I haven’t exercised in years — how can I start up again?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I haven’t exercised in years, but I’d like to start. What kind of exercise should I do?

DEAR READER:

There is no single type of exercise that can meet all of your health needs. To get the most benefits from your exercise routine, you need a mix of activities.

A balanced weekly exercise plan should look something like this:

  • 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise;
  • two or more strength-training sessions;
  • balance exercises for older adults at risk for falls.

If this sounds overwhelming, remember that workouts can be broken up into smaller segments. For example, three 10-minute walks can get you to your daily goal of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. And those walks can occur while you’re doing normal activities, like shopping and going to and from work, so that they don’t involve additional time.

I’ll briefly describe the types of exercises I’ve mentioned:

AEROBIC EXERCISE. Aerobic activities, like walking, biking, running and swimming, make the heart and lungs work harder. They are great for burning calories and paring down unwanted fat. Aerobic exercise tunes up cardiovascular endurance. It is associated with lower risk for many diseases and longer life span.

I’ve put a beginner walking workout guide at the end of this post. Walking is usually safe for people of any age or level of fitness. It doesn’t jar joints or raise your heart rate to dangerous levels.

STRENGTH OR RESISTANCE TRAINING. This type of exercise may employ weight machines, free weights, or resistance bands or tubing. It protects against bone loss and builds muscle. It also provides the functional strength you need to do everyday activities such as lifting groceries, climbing stairs or rising from a chair.

Try to do strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms) two or more times a week. Wait at least 48 hours between sessions to give your muscles a chance to rest and recover.

BALANCE EXERCISES. Our sense of balance typically worsens as we age. Poor balance can lead to falls, which can cause temporary or permanent disability. Balance-enhancing activities include tai chi, yoga and Pilates. Try to do 30 minutes of balance-training exercises three times per week.

Begin each workout with a simple warm-up of gentle exercise, such as marching in place. This will loosen up your muscles and get more oxygen-rich blood flowing to them. Cool down at the end by slowing your activity for five to 10 minutes. Finish off with stretches to help prevent stiffness.

Regular exercise surely helps you achieve a healthy weight. However, I’m surprised by how many people think that losing weight is the only purpose of exercise. That’s wrong: Regular exercise brings remarkable health benefits even if it does not cause you to lose weight. Regular exercise changes your body chemistry in ways that protect your heart, brain and other organs. This is not “preaching”: It is supported by abundant scientific evidence.

 

Beginner Walking Workout

If you haven’t been exercising, this workout is a great way to get started. You’ll gradually increase the amount of time you’re walking, building up to the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

Week Sessions per week Warm-up Walking time Cool-down Daily total Weekly total
1 7 3 minutes slow walking 5 minutes moderate walking 2 minutes slow walking 10 minutes 70 minutes
2 7 3 minutes slow walking 10 minutes moderate walking 2 minutes slow walking 15 minutes 105 minutes
3 6 3 minutes slow walking 15 minutes moderate walking 2 minutes slow walking 20 minutes 120 minutes
4 6 3 minutes slow walking 5 minutes moderate, 5 minutes brisk, 5 minutes moderate walking 2 minutes slow walking 20 minutes 120 minutes
5 6 3 minutes slow walking 5 minutes moderate, 10 minutes brisk, 5 minutes moderate walking 2 minutes slow walking 25 minutes 150 minutes
6 6 5 minutes slow to moderate walking 12 minutes brisk, 3 minutes moderate walking 5 minutes slow walking 25 minutes 150 minutes
7 6 5 minutes slow to moderate walking 15 minutes brisk walking 5 minutes moderate to slow walking 25 minutes 150 minutes
8 5 5 minutes slow to moderate walking 20 minutes brisk walking 5 minutes moderate to slow walking 30 minutes 150 minutes