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Starting an Exercise Program? Take These 6 Steps

  [ 159 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • July 21, 2003

Have you been thinking about starting an exercise program? Does the thought of taking on one more project overwhelm you? If you answer yes, you may find it helpful to create a plan and divide the work into manageable pieces. The good news: You're only six steps away from a healthier lifestyle.

Step 1. See your doctor

If you're a man older than age 40 or a woman older than 50, talk with your doctor before you get started. Your doctor will assess whether you may have an underlying heart condition or other health problem that could give you trouble.

If you have a chronic condition such as heart disease or diabetes, or if you're obese, talk with your doctor if physical activity is new for you. It's true that exercise can often help these conditions, but you may need to tailor your program or start more slowly.

If you're taking medications, ask your doctor how they may affect your exercise plan. Drugs for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as sedatives, antihistamines and cold medications, can cause dehydration, impaired balance and blurred vision.

In addition, some medications can affect the way your body reacts to exercise. Your doctor may be able to adjust your medications.
It's true that you may have to take special precautions if you're over 40 or live with a chronic condition such as asthma or arthritis. The important thing to remember is that exercise is good for you — no matter what

Step 2. Assess your fitness level

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you assess your aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, flexibility and body composition. To do so, record your measurements in a personal fitness assessment. Recording the numbers will give you benchmarks against which to measure your progress. You can then direct more energy to those areas in which you don't see satisfactory improvement. Retest yourself about every 4 to 6 weeks.

The personal fitness assessment is available in a PDF file. To view and print the file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download for free at Adobe's Web site.

Step 3. Design your program

Fitness generally includes four components — aerobic capacity, strength, flexibility and weight control. The fourth component — weight control — may be achieved by your exercise program and sensible eating.

In designing your program, keep these points in mind:

--Use a planned schedule. A written plan will encourage you to stay on track, and a diary or log will help you chart your progress.

--Plan a logical progression. If you have unstable joints from injury or arthritis, or you're in a weakened condition for some other reason, start by improving your muscle strength and flexibility first.

--Build strength using light weights, exercising the weakest parts of your body.

--Start slowly. When you're ready to add aerobic exercise, start at a comfortable level, such as walking 5 to 10 minutes over a short distance indoors.

--Increase the amount of exercise you do by a small amount each session or each week — as much as you can handle — for a gradual buildup.

--Exercise regularly. For your fitness to improve, you need to exercise regularly. Try for a minimum of 30 minutes of low to moderately intense physical activity on most days of the week. Over time, you may be able to build up to 30 to 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous exercise.

--Add to your routine. When you're fit, a typical session might include a 5-minute warm-up of stretching or slow walking, 20 to 40 minutes of aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, bicycling or rowing, 10 to 15 minutes of weight training, and a 5-minute cool-down of stretching. It could even consist of a night out ballroom dancing.

But remember, you don't have to do all of your exercises at one time. To obtain aerobic health benefits, you can exercise in shorter but more-frequent sessions. Ten minutes, three times a day, may fit into your schedule better than one 30-minute session, and it counts just as much.

--Mix it up. Mixed training (cross-training) reduces your chance of injury to or overuse of one specific muscle or joint. Alternate among exercises that emphasize different parts of your body.

--Rest. Schedule time for recovery. Many people start with frenzied zeal — exercising too long or too intensely — and give up when their muscles and joints become sore or injured. Start slowly and build up gradually, allowing time between sessions for your body to rest and recover.

Step 4. Assemble your equipment

Your equipment can be as simple as athletic shoes appropriate for your exercise and homemade weights.

You can make your own weights by filling old socks with beans or pennies, or partially filling a half-gallon milk jug with water or sand. Used equipment can be purchased at some athletic stores and can usually be found in newspaper classified ads.

If you decide to purchase an exercise machine, new or used, check with your doctor or physical therapist to determine which one's right for you. Buy something that's practical, enjoyable and easy for you to fit into your schedule. Otherwise you probably won't use it.

Step 5: Get started

One of the challenges of exercise is just getting up off the couch and doing it. To help, look for exercise opportunities that fit your lifestyle. Try watching TV while using a treadmill or reading a magazine or book while using a stationary bike.

Schedule exercise into your day as you would your bridge club or a round of golf. An exercise logbook also is helpful in establishing the habit of physical activity. And while you exercise:

--Listen to your body. Be aware during and after workouts of signs that you may be encountering a health problem as a result of overexertion.

--Be flexible. Don't rigidly stick to a schedule if you don't feel up to it. If you're overly tired or under the weather, take a day or two off.

--Adapt your schedule as you exercise. Fine-tune the intensity and duration of the exercise you've scheduled. For example, with aerobic exercise you may want to start at a pace you can continue for 5 to 10 minutes without getting overly tired. If you can't carry on a conversation while you exercise, you're probably pushing too hard.

--Gradually increase your amount of exercise by 1 to 5 minutes per session to a goal of at least 30 minutes most days of the week.

--Avoid excess repetitive movements. These can cause overuse injury, boredom and high dropout rates. Problems can develop when a particular exercise is done to excess or is your sole form of exercise.

Step 6: Measure your progress

To measure improvement, retake your personal fitness assessment every few months. You may notice that you'll need to increase your amount of exercise to continue to improve. Or you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you're exercising just the right amount to meet your fitness goals.

Source: Mayo Clinic ( © 1998-2003 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).

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