The best way to exercise for beginners
Do you want to get started exercising although it’s all new to you? Here’s just the guide you need.
Our guest expert Jonas Bergqvist — physical therapist, health inspiration and writer — recently shared his philosophy on exercise and exercise advice. Now it’s time to really get cracking.
This post will stick to the basics: How can you get started with exercise in the best way if you’re inexperienced, or even a complete beginner? Can it be done?
Without further ado, here’s Jonas:
This first post on exercise is about how to start exercising if you’re inexperienced or out of practice. The ten main take-home messages are summarized in point form at the end.
Start with your attitude towards exercise. Exercising for the right reasons is absolutely the deciding factor for long term success. Exercise for life, but don’t live to exercise.
Sadly, many people worry too much about their health and fitness when comparing themselves to others. It seems you’re supposed to eat healthy (preferably home-made) food, exercise 2-3 times a week, not stress out too much, and on top of this you have to be the perfect partner, friend and colleague. Living up to social norms and comparing yourself to others is a big cause of stress and ill health. So I want you to challenge yourself — for the next two months, scrap those social norms and don’t compare yourself to others. This is you time.
Try to view exercise as a means to reach your goals. This means you need to identify clear goals. Do you want to feel better? Lose weight? Look more fit? Or complete an athletic achievement — a running race perhaps?
Identify what you need exercise for. Write down your main goal, make it six months from now. Then set an intermediate goal 2 months ahead to have as a checkpoint. Stick the goals to your fridge, where you can see them!
Sure, exercise can be valuable without clear goals. A workout can give an immediate rush of endorphins, be mentally unwinding, invigorating, and help you face everyday life in a more relaxed way. However, many people benefit from having measurable goals.
What I’ve noticed a lot with clients is that the motivation for regular exercise increases if there’s a bigger goal a few months ahead than “just” enjoying fun workouts. A quantifiable goal that’s oriented on health, fitness or performance gives direction. Your exercise routine gains a purpose and a feeling of being on your way somewhere. The goal can be lifting heavier things, running for longer, losing weight, losing pain, or performing better in a sport.
Goals can be revised continuously: in my view, the most important thing isn’t actually reaching them, but having them guide you, to know where you’re going and how fast.
The foundation of setting quantifiable goals is having a vision. I always ask clients for their vision, first thing: where will you be in two months? What will you feel like, look like? What’s an average day like? And then these same questions but in the even longer term.
It’s possible that goals don’t have to be measured and accounted for by people who love exercise and work out regularly. People like that have their goals deeply rooted in their brains, although they might be exercising without giving them a conscious thought. Also, for people who don’t exercise and never have considered it, who aren’t reading this text, goals will be futile. Goals will not change their attitude to exercise.
However, for a person like you — probably in between those two extremes — well-defined goals can be a driving force and a reminder, helping you fit workouts into your weeks. They’ll help get you out of bed in the morning and get you to the gym after a tiresome day at work. They’ll even help you get through the boring workouts (not all of them need to be great fun) and over the initial threshold to exercise, as well as let you discover how much easier it gets further on.
When I say “further on”, I mean in the maintenance stage in Proschaska’s model of the process of change (see figure below). “Further on” is when exercise becomes a part of you. Maybe you think that this won’t happen to you; but then, think of the changes a complete diet turnaround can bring. For example, people with a very pronounced sweet tooth are often convinced that they’ll never be indifferent to sweet food, but after the transition to low carb they find it’s possible.
In a similar way, I’ve had several clients who never could have believed that they would become “addicted” to exercise. So much so, in fact, that they sense they don’t feel great unless they work out. Many people change their views on exercise eventually, and you could be one of them!
If you’re reading this text, you’re likely in the contemplation stage. You’re thinking about this exercise business, but you’re not sure. There are a few stages of change you need to go through.
The preparation stage is about getting the right material and necessary things to start an exercise routine. Buying new clothes, running shoes, a gym membership or some sessions with a personal trainer are all part of the preparations for an optimal start.
The “action” stage means performing regular workouts, without the routine having become second nature yet. This stage can stretch for the first two-three months of regular exercise, sometimes longer.
It’s crucial to be prepared for the stagnation that often comes after 2-3 months of a new routine. How to beat that is the topic for my third post. It happens to be human nature that we can keep consciously pushing ourselves with willpower for two or three months, but after that time we need a different motivation, we need to do something differently. This behavior is widely observed in weight loss studies, where subjects often conform less to the plans after a couple months.
A question you need to answer before you start is: how many hours are you prepared to give exercise, per week? If you’re not working out right now, the 168 hours in your week are being filled by something else. And if you want to get 2 hours of exercise in there, you need to take 2 hours of some other (in)activity out. What can you lose?
Effective, Goal-Oriented Game Plan
Before I start giving practical advice, I’d like to present exercise from an evolutionary perspective. This may help give you an understanding of how different forms of exercise affect the body and human health.
Man is a biological creature completely adapted to perform in nature. We have two main “engines” — one runs on glucose, one on fat. We have muscles, bones, an endocrine (hormonal) system and a nervous system to be able to physically function and improve our chances for survival. Every single cell in your body in the year 2015 still thinks you’re hunting animals and gathering plants.
A human has three basic physical parameters: functional strength, endurance and explosive power. The most all-round exercise routine will therefore have a blend of all of these ingredients — weighted according to your personal needs and abilities, of course.
Functional strength means resistance or weight training from a functional perspective. This means emulating primordial movements, which can be synthesized to a few basic exercises. Some of these can be performed at home with your own body as weight: squats, lunges, back lifts, push ups, and a core exercise (the plank).
These five basic exercises, presented in the image below, will give you the perfect start to functional strength. They help maintain and improve the function of your joints, muscles and nerves. They can also be a stepping stone towards future gym workouts, where you can use the same basic principles but go heavier. Two important workout fundamentals are variation and progression, and here good use can be made of a personal trainer who can help take you to the next level when you’re ready.
Functional exercise comes with a learning curve. It takes body control, balance and some coordination skills. If you’re having trouble with joint pains, posture, a bad back — you should definitely focus on the functional bits. Functional movements create symmetry, apply natural, healthy stress to your discs and joints, and make different parts of your body co-operate and learn to help each other. The result? Improved coordination between your nerves and muscles, giving you more strength for everyday activities.
Fixed movements in different gym machines are the opposite of functional. If your goal is to lose weight and gain muscle mass, you might benefit from such machines. In that case, your focus is on making the muscle load high enough to trigger the hormonal effects of strength training.
Studies have shown that the maximal hormonal response from strength training results from heavier lifting using large muscle groups, in 4 sets of 8-12 RM and a short rest of around 30 seconds between sets. 8-12 RM means the maximum weight you can lift 8-12 times. Examples of more isolating exercises performed in gym machines could be leg extensions, reverse leg extensions, back lifts, shoulder press and chest press.
These hormonal effects can also be achieved through heavier functional training, but this demands proper technique to avoid injury. I work a lot with tests of strength, stability, coordination, flexibility and balance, in order to develop individually-designed exercise and stretching routines. My experience tells me it can be worthwhile to occasionally hire an accomplished personal trainer who can tailor your routine and make sure your technique is correct. You could have a PT follow-up every other month, or every third month, if you can keep up the discipline on your own in between.
Man is the enduring animal. We have evolved to move over great distances. The best endurance training is running (do this if your feet, knees and back can handle it), but there are other, less physically taxing forms of endurance training such as cycling, rowing or swimming.
Buying a heart rate monitor is a good idea, to see how hard your heart is working during exercise. You should at least be exercising at a pace that gets you panting. By way of heart rate (HR), 65% of your maximum HR can be a very general guideline. This is the load at which you will be working your heart enough to get your endurance conditioning up. For an overweight person, this could mean a hike in hilly terrain; for a more experienced person it would be a run.
Begin by trying to complete 10 minutes of sustained endurance training. Increase the minutes up to 30 gradually, but take breaks if it gets too tough.
Our ancestors needed to hunt or flee once in a while. This gets the heart working at its maximum capacity for a short time, and puts a big strain on joints and muscles. In workout terms, this is called (short) high intensity interval training.
There are quite a few studies suggesting that endurance improves more with HIIT than with exercise at a constant heart rate. It may also be better for your health. Above all, HIIT is more time-efficient, i.e. you get more bang for your time, but it’s challenging in a few ways:
Fast running is much harder on your joints than walking or jogging, which can be a bad idea if you are overweight. Also, it often takes more running experience. However, if you choose one of the less demanding forms of endurance, inserting some sprints at a few points in your workout could be just the thing.
My next post will be a closer look at the difference between classic endurance training and HIIT.
Exercise for Health
Regular exercise equals feeling good – you can do more, you feel more alert, and it gives you extra everyday bounce. It helps you deal with day-to-day stress. The correct diet and a balance between stress and recovery are more important than exercise when it comes to avoiding injury and losing weight, but regular exercise gives an extra bonus.
The effects of strength training can be split into three main categories – the metabolic, the neuromuscular and the hormonal. The metabolic effects are improved insulin sensitivity, a stronger heart and better blood lipids.
The metabolic effects of resistance training are not considered as pronounced as those of endurance training, but they’re there. The neuromuscular effects consist of our nerves and joints feeling better, our muscles and ligaments strengthening and our posture improving. Repetitive strain injuries (caused by e.g. ergonomic factors) are the main reason for prolonged sick leave in Sweden, and appropriate strength training is like a miracle cure for such ailments.
The hormonal effects of resistance training are maximized when the load is heavy. It helps lose weight, increase lean muscle mass, and burn fat. Each such workout will promote your “building” hormones – mainly testosterone and growth hormones – and doing this regularly will increase the average blood level of these hormones.
Conclusion and Summary
You might be wondering how often you should exercise? A simple suggestion could be 4 times a week for 30-45 minutes each time. 2 resistance workouts and 2 endurance workouts.
I can present a convincing case for this amount of exercise: doing something twice a week will give more improvement over time than once a week; the mix of resistance and endurance is very healthy; the strategy with four active days a week still leaves three days for recovery. But the question isn’t what I can recommend, but what you can follow! How many hours a week can you set aside for exercise?
If you can manage twice a week – combine strength and endurance in the same workout. If you can do three times, you might combine strength and endurance every time, or have 2 workouts focused on your priority area, and do the other type once.
Through this post, I hope you’ve gained some inspiration and knowledge that will improve your chances of making exercise a part of you. This this ten-point list summarizes what you need to do:
1. Why do you want to start exercising? Begin by answering this question.
2. How many hours are you prepared to dedicate per week? Answer the question.
3. Write down your (quantifiable!) main goal for six months ahead, and stick it on your fridge.
5. Do you have everything you need to get started? Clothes, equipment? A gym membership?
6. Do some kind of functional strength training.
7. Do some kind of endurance training.
8. Is explosive power something you need? First answer the question and then decide, how are you going to incorporate it into your workouts?
9. Every workout doesn’t have to be fun. On the whole, you need to be feeling happiness and satisfaction with your exercise routine, but some days you just have to forget about your feelings and do what you know is best – it’ll pay off in the long run.
10. Hire a certified personal trainer if you feel unsure about things like your workout schedule, how to put together a session, your motivation or your technique.
Finally, remember it’s never too late to start. There have been studies on 90-year-olds who greatly improved their quality of life and physical function with some regular strength exercises. In veteran sports, where I perform, I come across 80-year-olds who are in good shape and have impressive strength, bounce and muscle mass.
The next part is coming soon!
Thanks for this, Jonas.
The next part will be about how you can tailor your exercise if you are overweight and/or suffering from metabolic syndrome.
The MF Group has many things to offer: educational courses, rehab, personal trainer services, health and exercise-related books and fitness tests. However, their website is currently available only in Swedish. If you’re interested in just taking a look, here’s their site translated by Google:
Kickstart this Year’s Exercise — Properly
Run on Fat – Interview with Donal O’Neill
New Documentary About Incredible Physical Performance on LCHF – Just Released