Start Small for Big Change: A Guide to Your New Exercise Routine

Mountain-Biker
Steven Dobson
PT, DPT
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No doubt most of us have had intentions of starting a new exercise routine time and time again. If you’re anything like me, you’ve vowed that “Today is the day that I start to get healthier. That might have meant following a specific diet, starting a new running program, heading to the gym, or any other form of physical activity. Whatever it meant to you, at some point that motivation may have dwindled, or a big life event happened, and your activity went from five days per week to three days, to one day, and then went dormant. For the 5,246,551 time, or that’s how it felt, anyway. If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. This is the case for many, many people.  

On the flip side, there are some people who seemingly “figure it out” and can sustain their exercise routine and reap the benefits. I believe each of us has the capacity to make this happen for ourselves. Today, I’m going to take you on a journey to discover what strategies these individuals employ that help them achieve their goals, whether they realize it or not. Even better, I’m going to give you resources to get started and strategies to keep going, even when it’s the last thing you want to do on a cold, rainy day.  

Here is an outline of what to expect as you navigate this blog. I recommend that you have something or somewhere to write/type your thoughts out as you go.  

  1. Benefits 
  2. What is Physical Activity & Exercise 
  3. Aerobic Exercise – Walk, Run, Play  
  4. Resistance Exercise – Lifting Weights 
  5. Motivation & Behavior Change 
  6. Getting Started 
  7. Ouch! Pain with Exercise… What Now?  

Understanding the benefits of exercise.

We’ve probably all heard the multitude of benefits that physical activity can have on our lives. Being physically active can reduce the risk of: (6,9)

It can also help manage existing conditions or disabilities: (6,9)

These lists are not exhaustive but clearly reiterate just how critical exercise is to help extend and improve our lives.  

What is physical activity and exercise?

Most of us understand that physical activity/exercise is a net positive for living a healthy life. What exactly do we mean by “physical activity” and “exercise”? Physical activity is defined as any bodily movement that requires energy expenditure. Exercise is defined as physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful.(1) These are often used interchangeably and for the purposes of this article let’s focus on how we can simply increase the time spent doing either.  

Did you know that it’s estimated that approximately 110,000 deaths per year could be prevented if adults (40-85 years old) increased their moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by just 10 minutes per day?(2) You may find yourself wondering … just 10 minutes? That doesn’t seem like enough. What’s the catch? What does this moderate-to-vigorous physical activity entail? Today we are going to break it down to figure out what you can do to get started. Then, we’ll provide a template so you can map out your new routine.   

We can reap many benefits of physical activity by participating in these two modes of exercise:  

  • Aerobic Exercise 
  • Resistance Exercise 

There are just two of many different ways to be active. However, since they are usually what we consider when starting a new exercise routine, we will break them down further.  

Aerobic Exercise

More commonly referred to as “cardio,” this type of exercise includes a large variety of options and can span from light to vigorous intensity. It is recommended that at least 150 minutes (about two and a half hours) per week of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity be performed to reduce the risk for negative health outcomes. Fortunately, you can perform this type of exercise in multiple bouts as short as10 minutes and still see positive results.(7)

This goes above simply performing our Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) such as doing laundry, house cleaning, etc. Here I have listed some examples. If you want to search through more examples, you can click on the link below the table.

Moderate

Vigorous

General Physical Activities Defined by Level of Intensity 

Another simple, yet effective, way to monitor your physical activity throughout the day can be by utilizing step count. In recent years, tracking the number of steps one takes during a day has been used to help improve health outcomes.  

As of 2020, 46.9% of Americans aged 18 and older met the guidelines for aerobic activity listed above. That means that more than half of Americans are missing out on the significant benefits of exercise! As you can see, if you’re struggling to get started, you’re not alone.  

Resistance Exercise

Resistance exercise simply means using any type of resistance to activate muscles and build the size and strength of muscle. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults participate in at least two days per week of resistance exercise that includes all major muscle groups. Each day should include 8-10 exercises and be performed for 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions. (2) For those new to resistance training I have included a couple of key definitions.  

Repetitions – The number of times you complete a single movement  

Set – A group of repetitions  

Example: For 2 sets of 12 repetitions; you would complete 1 set of 12, rest for 30-60 seconds and then perform 1 more set of 12 repetitions.   

Different types of resistance can include various types of resistance including:  

  • Your own bodyweight 
  • Bands 
  • Free weights (including dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells) 
  • Household items (soup cans, bottles of water, ½ gallon of milk, etc.)  
  • Weight machines 

As of 2020, only 31% of Americans aged 18 and older met the guidelines for resistance training. This means that two-thirds of Americans are missing out on the incredible benefits of this important mode of exercise. The benefits that resistance training can provide, that aerobic training often cannot, includes reduced risk for falls, improved bone density (avoiding osteoporosis), and increased muscle size and strength (avoiding sarcopenia). These are just a few of the benefits and don’t include the potential benefits of increasing self-confidence, reduced risk for depression and more.  

Learning about motivation and behavior change.

Now that you understand the benefits and importance of participating in physical activity via aerobic and resistance exercise, we can dive into the factors that can help you maintain your new routine (we’ll dig deeper into what that routine can look like later). 

There are a multitude of different theories and factors that attempt to explain how some people stick to their fitness goals and others struggle to maintain consistency. We will be focusing on a few different strategies/theories that can help keep you going, even when you’d rather not.  

Interestingly enough, science has some pretty cool explanations for why behavior change can be so difficult. 

The theory of “neural plasticity” explains that when creating a new habit, in this case, a new exercise routine, we are forming new neural connections and pruning back the old ones.(5) 

In the beginning, the new habit can seem incredibly challenging to maintain, as you are forming those new connections; however, as you are able to form those connections the task becomes easier and easier and requires less thought and motivation to continue.(3) This is seen in the large number of individuals who seek to make a change in the New Year by starting a new fitness routine. It is estimated that approximately 40-46% of people who start a new routine fail to reach the maintenance phase.(7) 

Fortunately, one of the first steps to initiating a behavior change involves understanding the importance of beginning a new behavior. 

As we just outlined above, exercise has a large variety of benefits to our physical and mental health. Unfortunately, just knowing the benefits clearly doesn’t pave the path to consistently participating in a new behavior. 

In this sense, the factors that lead to maintaining your new behavior may vary from the ones that made you initiate a change. Research has shown that a few factors can help influence one‘s ability to maintain a routine. These can include: 

– creating an individualized routine (What do YOU enjoy?)

– having social support 

– removing barriers 

– building physical activity into your self-concept.(3) 

In other words, you transition from being a person who identifies as an active individual, and exercise is no longer just something you do because you have to.  

man celebrating exercise victory

Before continuing on with the article, I’d recommend that you take a few moments here and either write down or at least think about a couple of personal reasons you’d like to embark on this new exercise journey.  

A few moments later… 

Now that you’ve determined a couple of reasons why this journey is important to you, let’s pick something for you to focus on. We’ve identified that there are multiple modes of exercise or ways to be more physically active. We often get into trouble when we become excited about starting our new routine, so we lay out more than we can realistically handle long-term. We may grit and bear it for a few weeks, but when barriers arise, it becomes hard to maintain. 

The trick here is to start out small, achieve these small wins (and not blame ourselves for missing a day or two here and there), and build our confidence in continuing toward the healthy lifestyle we are aiming for. Can you think of a time, if at all, when this has previously happened?    

Ask a physical therapist!

Prior to starting a new exercise routine, please consult your doctor or physical therapist, especially if you have any chronic or recurring condition, and/or if you are pregnant, nursing or elderly. 

How to start a new exercise program.

Below I have created a chart with some options to choose from (in no order of importance), of course, you can always choose your own adventure. If any of these resonate with you great! If not, feel free to insert any activity that you feel is reasonable for you on a weekly basis.  

As mentioned, in the earlier stages of starting a new routine it’s possible to see benefits with participating in as little as 10 minutes of moderate-vigorous activity per day. One way you can ensure that this activity is challenging you enough is by using something known as the “talk test.” If the activity you’re doing is moderate, you will be able to talk, but not sing during the activity. If it is vigorous, you won’t be able to say more than a few words without having to stop for a breath.(10) 

Now let’s aim to nail down the details of your new routine. Let’s use an example:  

Example: Adding 10-minute bouts of activity to your day  

You have identified that adding 10-minute bouts of activity to your day seems reasonable. This could be riding a bike, taking a walk, or another physical activity you find enjoyable.  

What time of day do you feel this is doable in your current daily or weekly routine?  

This could even start as simple as three days per week. Write these times down and share them with someone whom you can check in with on a regular basis. If this resonates with you, great!  

The important thing is to individualize the activity to fit into your routine with the least number of roadblocks.

As you gain traction and achieve the goal of doing activity x” at the frequency and duration you targeted, you can slowly increase your total time to 150 minutes (about two and a half hours) per week of moderate physical activity.

Feel free to mix it up, you don’t need to do the same activity for the entire 150 minutes either. 

Now you’ve managed to transition what started out as a simple daily activity into continuing to gain more health benefits by striving toward the ACSM guidelines for aerobic exercise.  

Sample Program: Aerobic Exercise (Walk, Bike, Swim, Elliptical, Rowing, etc.)   

Moderate Intensity – Talk Test (talk, but not sing) 

Table of sample moderate intensity aerobic exercise program

Reminder – this is just an example of a moderate-intensity program. It’s important that you progress at a pace that works for you. I skipped from week three to week eight to show that this progression can/should take time.  

Another question you may have is: “OK, so I really want to take advantage of the benefits of resistance exercise, but how do I get started?”  

There are many different types of resistance that can be included in a structured routine (see above). It’s also likely that we will each start out at different points and have slightly different goals for what we want to gain from our new routine.  

The goal is to work toward the ACSM recommendations of at least two days per week of resistance exercise that includes all major muscle groups. However, just as 10 minutes per day of moderate-vigorous aerobic exercise can be helpful, so can a lesser dose of resistance training. Simply participating in at least one day of resistance exercise per week including 1 set of 8-12 repetitions for 8 to 10 exercises can lead to a reduction in body fat, an increase in lean mass, and a reduction in blood pressure.(9)

Participating in two or three days per week of training leads to greater benefits and will likely be necessary to continue making progress over weeks, months and years. It’s important to note that changes don’t happen after one or two weeks, measurable results are found after 10 weeks (about two and a half months) of consistent resistance training.  

Sample Program: Resistance Training 1-3 Days Per Week (Non-Consecutive Days)  

Equipment Required – Free weights or bands 

exercise chart for Resistance Training 1-3 Days Per Week (Non-Consecutive Days)

*Intensity: performed to an intensity of 7-8 out of 10 difficulty. In this case 0 = no effort and 10 = maximal effort. Starting out at a lower intensity of 7 out of 10 will provide plenty of benefits with less injury potential. At a level 7 intensity, you should be able to perform three more repetitions at the end of the set. As you get stronger, you will need to lift more weight to continue to make progress.

Ask a physical therapist!

This is where, if you have any specific limitations or concerns with starting a structured aerobic or resistance training exercise routine, you should reach out to a physical therapist or another qualified healthcare professional near you to create an individualized plan and ensure you are properly prepared to get started. 

Ouch! Pain with exercise ... what now?

Hopefully, at this point, you are looking forward to getting started with your new routine. However, there are just a couple more important things to know before you take off. When starting a routine, you should expect to experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).  

DOMS is the discomfort that you often feel 12-24 hours after a workout and that may be present for up to 3 days. This is a completely normal part of the resistance exercise process and doesn’t need to be feared. In case you do experience DOMS, it’s ok to rest until the symptoms have mostly subsided before participating in your next training session. Over time, this sensation will diminish, and you should not experience much soreness at all (but it’s okay if you do).  

If you are already experiencing pain or begin to experience pain that is not attributed to DOMS, it is important to reach out to your local physical therapist or healthcare provider. These individuals can assist in helping you navigate through the experience and find relief so that you can continue on your journey to better health.

Making a final conclusion.

Starting a new exercise routine can come with a lot of emotion and is influenced by our past experiences. This guide is meant to be a starting place for you to begin your new routine. I hope you were able to take away a few pointers to initiate and ultimately maintain your new routine to lead a healthier and happier life.  

Key Takeaways:

Start your journey to pain-free living today.

Our experts are committed to providing effective, efficient, and compassionate care to help you live a pain-free, active life. Our passion is to help every patient reach their goals on their journey to recovery and optimal performance.

Older couple walking outdoors laughing
Daughter on fathers shoulders in open field

References

  1. Caspersen CJ, Powell KE, Christenson GM. Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Rep. 1985 Mar-Apr;100(2):126-31. PMID: 3920711; PMCID: PMC1424733. 
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, August 4). Guidelines & Recommendations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/resources/recommendations.html  
  3. Clifford, D., & Curtis, L. (2016). Motivational interviewing in nutrition and Fitness. The Guilford Press. 
  4. Crain AL, Martinson BC, Sherwood NE, O’Connor PJ. The long and winding road to physical activity maintenance. Am J Health Behav. 2010 Nov-Dec;34(6):764-75. doi: 10.5993/ajhb.34.6.11. PMID: 20604700; PMCID: PMC3319762. 
  5. Hebb, D.O. (2002). The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory (1st ed.). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410612403 
  6. Mazzeo, Robert S. Ph.D., FACSM (Chair); Cavanagh, Peter Ph.D., FACSM; Evans, William J. Ph.D., FACSM; Fiatarone, Maria Ph.D.; Hagberg, James Ph.D., FACSM; McAuley, Edward Ph.D.; Startzell, Jill Ph.D.. ACSM Position Stand: Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: June 1998 – Volume 30 – Issue 6 – p 992-1008 
  7. Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S. and Blagys, M.D. (2002), Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. J. Clin. Psychol., 58: 397-405. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.1151 
  8. Saint-Maurice PF, Graubard BI, Troiano RP, et al. Estimated Number of Deaths Prevented Through Increased Physical Activity Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2022;182(3):349–352. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2021.7755 
  9. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012 Jul-Aug;11(4):209-16. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8. PMID: 22777332. 
  10. Westcott WL, Winett RA, Annesi JJ, Wojcik JR, Anderson ES, Madden PJ. Prescribing physical activity: applying the ACSM protocols for exercise type, intensity, and duration across 3 training frequencies. Phys Sportsmed. 2009 Jun;37(2):51-8. doi: 10.3810/psm.2009.06.1709. Erratum in: Phys Sportsmed. 2009 Oct;37(3):101. PMID: 20048509. 

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