Better mobility, stronger muscles and bones, better mental health and the energy to do what you want: exercise has many potential benefits for everyone, regardless of age or level. of physical form. But making an exercise plan — let alone sticking to one — is a difficult task for many people. Here, three experts share what you need to know to create a routine you can stick with for the long haul, even when you’re really busy.
How much exercise you need
Exercise takes time: there is no miracle cure, pill or diet that will get you where you want to go. But it probably doesn’t take as long as you think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week to maintain your current level of fitness. That’s about 20 minutes a day or 30 minutes five days a week. However, you’ll need double that if you’re trying to lose weight or improve your fitness, says Deborah Salvo, PhD., a physical activity researcher and professor of public health at Washington University in St. Louis.
If you’re really busy, these numbers may seem intractable. But the good news is that all that time doesn’t have to be spent in gym gear. The exercise you get by doing daily activities is an important part of those minutes, Salvo says. “It can also be something that you can incorporate into your life that can serve multiple purposes,” she says.
The other good news is that it doesn’t matter if the activity is vigorous, which the CDC defines as activity in which you can only say a few words before running out of breath. “As long as you cross the moderate-intensity threshold, the activity is good for you,” Salvo says. That means a brisk walk from the car to work, general gardening, a bike ride at a comfortable pace, or an easy weekend hike, it all counts.
Do activities you enjoy and start slowly
When people start exercising, they often turn to workouts that seem to have the fastest results, like lifting heavy weights or long runs. Fun isn’t usually a priority, says Dr. Kevin Vincent, medical director of the University of Florida Sports Performance Center. But you will never succeed if you don’t love what you do. For basic fitness, he says, it doesn’t matter what form of exercise you choose to pursue: “Just be consistent.” It can take two to three months for your body to acclimate to new activities and start showing real results.
Although the CDC’s general rule is that every minute of vigorous activity equals two minutes of moderate activity, straining yourself right away could cost you time in the long run. Vincent suggests starting at a slower pace than you think. Although you’ll start to see improvement within the first few days, he says, don’t take it as a signal to push yourself harder. Working slowly minimizes your risk of injury and maximizes your chances of persevering.
The CDC also suggests doing two muscle-strengthening workouts each week in addition to aerobic exercise. Strength training can be as simple as bodyweight training, but even that carries the risk of injury if you’re not careful with your form and any existing injuries. To get started, Vincent suggests taking live classes or trying YouTube videos.
Good exercise videos have three components, Vincent says: they’re made by an exercise professional who’s accredited by the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, or another major organization; they contain options to help you modify the exercise if you have an injury or limitation; and they are part of a growing series. “It should look pretty easy and feel pretty easy, and it should get harder over time,” he says.
Get into the right frame of mind
It’s important to understand how your workouts are going to fit into your life as it is now, not your ideal. When it comes to fitness, many people have long tried and given up on different diets, says Michelle Segar, PhD., a sustainable behavior change researcher at the University of Michigan and author of Choosing Joy: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Diet and Exercise.
“So many people plan and start behavior change in what I call a motivational bubble,” Segar says, as they only focus on the end goal. But what to do when his motivation comes up against an obstacle? Maybe you just couldn’t get out for your scheduled race one day or maybe an injury stopped you in your tracks.
The key, Salvo says, is developing the resilience to reshape your plans when things go wrong. Can’t go for your lunch run? Find 15 minutes later in the day to go up and down a flight of stairs several times. Don’t have time for that yoga class? You can make yoga video at home. “Lasting change is the result of making decisions that consistently support your exercise goal,” she says.
Keep the momentum
Salvo suggests scheduling the exercise for a week because it’s easier to maintain momentum when you have a full week to watch. And when one day goes haywire, you can always see the big picture, she says.
She also suggests thinking about what motivates you. Research has found that most people are motivated to exercise from at least one of three things: affect, or how exercise makes them feel; quantitative clues, like information they get from a smartwatch or other trackers; and social cues, such as competition and teamwork.
Many people have a combination of motivations. To discover your own personal motivations, Salvo suggests thinking about what motivates you in other areas of your life, or even trying the different approaches to see what sticks.
Choosing to incorporate exercise into your life and meet challenges by adapting rather than stopping “is a sign and a symptom that we are achieving lasting change,” says Segar. “We are reaffirming our identity as someone who knows how to navigate these challenges.”