You’re doing a solid job of tracking your food and making nutritional adjustments that work well for you, so now you want to step it up and incorporate some exercise into your routine for added weight-loss power.
Here’s the problem: It may feel like there are hundreds, if not thousands, of possible starting points. How do you choose the best way to jump in? The wealth of options — from group fitness classes and running to personal trainer sessions and virtual workouts — can make many people feel like giving up before they’ve even begun.
Here’s how to get going from square one:
Before you even take the first steps, understand this will be a gradual, progressive adventure, not just a way to lose a certain amount of weight.
The trick is to think simple and gradual. You’re looking to make exercise into a new lifelong habit that lasts after you hit your goal weight and requires the same strategy as changing your diet: consistency, predictability and starting where you are.
Particularly if you’re carrying extra weight, high-impact exercise can be tough on your joints when you’re just starting to get into working out, says fitness expert Jimmy Minardi of Minardi Training. That makes walking an ideal starting point, especially if you get outside to do it.
“Studies have shown outdoor exercise is associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy, and positive engagement, while decreasing tension and depression,” he says. “That can make you more likely to repeat the activity.”
Huge goals are great, but when you just start working out, you need goals that are achievable quickly. For example, aim to walk two times this week. Or walk a block more tomorrow than you did today.
You might prefer to use time as a marker instead, adding 3 minutes to each walk until you get to an hour. These short-term goals give you a sense of progress, which is crucial for staying motivated.
“Pick a short distance and amount of time and build on it day by day,” suggests Urban.
An important strategy is to schedule your workouts, even short ones, in terms of time and location, says Marie Urban, regional group training coordinator and personal trainer for Life Time. That keeps your workouts from being yet another task that you might not get to during the day, and makes it into more of a priority.
“My recommendation is to do something every day. Doing something like walking every day establishes a fitness routine and you will feel a difference in your body,” she adds. “This will motivate you to increase your time or distance and you’ll begin to make time for fitness rather than placing it on the back burner.”
Even if that means just half a block more, or an extra 5 minutes, that can build up to meaningful changes very quickly. Also, that establishes a fitness routine you can build on later and shows you the benefit of increasing your effort in small amounts — an important strategy to learn for keeping you motivated and preventing overuse injuries in the future.
You can do this with any activity if walking isn’t your groove. Maybe you do yoga every day and add a few minutes to each session or you start a series of bodyweight exercises a few times per week and do one more set each time. All of it can give you that feeling of progress that keeps you going strong.
Weight goals are helpful for many people, but they can be challenging when it comes to starting an exercise regime because for sustainable weight loss, the common recommendation is to aim for 1–2 pounds lost per week. That could make you feel like you’re not progressing fast enough.
Calorie burn goals are the same — it’s too easy to get bogged down in how many calories you’re supposed to be burning and not focusing on the exercise itself.
A better approach is to tie your goals to activity, says certified strength and conditioning coach Kourtney Thomas. For instance, if you’re walking, think about having a long-distance day once a week. Or doing a new group fitness class online every Saturday. These can help push you a little more and keep you feeling accountable, Thomas suggests.
As you hit your goals, you’ll know when you’ve made it a little too easy. That’s usually the point when people start getting bored and dialing it back — and, unfortunately, that can result in giving up on being more active and seeing weight-loss progress.
“You have to start setting more aggressive goals,” says personal trainer Ramsey Bergeron. “One of the biggest mistakes I see new clients make is setting modest goals and then thinking they have to stop when they reach those, even if they haven’t felt challenged.”
After you’ve created a consistent routine you enjoy, begin to vary your workouts for more intensity, Minardi says. If you’re walking outside, try alternating 3 minutes at a slow pace and 3 minutes at a faster pace. If you’re indoors on a treadmill, you can do this easily by increasing and decreasing the speed, as well as adjusting the incline.
For example, Minardi suggests, doing a 2-minute warmup and then increasing the incline every minute up to 10 degrees, and maxing out at 4 miles per hour. Then adjust down until you’re at your starting point.
This is also when you can begin to incorporate some strength training into the mix a few days a week. That might include holding hand weights as you walk, Minardi says or doing a few bodyweight exercises after you’ve warmed up by walking. As you get more comfortable with incorporating these kinds of moves, you can start to explore more strength-training options, like using free weights, resistance bands or gym machines.
If you’re short on time, consider doing some high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, as a way to get into the intensity habit.
At this point, you’ve created a routine, set goals, pushed to challenge yourself, and started increasing the intensity, which are all helpful for keeping you on a weight-loss track. Now it’s time to shake it up a little.
There’s ample research that strength training can help with weight loss, and improve your overall endurance, power and mobility. Consider starting with bodyweight exercises that help you focus on form, and increase the number of sets you do over about six weeks. From there, you can explore adding more resistance with strength training, such as using dumbbells, resistance bands or kettlebells.
A large part of what keeps people from exercising is they think of working out as, well, work. They might view exercise as punishment for what they ate or as a chore that needs to be checked off the list. But that means they haven’t found the sweet spot that comes with actually enjoying the sensation of movement, believes personal trainer Angelo Grinceri of P.volve.
“Pick up a fun activity,” he advises. “The best part about getting back in shape is feeling better when doing other things.” For instance, he says, he recently started playing tennis and feels like his game is on target when he’s consistent with his fitness regimen.
In other words, having a training goal — beyond losing weight and those initial small goals — is important for the long term. Maybe that means signing up for a 5K walk six months from now or going for a bike ride with your kids instead of taking in a movie. No matter your future goals, though, be kind to yourself about getting there, Grinceri suggests.
“Stop judging yourself and start small,” he says. “What can you barely do? Great, start there. Start with a basic plank, a basic hip hinge. When you’re exhausted, stop. Then get back to it the next day.”
With a foundation of exercise in place, you may be ready for a more comprehensive plan that really challenges you more and requires expert guidance. Thomas suggests working with a trainer who can talk to you about your goals and put together a workout schedule for the next 4–8 weeks.
The main aim is to continue making progress, but make sure to have fun as well, Thomas adds. If you hate walking, find a different activity you enjoy. Start kickboxing or dancing or riding your bike. Although you have weight-loss goals and you’re making exercise part of meeting them, simply being able to move better and appreciate being in your body is a big deal — so get out there and enjoy it.
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