Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.
I’ve been exercising regularly for a few years, with tremendous improvements in my health, and whenever someone asks me how they should start out in exercise, I tell them to just get moving!
Try to get moving every day — whether it’s walking, running, strength training, sports, running around with the kids, swimming, paddling, or whatever works for you. If you can do that, you’ll get healthier and fitter over time.
And it does take time. Any exercise program that promises results in a week or three or even a month is either lying to you, or not worth it — you’ll just gain it back in a short amount of time, because you haven’t changed your lifestyle or habits. So no, you won’t see quick results if you get active, but you’ll see long-term results if you stick with it. Have fun along the way and things will be great.
And what you eat is just as important. Make small changes over time to your diet — drink water instead of soda, or eat leaner cuts of meat (or go vegetarian), cut out fried foods, eat more fruits and veggies, cut out processed grains, changes like that — and you’ll be well on your way to a healtheir lifestyle and a fitter you.
But these generalized recommendations never seem to be enough. People want specific programs. And while I’m not a certified trainer or an expert in any way, I have found some simple exercise programs that work for me and others I know, and can recommend them. As always, if you have health problems, check with a doctor before getting into any kind of exercise program.
One last note: take it slowly. Your body needs time to adapt to the exercise, and if you overdo it you can injure yourself or burnout, and neither is good if you’re trying to stick with it long term. Progress gradually, in small steps, and you’ll stay injury-free and see great long-term results.
Program 1: Intervals for Beginners
Intervals are a great way to get intense exercise in without overdoing it. And they can be a lot of fun if steady-state cardio bores you to tears.
Start out with some steady-state cardio, though, at least for a month while you get used to moving more. Walking is a great way to start out, especially if you haven’t exercised in awhile and/or you’re pretty overweight. If you’re in decent shape with not too many extra pounds, start with some slow, light jogging.
After a month or so of doing this at least 3 times a week (4-5 is even better but not everyone has the time), you can add some light intervals. Warm up for 5 minutes first to prevent injury and to let your heart adjust to beating faster, before starting the intervals. For beginner walkers, just pick up the pace for 30-60 seconds, and then walk at a normal pace for 1-2 minutes to recover. Don’t overdo it at first. You can repeat this 3-5 times during your normal walk.
For people in slightly better shape, try walk/run intervals. Again, warm up for 5 minutes, then jog for 30-60 seconds followed by 1-2 minutes walking for recovery. Repeat 3-5 times and then cool down.
For those in even better shape, do jog/run intervals, where you jog slowly, pick up the pace to a steady run (not sprinting and not too fast) for 30-60 seconds, then back to a slow jog for 1-2 minutes recovery. Again, repeat 3-5 times.
After doing this workout for 1-2 weeks, add more intervals slowly until you’re up to about 6-8. Once you’re used to this, slowly increase the length of your intervals. Instead of 30-60 seconds, do 60-90 seconds. After a couple weeks of longer intervals, increase the intensity of the intervals — a faster walk, or a jog instead of a walk, or a faster run, depending on what you’ve been doing so far.
Intervals are a great way to burn calories and fat (assuming you’re eating fairly healthy and not overeating), strengthen your leg muscles and core, and just get healthier overall.
Program 2: Sports
This is one of the easiest programs on this list, and also one of the most fun. Basically: play a sport you like, or even a new sport you’ve never tried before, a few times a week. Again, the idea is just to get moving, and to have fun while you’re moving.
It can be any sport where you’re moving around a lot (golf, bowling, darts, and the like are great but don’t count) — just choose a sport to start with and give it a try. If you already love a sport but haven’t been playing it in awhile, do that — it’s important that this be fun for you. Do it 3-4 times a week. Or try a new sport — if you’ve always wanted to try soccer, or rugby, or rowing/paddling, or cycling, do it now! Find someone who knows how to play it, or join a club or group that will show you how it’s done, and give it a try! It can be difficult at first, but go easy when you start and really try to learn the rules and skills. Think of it as a fun challenge. You might be a little sore when you first start out.
Start with 30 minutes and progress gradually to 45-60 minutes a day, at least 3 days a week. Try to get to 4-5 days a week if you can.
After a month or so of one sport, switch to another to keep it fun and challenging. Keep doing this for a few months. After you’ve tried at least 3 sports, start to mix it up — do basketball on Monday, for example, then soccer, then swimming, then rowing — whatever you feel like, whatever seems fun, whatever it takes to stay active. The more you mix it up, the better.
Program 3: Circuits
This is a fairly traditional sort of program, but great nonetheless. Basically: you do one exercise followed by another and another and so on until you’ve done the whole circuit of exercises, rest for a couple minutes, then repeat the whole circuit. The exercises can be strength exercises, cardio, or some combination. The circuit format keeps things interesting, and keeps your heart-rate up so you burn more fat than if you rested in between exercises.
For beginners, remember to start slowly — it can be easy to overdo it with a program like this. I recommend you start with just 4-5 exercises, and rest 10-30 seconds between each at first. Later you can cut the rest period down until you’re not resting between exercises, only between circuits.
To start out with, choose 4-5 exercises such as: bodyweight squats, jumping jacks, pushups (you can do them against the wall instead of on the ground if necessary), jump squats (squats with a jump at the top), burpees (basically jump squats combined with pushups), dips, lunges, side lunges, wall climbers, pullups, jump roping, jogging in place, bicycle crunches. Some of these are tough, so if you have trouble with them start with easier ones or modified versions so they’re not so hard. Do a YouTube search if you don’t know how to do the exercises properly.
Do 30 seconds of each exercise, rest for 10-30 seconds, do the next exercise, and so on until you’ve done all 4-5 exercises you’ve chosen. Rest for 2 minutes and repeat.
When you first start, just do 2 circuits. Then after a week or two, add a third circuit, and then after another week or two add a fourth. When you’ve adjusted to that, add additional exercises (feel free to switch out new exercises whenever you like). Gradually shorten the rest period between exercises until you don’t rest at all during the circuit — only between circuits.
Program 4: Crossfit Light
One of my favorite exercise programs is Crossfit, because it’s an all-around program that focuses on your entire body, and all parts of fitness. If you do Crossfit, you’ll be in shape for just about anything, from sports to the military or law enforcement to any physical challenge you can think of.
However, Crossfit is not for beginners. It’s tough. If you’re in decent shape already, you should start Crossfit by doing a modified version of their Workout of the Day (WOD), which is posted daily on the main website. Modified meaning an easier version. After a few months, you should try to progress to the full version of the WOD.
However, complete beginners should start with an even easier version — let’s call it Crossfit Light. There isn’t any such program, but it’s basically modifying the WOD so that beginners can do it without killing themselves. An example of the past week of WODs:
- Regular WOD: Push jerk 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 reps (only one repetition, as heavy as you can, rest, then repeat 6 more times)
- Light WOD: Push jerk with light dumbells, 10 reps, 3 sets
- Regular: Walking lunge 100 ft.; 21 Pull-ups; 21 Sit-ups (repeat circuit 5 more times, decreasing number of pullups/situps by 3 each circuit)
- Light: Walking lunge 8 steps; 1 or 2 jump pullups, 5-10 situps (repeat circuit 3 times)
- Regular: 21 Hip-Back Extensions; Run 400 meters (repeat circuit 5 more times, decreasing number of hip-back extensions by 3 each circuit)
- Light: Supermans 10 reps; jog or walk 100-200 meters (repeat circuit 3 times)
Saturday – Rest
- Regular: “Helen” – Three rounds for time: Run 400 meters, 1 1/2 pood Kettlebell X 21 swings (or 55 pound dumbbell swing), 12 Pull-ups
- Light: Three rounds (take your time) of jog or walk 100-200 meters, 10 dumbbell swings (whatever weight you’re comfortable with), 3-5 jump pullups
- Regular: Deadlift 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 reps (as heavy as you can for 1 rep, rest, repeat 6 more times)
- Light: Deadlift with light dumbbells 10 times, repeat 3 sets
So you can see that instead of going for intensity, the light workout is much easier and more relaxed. Again, it’s just for starting out — you’ll want to make it tougher as you progress.
Program 5: Triathlon Light
When I trained for a triathlon last year, I felt fitter than ever before, because I was training for three sports (running, cycling, swimming). My body was getting an amazing all-around workout. However, if you’re a complete beginner, you’ll want to start out lighter than normal.
So you can start with three sports — perhaps walk/running, swimming or rowing, and cycling or the cycling machine. Substitute whatever sport/exercise works better for you.
Start out by doing each sport once a week (15-20 minutes a day to start with), and gradually increase over time until you’re doing each sport twice a week. Then increase the duration of your exercise until you get to 30 minutes a day.
Eventually, try to do the real three triathlon sports, as they have amazing health benefits, especially when you mix them up like this. Be sure to always take at least one rest day a week.
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