Maybe it’s for a health reason or maybe you want to look your best for a specific occasion—whatever the catalyst, you’ve decided to become more physically active. If that’s the case, then you’ve already made the first important step towards reaping the benefits of regular activity. However, we all know that deciding to work out isn’t enough to achieve our personal goals; and the truth of the matter is that figuring out where to get started can be difficult, especially if you’ve never bought a pair of sneakers, let alone been to a gym.

“If you’ve never been particularly physically active, it can be difficult to find where to begin,” said Shelley White-Corey, clinical assistant professor with the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing and experienced personal trainer and certified group exercise and yoga instructor.

For those individuals focused on boosting their physical activity, White-Cory offers a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Start small and build slowly

One of the most common misconceptions about exercise is that it involves long hours at the gym or sprinting at a neck-breaking speed, but this is not the case. Most of the health benefits from activity can come with moderate-intensity exercise such as walking, swimming or even doing household chores like cleaning.

“When people are just starting to work out, or are deconditioned, they should take it slow,” White-Corey encouraged. “Start with something small like a walk around the block or whatever you can achieve right now.”

If you’re just starting to get into the routine of exercising a few times a week, there’s no need to push yourself. The Surgeon General recommends that adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. However, White-Corey suggests that deconditioned individuals, who find that number daunting, start with shorter time periods and work their way up to the weekly recommendations.

Keep in mind that you do not have to achieve your weekly goal in one session, or even five 30-minute workouts. Fitting in physical activity can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away from your destination. Try breaking up your workouts into shorter durations, such as three, 10-minute periods a day, or whatever you can achieve with your schedule.

There are three components to increasing fitness: frequency, duration and intensity. White-Corey advises that beginners start with increasing their frequency first, then work on their duration, before they focus on the intensity of their workouts. This is the best way to avoid injury when you’re beginning to introduce activity into your lifestyle and striving to keep it consistent. It’s easy to lose motivation if you experience injury, or do too much, too quickly and then feel too sore to continue.

No matter what activity you chose to pick up, it’s important to consult your health care provider before jumping into it. They may recommend modifications to certain exercises or activities and can advise you on how to avoid injury.

2. Think positive

Some days, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to go for a walk or catch that exercise class, especially if you don’t think you can complete it.

“It’s easy to undermine yourself before you even get started,” White-Corey said. “Maintaining a positive outlook can help you stay in the habit of regular exercise, and to improve your conditioning.”

On days that you doubt your ability to complete a workout, ask yourself if you’re feeling physical or mental exhaustion. If you find yourself thinking, “I can’t do it,” but your body feels fine otherwise, White-Corey suggests coming up with a positive mantra to push those undermining thoughts aside, such as “I am strong, powerful, and capable of great athletic feats.” Once that pessimistic barrier is removed, you might find yourself feeling accomplished or even setting a new personal record.

3. Find your motivation

Getting started can be the most challenging aspect of exercising. Whether your goal is to lose weight, look better or something more specific to your life, it’s important to find your motivation. You can’t expect to make physical activity a habit, if you don’t have a drive to keep with it.

If setting goals motivates you, White-Corey advises starting with something measurable and realistic. For example, if you are trying to increase the amount of weight you lift, keep a specific number in mind and give yourself an appropriate amount of time to achieve that level. Even training for an event can help you increase your fitness and keep you motivated, just remember to take the necessary amount of time to adequately prepare before the event occurs.

4. Have fun

Who wants to spend 150 minutes a week doing something they strongly dislike? No one. If you despise the idea of running, there’s no reason to force yourself to run a marathon.

When you’re first adopting an activity, choose something you enjoy.

Grab a friend or your dog for an afternoon walk, dance around your house, play with your child at a playground, join a community sports team or whatever makes you happy. If you like your workouts, you will be more likely to make them a habit and accomplish whatever goals you have set for yourself.

5. Pay attention to form

While consistent exercise comes with a myriad of health benefits, it can also lead to injury if you don’t pay attention to proper form. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 11,000 people receive treatment from U.S. emergency departments each day for sports, recreation and exercise-related injuries. Always be sure to implement the proper form and techniques during physical activity. For those who adopt weight training, be sure to pay attention to your form and consider consulting a professional, such as a personal trainer, for a few sessions; it may be a little costly, but an injury can sideline you and cost you more in the long run.

For first-time runners, be sure to increase the duration and pace slowly. Rapidly increasing your speed, or running for too long can lead to injuries such as shin splits, which will put you out of commission for a while.

If you do find yourself injured, follow doctor’s orders and don’t force yourself to continue exercising. Pushing yourself when you’re injured can exacerbate your injury and possibly cause more permanent damage. Take the time you need to rest and heal, before resuming any activity that exerts your injury.

6. Stick with it

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see the results of regular activity immediately. “Most of the benefits from being physically active take about three weeks to be seen or felt,” White-Corey said.

Whatever activity you decide to adopt, consistency is key. Within a few short weeks you will start to see and feel all of your hard work paying off, and once you notice your improvements you will likely find the motivation to stick with it. As you accomplish your goals, look for new ways to challenge yourself and keep your activity entertaining.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to discover the right activity for you, along with the motivation to turn your newfound hobby into a lifetime habit. So go ahead and roll out that yoga mat or throw on a pair of sneakers and start to reap the benefits of your hard work.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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