Start Smart

Tips for beginning an exercise program

The spandex outfits, toned bodies and the intimidation of watching someone run full-force on the treadmill and barely break a sweat are just a few of the common misconceptions that cause people to shy away from beginning an exercise program.

It's daunting, to say the least, to think of facing these things when overweight and out of shape.  In fact, some people put off joining a gym until they lose their excess weight!  "People shouldn't feel they need to shape up before walking in our doors," said Suzy Trahan, registered dietitian, ACSM certified health and fitness instructor and ACE certified personal trainer with Dynamic Dimensions of West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital.  "We know fitness is for everyone, no matter where people are on their journey. And we want to help them on their way."

That's why Dynamic Dimensions has just launched a new group fitness class called Group ActiveTM.  It's designed to lower the intimidation factor, and pump up the fun.  The moves are basic, with easy-to-follow routines, and the music is upbeat and familiar to most everyone.  The instructors wear simple t-shirts and shorts and are quick to offer alternative moves to meet everyone's current fitness level.

"This class is a great choice for someone who is new to exercise or doesn't exercise regularly.  People who exercise in a group setting are usually more apt to continue it, compared to someone who exercises on their own.  The camaraderie and accountability help you stay motivated," explained Trahan. "But, even though the moves are not complicated, it's still challenging. Anyone, no matter what their fitness level, can get a great workout with this program."

For anyone considering starting an exercise program, Trahan suggests they keep a few things in mind:

Warm up right.

Years ago, experts said we should warm up by stretching and then crank up the movements to aerobic exercise.  Now, research shows that warm up should simply be a decreased movement of aerobic exercise and save the stretching for afterward, when muscles are warm and more pliable.

For example, if you're going to walk on a treadmill, start slowly for five minutes and then increase speed.  If you're doing a group fitness class, the warm up can be a scaled-back version of the cardio part of the class.  "Taking time to warm up allows muscles and joints to prepare for greater range of motion and effective movement," said Trahan.

Remember your personality.

Do you enjoy sweating it out with people in the same situation?  Or are you more comfortable on your own?  Take into account your preferences when choosing an exercise program, and you'll be more likely to continue it.  Trahan offers a word of caution, though: "Many people who thought they could do it on their own wind up joining our program because the majority of people need the motivation of being around others who are doing the same thing.  Exercise isn't a simple task, it takes determination and most people find a higher rate of success when they choose to join a gym and have access to other people in a similar situation and the resources of trainers."

It's a good idea to change up the exercise routine every six to eight weeks.  Don't just stick with the treadmill; try swimming, group fitness classes, cycling classes and weight machines.  Vary their order and intensity.

Take it easy.

It's not the typical advice you'd hear when starting a fitness program, but experts warn against overdoing it in the beginning.  Injuries occur when people try to do too much too soon.  "If you've been inactive for over a month, then start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and length of time you exercise," suggested Trahan.

Use the resources.

No one is an expert on everything.  Weight machines can be tricky to figure out; knowing the proper technique for lifting free weights doesn't come naturally; and all those buttons on the stationary bicycles can be overwhelming.  Utilize the knowledge of the trainers and fitness staff.  They can help you create a fitness program that can adapt as you get stronger and in better shape, and show you how to use the machines to their fullest extent, such as monitoring your heart rate or using pre-programmed fitness routines.

"Good technique is so important whether you're strength training or in a group fitness class," said Trahan.  "The proper alignment can make all the difference between successfully pushing your body to work harder and overextending your muscles causing injuries."

Push yourself.

This is where the magic happens.  No one gets into shape just sitting idly.  It takes movement, exertion and yes, sweat.  The body was designed to be active, move, bend and stretch.

Once you've warmed up sufficiently, it's important to push your body within safe limits.  "When strength training, select a weight you can lift only 15 to 20 repetitions before you're fatigued, not just tired," said Trahan. "One to two sets are all it should take.  Cardio exercise should be at a moderate intensity.  Test it by trying to sing. If you can sing more than 3 or 4 words without taking a breath, chances are you're not working out hard enough!"

Do it in the morning.

Rolling out of bed at 5 a.m. doesn't leave much time to make excuses.  There are few scheduling conflicts at that time of the day: no meetings, kids' activities or deadlines to meet.  It's just you and the chickens.

Fitness experts have long touted the advantages of morning exercise compared to later in the day.  Researchers at the Southwest Health Institute in Phoenix found that 75% of participants in one study who exercised in the morning stuck with their programs, and ultimately burned more calories than those who worked out later in the day and were more likely to skip exercise.  Really it is about finding that time of the day that works best for you and one that you can stick to.

In the end, sticking with a fitness program comes down to commitment.  "It's not easy and there will be days when the last thing you want to do is put on your gym shoes and work out. But when you realize that it's not about what you want, and it is about what you need, then it will click," Trahan said.  "Attitude is everything.  A positive outlook and the determination to exercise every day will make the difference."

Starting a new fitness program can be a life-changing decision. One that can benefit you in ways you hadn't thought of; for example, you will sleep better, think more clearly, strengthen your heart, have more self-esteem, raise your confidence level and have more endurance for those all-day shopping trips, gardening activities, nature hikes or whatever you enjoy doing.  Starting smart, though, will help you avoid injury and get you on the fast-track to making your fitness goals a reality.