How to Start Exercising When You’re Out of Shape

Two purple hand weights on a white floor.

If you've had a few months or years go by since you last exercised consistently, you are not alone.

Even people with impressive fitness routines can fall out of the habit when life gets in the way, and getting back to the gym can often be harder than you'd think.

The push to start exercising when you’re out of shape can be rough, and the physical aspect is just one piece of it. Motivation and routine can also be barriers to getting back into an active routine.

But we all have to start somewhere!

Keeping that in mind is the first step in getting back into the groover of regular exercise. With a few practical strategies and by remaining mindful throughout the process, you'll be back at it in no time. 

Improving mobility, managing weight, and increasing strength aren’t the only reasons to implement an exercise routine. 

There are a lot of other benefits too: 

  • Improve mental health: Through stimulating a bevy of brain chemicals, workouts are generally a great way to improve mental health. 
  • Manage stress: Is life feeling a bit hectic? Exercise can be helpful in tamping down stress.
  • Boost energy: Getting that blood pumping through regular exercise helps deliver more oxygen to the body, making you feel more energized throughout the day. 
  • Promote better sleep: As long as you aren’t exercising too close to bedtime, you’ll likely experience a more restful sleep when exercising regularly.

Whatever your reason to start (or re-start) is, follow these tips experts say will help you keep up your new lifestyle change. 

Start slow

Starting any new routine can be overwhelming, which can lead to an all-or-nothing feeling. But that can lead to fast burnout and, ultimately, prevent you from fully implementing a healthier lifestyle.

“Start low and go slow,” recommends Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “Think about doing half to two-thirds of what you were doing before you went through a prolonged period of inactivity, and see how your body responds to that.”

Over-exerting yourself may lead you to putting your next workout off, and by doing that, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You want to hit the sweet spot of challenging yourself, but not so much that it deters you from doing it again. 

The fact of the matter is that you don’t have to spend over an hour at the gym every day when you first start to make a difference for yourself. In all reality, that will probably be more harmful than helpful. Just like any new goal or routine, it takes time to build up to working out at the level you may be envisioning for yourself. 

To start slow, try making a schedule for yourself where you gradually increase activity. Writing this into your weekly schedule or planner will help keep you accountable to the routine and also keep you from going too hard too fast. 

Focus on the routine 

When you’re out of shape, the best thing you can do for your fitness routine is to really commit to it. Consistency is key here, and that might be even more crucial than the exercise itself. You won’t make very much progress if you don’t stick with it. 

“Everybody is busy, and so just adding exercise to your plate can make it seem like more of a stress than a benefit,” says Lynne Johnson, a lead health and wellness coach at the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

The biggest tip experts have? Putting your workouts on your calendar, just like any other meeting. Schedule that time and don’t allow yourself to cancel or rain check. Your health is just as important as any other important event you may find on your schedule. 

Your routine should also be realistic. 

“​​Look for ways you can work in blocks of exercise. Can you get up half an hour earlier every morning for a walk? Would this mean going to bed earlier? Be realistic,” advises Harvard health experts. “Don't schedule exercise after dinner if you know that's when you always have to help the kids with their homework unless you think the entire family might benefit from a break and a brisk walk.”

If you find that blocking out time for a workout is difficult at first, try to sprinkle it in throughout your day. Streaming a morning yoga class before work or class or taking a walk while dialing in to a meeting are better than nothing at all!

Assess your goals 

Nothing else will work if your goals don’t. You may have the perfect plan to get back on track, but setting too lofty of a goal or not being specific enough can doom you from the start. 

Experts say just like exercise itself, you may want to start with short-term fitness goals before making a bigger commitment to yourself. Instead of aiming for a marathon, make it your goal to walk for a mile every day this week. You’re more likely to stick to that goal and see it through. Plus, reaching that goal will give you the motivation to keep going. 

“In the scientific literature, goals that are tailored, precise and set in short time scales are more likely to be achieved” explains Guillaume Chevance, an assistant research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, who authored a study on keeping resolutions

To set the best goals: 

  • Be specific. Make it clear to yourself what you want to achieve. Setting a goal of “working out more” isn’t enough to motivate you to keep moving forward because it doesn’t give you any direction. 
  • Be realistic: Success really requires being realistic. Maybe a marathon is a realistic goal someday, but for right now focus on what you can realistically achieve. Maybe that’s 15 minutes on the treadmill or a weekly aerobics class. Your goals will move with you, so don’t worry about feeling too stagnant. Setting a roadmap is easier than trying to achieve one gigantic goal. 
  • Look short term: While science is behind this method, it also makes a lot of sense. Progress happens bit by bit, so setting small benchmarks for yourself will be really helpful. Take the opportunity to pat yourself on the back when you reach a milestone. Then, you can make another goal. Repeat until you’re where you want to be long term. 
Assessing your goals while you’re setting them will be especially helpful. Before you begin your fitness journey, take some time to write down your goals and see that they work for you.
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