Taking The First Steps To Lifelong Fitness

Once you make regular physical activity a priority, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Beginning an exercise habit has many rewards. Our bodies were made to move, and movement keeps us healthy. Every part of the body grows stronger with regular activity, from muscles, joints and bones, to the heart and blood vessels. Regular physical activity fights anxiety and depression, and helps you sleep better. Once you make regular physical activity a priority, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.

The key to exercise success is to start slowly and increase gradually, and to think: “lifelong.” You are developing an exercise habit that will be with
you for years to come. Try to find activities that are enjoyable and convenient for you. Following are a few more ideas for sticking with your decision to exercise.

Talk to your doctor

Even people who have chronic health problems can exercise safely, but there may be some important guidelines to follow. Because exercise improves health in many ways, certain medication dosages may need to be adjusted as you get into shape. For example, medication for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or depression may need to be reduced.

Put safety first

If you are walking or bicycling, be sure your route keeps you away from dangerous traffic as much as possible. Wear bright colors to increase your visibility to motorists.

Use whatever safety equipment is recommended for your activity, such as a good helmet for bicycling. Invest in good-quality, well-fitting footwear to prevent injury.

If you are beginning an unfamiliar activity, ask an exercise instructor for safety information. And be sure you are performing the activity correctly.

Start slowly and build gradually

If you have not exercised for a long time, you may begin with as little as five minutes of low-intensity exercise per session. You might try walking, exercising in water or using an exercise cycle. Pace yourself, and work at a level that allows for conversation without breathlessness. As the activity starts to feel easier, add another minute, until you are eventually exercising for at least 30 minutes a day.

Add strength training

When muscles are not challenged, muscle mass is gradually lost at the rate of several pounds per decade, beginning during a person’s 20’s. Loss of muscle tissue results in weakness, inflexibility and a decline in metabolic rate. Everyone needs a little strength training to keep muscles, joints and bones healthy. Even 15 or 20 minutes twice a week can help you increase muscle strength and flexibility. Exercise with weights or weight machines at home or at a fitness center.

Work with a certified fitness instructor if you are new to strength training. Once you understand how to work safely and effectively, you will wonder why you thought strength training was only for athletes. And feeling firmer and stronger can really lift your spirits.

Keep a record of your workouts

Post a calendar in a convenient spot, and record your workouts. Let this calendar be a reminder of your commitment to good health. Filling in your daily workout becomes its own reward.

Find an exercise buddy or group

Many people say that when they don’t feel like exercising, if a friend is counting on them, they are more likely to get out of the house. The friend can also be a dog who needs a walk!

Some people like group activities. Contra dancing, folk dancing and ballroom dancing don’t even feel like exercise! Exercise classes with good instructors and lively music can be invigorating, if the pace suits your fitness level. Check out local hiking and bicycling groups.

Make your health a priority

If you are not used to taking care of yourself, making health a priority may take some practice. If you have thought of exercise as a waste of time, give yourself a good talking-to. Think of your exercise sessions as appointments, and put them on your calendar.

Unless your health is a priority, other tasks (or even pure laziness and inertia) will take up your time. Regular physical activity takes time and energy, but the rewards are worth your effort.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

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