Most of us fall off our exercise routine at one point or another. Whether busy, injured, stressed, on vacation or suffering from burnout, even the most dedicated fitness junkie has to take the occasional break from physical activity. Trouble is, most of us struggle to gain traction once we’re ready to return to our exercise routine.
“When we fall out of the consistent habit of exercise it can make even the idea of it feel completely daunting and downright stressful,” says Chelsea Aguiar, personal trainer and founder of Athaya Fitness in New York City.
So, what are some steps to make your transition back into fitness more manageable? Here are seven expert-backed tips:
SET A SMART GOAL
Get clear on what you hope to accomplish with your rekindled exercise routine. And while setting a goal is great, you’ll increase your odds of success with a SMART goal, says Ryan Campbell, personal training specialist at Anytime Fitness of southern Wisconsin.
Make sure your goal fits the SMART criteria:
- Specific: It’s not enough to say you want to “get fit;” you need to be specific. Choose a specific goal that will get you to your overall goal. For example, training for a half-marathon or triathlon.
- Measurable: Once you identify your specific goal, make sure you’re able to measure your progress. After all, if you’re not assessing, you’re just guessing, Campbell says. If your goal is to run a half-marathon, gauge progress by hitting certain benchmarks throughout your training regimen. Trying to lose weight? Track progress by weighing yourself periodically and/or having body composition measurements taken.
- Attainable: “People set lofty goals but then get discouraged when they can’t attain it, and then they fall off again,” Campbell explains. Whatever your goal, you should feel 90–100% confident you can attain it. If you’re not confident, consider breaking your goal into a smaller goal. For example, instead of aiming to lose 20 pounds in a month, try for eight.
- Relevant: Make sure your goal is consistent with your interests, needs and abilities. If you can’t stand running, for example, training for a marathon may not be the best fit for you.
- Time-bound: Goals like “lose weight” or “get fit” are vague and have no end dates attached to them. Decide when you hope to achieve your goal by and fill in your timeline with milestones you need to hit to keep you on track.
Meghan Callaway, a strength coach based in Vancouver, Canada, recommends starting with three full-body strength workouts per week, taking at least one day to recover in between. Each workout should include exercises that focus on the main movement patterns: squat, hinge (e.g., banded pull-through), lunge, vertical push (e.g., shoulder press), horizontal push (e.g., pushup), vertical pull (e.g., pullup), horizontal pull (e.g., bent-over row) and carry. “This way, you get your base [strength] back, and you’re not going too crazy,” Callaway says.
So long as you’re feeling strong and recovered from your training, you can progress every two weeks by increasing sets, reps or weight or decreasing your rest between sets, Campbell says.
This progression principle also applies to cardio workouts. If your treadmill or elliptical session begins to feel easy, bump up the intensity by 10%. You could increase speed or resistance, decrease rest or even add another weekly cardio session.
“Developing physical fitness is in the consistency, and that comes with time,” Campbell says. “People try to speed through, which leads to pain and injury. And then you’re back off the horse.”
WORRY ABOUT YOURSELF
Don’t get down on yourself if your friend can bang out more pushups than you. Or your personal trainer has the six-pack of your dreams. “Their [fitness] journey is different than yours,” Aguiar says. “When we exercise, we are asking our biology to adapt, and if Darwin taught us anything, it’s that biological adaptations take time.” So, don’t let other people make you feel insecure. Instead, focus on your own goals and abilities. Continue taking consistent steps toward your goals and simply enjoy the journey she adds.
STAY ACTIVE EVEN ON YOUR DAYS OFF
Muscle soreness is normal — even expected — when restarting a fitness routine. But while you may be tempted to use post-workout soreness as an excuse to catch up on Netflix, you’ll be more ready to tackle your next workout if you do a little exercise on your day off. “It doesn’t have to be intense; just doing basic movements will speed up your recovery,” Callaway says. Not to mention, staying active on your recovery days helps maintain consistency with your new exercise habit. Take your pup to the park, do a few yoga flows or stroll around your neighborhood. “Just don’t be sedentary,” Callaway says.
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LEAVE A FEW REPS IN THE TANK
When you jump back into your strength-training routine, resist the urge to lift to your full potential. Instead, stop a few reps short — at least, in the beginning. “It generally keeps you feeling fresher,” Callaway says, “that way, you might not be so sore afterwards, and you’ll be able to maintain consistency.” So, if you can typically lift a weight for 12 reps, stop at 9 or 10, and see how you feel the next day. If you’re recovering well and feeling ready for more, bump it up to your usual rep range for your next workout. Just keep in mind that you should always leave one or two reps in the tank, no matter your fitness level.
HAVE A BACKUP PLAN
You’ll inevitably have days when your planned workout is either unmanageable or unappealing. On these days, you may be tempted to sit on the couch, but it’s always better to do something than nothing — especially when you’re trying to rebuild an exercise habit. “So long as you come in and do something, you’re moving in the right direction,” Campbell says.
Keep a list of possible alternative workouts on your phone so you’ll never be unprepared. You could perform a watered-down version of your planned workout or do something entirely different. Go for a bike ride, swim laps at the community pool or play Ultimate Frisbee with friends.
BE ACCOUNTABLE TO SOMEONE
Often, we need to be accountable to someone (or something) other than ourselves to show up for that dreaded first (or second or third) workout. Increase your odds of success by enlisting help. “No one ever said that fitness had to be a solo journey,” Aguiar says.
Hire a trainer (distance or in-person), book a spot at an expensive boutique studio, join an online fitness challenge or set a weekly run date with a friend. Sometimes, you don’t even need another person to hold you accountable, Campbell says. For some people, logging their workouts and meals in MyFitnessPal is enough to keep them coming back day after day.