Exercise: getting started, staying motivated, seeing improvements

by Ali on June 23, 2008

This is the ninth part of the dieting basics series — all the earlier posts are linked to from the series introduction.

Why do you need to exercise?

You can lose weight just by dieting alone – eating less to create a calorie deficit which your body will compensate for by burning up fat for energy. However, for easier and long-lasting weight loss, it’s best to do some exercise too, because:

  • Exercising burns up calories, meaning you get to eat more – allowing you to easily get all the nutrients that you need and enjoy an occasional treat!
  • Your appetite can be regulated by exercise, making it easier to stick to your diet.
  • Muscles are built up by exercise: this both prevents you from losing muscle instead of fat when you diet, and also helps tone and shape your body. Even better, a pound of muscle burns up more calories than a pound of fat – many experts believe up to an extra 50 calories per day per pound of muscle.
  • There are a number of health benefits from exercising which go beyond weight loss. Your immune system gets a boost – meaning you’re less likely to catch colds – and exercise is also recommended to fight mild depression and stress.

Getting started: exercise for beginners

If you’re new to exercise, make sure you begin gently and build up slowly. Many of us aren’t even meeting the minimum recommended guidelines, so that’s a good point to aim for to being with!

Start off with light exercise, such as gentle walking, and progress to brisk walking, jogging or cycling. If you’re very overweight and unfit, just do a few minutes each day during the first week, then add five or ten minutes a day during each subsequent week until you can exercise for half an hour continuously.

Don’t be put off joining a gym by thinking that it’ll be full of super-fit bodybuilders with bulging muscles – gyms are used by a wide range of people, many of them beginners. The most common reason given for joining a gym is wanting to lose weight – so there’ll be lots of fellow dieters there who are also trying to get into shape.

Many gyms offer a free personalised programme as part of your induction – take full advantage of this, and explain what you want to achieve to your instructor. They’ll make a plan especially for you: it might seem challenging to begin with but should be achievable.

Staying motivated

Find an exercise buddy to work out with – this could be one of your colleagues who’ll come for a walk with you at lunchtime, a friend who’ll meet you for a swim after work, or your partner who’ll go jogging with you at the weekend. It’s much harder to weasel out of a workout when you’ve made a commitment to someone else to do it.

Alternatively, if you really can’t find someone to work out with, make sure your exercise becomes a habit. Perhaps you always go to the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – or maybe first thing Saturday morning is a great time to hit the swimming pool. Put your exercise sessions in your diary at the start of the week and treat them as non-negotiable appointments.

After you’ve been exercising for a few weeks or months, you might be getting bored of your usual workout. This is a great time to mix things up a bit: try out some new machines in the gym (the instructors are always happy to demonstrate the correct technique), sign up for a new class that you’ve not tried before, take a different route on your next walk or run.

Sometimes we become focused on the end result of exercise – getting to an ideal weight, fitting into those old jeans, or having great muscles. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey too … exercise should be rewarding and even fun on a daily basis, not just as a series of steps towards a distant goal.

Seeing improvements

Keep a notebook or spreadsheet with a record of all your exercise sessions, right from day one. It’s extremely motivating to look back and see the progression you’ve made. Read over your log whenever you’re feeling discouraged. Perhaps the first time you used the treadmill in the gym, you could only walk briskly for ten minutes … and now you’re jogging for twenty. Maybe that initial swimming session that you were apprehensive about in week four has now become a bi-weekly treat.

Have your programme reviewed regularly at the gym: the instructors will help you to step it up a notch so you see continual improvements rather than stagnating. Alternatively, just progress to the next level on cardio machines and add a few kilos to the weights you’re lifting every four-six weeks: once level 10 on the crosstrainer starts getting easy and comfortable, kick it up to level 11!

Once you’ve been working out for a few months or even years, exercise has hopefully become an integral part of your life. Whenever you feel that it’s a waste of time, or that you “should do more”, remember yourself before you started exercising. If you’re anything like me, your former self would probably be astonished at how much activity you now fit into your life … and how much you enjoy it!

Keep track of your weight, body fat percentage and waist size: have you dropped a few pounds? Has your body fat percentage reduced? Are you buying clothes in a smaller size? These are all great signs that your exercise is paying off, and a deserved reward for all your hard work!

(Image above by sirwiseowl)

Don’t miss the next post in this series, covering the best ways to exercise if you’re overweight and unfit. Grab the RSS feed and get every post delivered straight to your feed reader.

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