I know I’ll feel better when I start exercising again, but what are some other techniques I can use to keep my motivation up?

A: Motivation depends a lot on your personality and what speaks to you. You may want to keep a journal to help you get through that tough initial getting-in-shape period. Use it to write down the positive results you’re noticing: I slept well last night! I feel more energetic after my workout. I climbed the basement stairs without feeling out of breath. If you’re a numbers person, certain calculations might be motivating: Diabetics can see a drop in blood sugar after a workout, or if you have high blood pressure you'll likely notice that number begin to fall over time. Seeing those improvements can be a huge help in making it easier to keep up your effort.

You may even notice that you’re achieving more—running or walking farther in your target heart rate zone, for example; knowing your heart is getting stronger is a great boost. Signing up for a few sessions with a trainer or a package of classes at a studio can be motivating, too, because you’ve committed to keep coming.

Additionally, registering for a 5K or another annual fitness event gives you a reason to stay in shape. Support from others may be what you need—whether that’s checking in with a trainer or getting a weekly call from an encouraging friend whom you’ve shared your goals with. If you’re a tech lover there are plenty of apps that help track your progress, and some let you post your activity through social media so others can encourage you online. For example, the Nike+ Running app makes it easy for your Facebook friends to see that you’re out on a run, allowing them to cheer you on by commenting on the post.
 

Whether you’re getting back into shape after a long hiatus or starting to exercise for the first time, you’ll be surprised at the changes you begin to notice if you start slowly and progress according to your body’s capacity. Most people think they have to dive right into an intense routine in order to benefit, but pushing yourself too hard at first can be discouraging and lead to injury. If you go at your own pace you’ll not only move safely, you'll want to continue working out. And if you’re working with a trainer and aren’t comfortable with the moves or the intensity, speak up. Workouts shouldn’t be painful and they certainly don’t have to be miserable. Lastly, remember that while it’s OK to feel motivated by the person on the next treadmill or yoga mat, try not to compare yourself to others. Being active and maintaining your fitness really is an individual journey.