Getting Back on the Workout Wagon

For many of us, getting regular exercise is challenging enough. But it can be even tougher when you've taken off a month or more.

"When you haven't exercised in a while, you lose the physical benefits you've built up, so it can be hard to know where to start," says Beth Leermakers, Ph.D., a certified lifestyle counselor at the LEARN Institute for Lifestyle Management in Dallas. "And psychologically, you can lose momentum, which makes restarting even more intimidating."

Still, for overall health benefits, it's important to get back in the game. At least walk for 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week, and do even more if you want to lose weight or get in top shape.

Dr. Leermakers offers the following suggestions for getting back on track.

Troubleshoot

Before reentering an exercise program, determine why you stopped working out in the first place.

Dr. Leermakers suggests asking yourself: "What didn't work about my exercise program in the past? Did family or work obligations keep me from going to the gym? Did something in my schedule change?"

"Problem solve to find out why you didn't stick to your exercise program, and ask yourself what you need to do differently this go-round," she says.

It could be as simple as shifting your workout time so that exercise is more convenient, to something as fundamental as switching activities. Find something you enjoy doing that you look forward to and can fit into your schedule.

To psyche yourself further, do what Dr. Leermakers calls a "cost/benefit analysis" of resuming exercise. Ask yourself:

"What are the advantages of being more physically active? What are the disadvantages?"

"What we know is that if the costs are higher than the benefits, you aren't going to exercise," says Dr. Leermakers. "The key is to identify benefits that are important to you, such as feeling better and setting an example for your children. They override any costs."

Start slow

Before starting to exercise regularly again, whether through a formal exercise program at the gym or on your own, set small, doable and measurable goals. From there, increase what you do gradually -- add a few minutes to the time you spend on the stair climber, a few more pounds to the weight you lift or a few more steps to those you take each day, with the help of a step counter.

"If you do too much too soon, you risk getting injured and/or discouraged," says Dr. Leermakers. Aim for Increasing your workout times or weight lifted by 1o percent per week.

How slow you go depends on how long you've been out of the workout routine. If you've been basically sedentary for six months, for example, Dr. Leermakers recommends starting with five to 10 minutes of aerobic activity and gradually working your way up to 30 minutes. If you previously strength trained, you'll also want to start with lighter weights and fewer reps than you used to do. Before adding weight, increase your repetitions. If it has been a month or less, you won't have to bump it back as much.

Your workout should include the four elements of fitness: muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance, according to the American Heart Association.

Track your progress

To avoid backsliding, record what you do in your daily planner or calendar, whether it's your minutes of daily activity, the days you go to the gym, the number of steps you've taken in a day or the miles you've logged on your daily run.

Also, "keep your athletic shoes where you're going to see them, whether in your car or by the front door, so you're always ready to go," says Dr. Leermakers. "It's good to have a visual reminder that exercise is a priority."

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