How to Begin a Consistent Exercise Program

Part 1


Your health should be a priority, and exercise is an integral part of your health. But starting an exercise program can be both exciting and frustrating. It takes approximately six months to a year for exercise to become a habit. Some people will learn to love exercise and some never will. For the first few weeks you might be more tired than usual, but if you stick with it, you will notice an increase in energy. Before long you will feel stronger and sleep better. Exercise is a natural antidepressant and is good for your heart. It is a stress reducer, decreases anger and hostility, and gives you a sense of control over your life. It may be one of the greatest things you can do for yourself, but it takes work.

It may feel awkward asking your spouse to watch the kids so you can go walking or postponing making dinner so you can go to the gym, but it is necessary. The idea of putting yourself first may be foreign and uncomfortable and may be followed by guilt, especially if you have always been the caretaker of the family. Push yourself through those feelings, and they will diminish with time. Remember that if you take care of yourself, you will be better able to take care of your family.


Most experts will tell you to strive to exercise 3 to 5 times per week or more and for at least 30 to 45 minutes per workout. If you can do it every day, that is even better. Aerobic exercise is excellent, and adding free weights or equipment is a good supplement. Walking is a great way to begin, and it is inexpensive, simple to do, can be done from home, and can be as easy or intense as you choose. Whatever your choice of exercise, remember to discuss it with your doctor.

Start small. If all you can do is run for two minutes, then that is a good place to start. Perhaps by the next week you will be able to run 3 or 4 minutes. Try to look at what you can do, not what you can’t. With time, you will be able to do much more. Think of an exercise continuum where you are at one end (at the beginning) and Olympic athletes are at the other end. You may never be an Olympian, but at least now you are on that same continuum.

The most important part in the beginning is just getting into the habit of working out. It seems simple, but this is one of the most difficult phases of exercise. Battle that negative self-talk and ignore the excuses. Making excuses is normal—and all people that exercise experience them—but they are what stands between you and your goal.

Here is a helpful strategy. If you skip a workout for any reason, say to yourself, “I choose not to exercise.” This helps to keep the right perspective on exercise and assists you in taking responsibility for skipping workouts rather than using some external factor as the reason. It is easy to blame skipping workouts on having “no time,” but realistically there is time; we just choose to use it for something other than exercise. Make a commitment to yourself that if there is not enough time to exercise, something else will have to go, not the exercise. Perhaps the dog gets a bath tomorrow, or maybe the bills get paid later in the evening. There is always time for exercise if you make it a priority.


You absolutely do not have to spend a lot of money by joining a gym. Going to the gym is not for everyone. You can exercise from your home or around your neighborhood and still achieve your fitness goals. On the other hand, some people enjoy the camaraderie, easy access to personal trainers, access to top-of- the-line equipment, and available support most gyms offer. It is an individual decision; some people have both a gym membership and a home exercise program.

If you are not a gym person, definitely don’t choose the gym for your beginner exercise program. You will be setting yourself up for failure. Lots of people have gym memberships that they never use. The thinking may have been “If I spend money on a gym membership, I’ll be motivated to use it.” It hardly ever works out. If you are not a gym person, you’ll look for a reason not to go.


Boredom is the enemy in an exercise program. Try activities you are interested in or ones that you may have enjoyed in your past— walking, running, rollerblading, swimming, water aerobics, joining a gym, bicycling, hiking, tennis, golf without a cart, using free weights, mall walking…the list goes on. Some people choose several activities and alternate depending on their mood. Expect exercise to be boring some of the time or maybe even most of the time, at least in the beginning, but you are not doing it for entertainment. You are doing it for your health and your future. You may find you actually enjoy exercising and look forward to it—many people do—or you may not, but making a plan and tracking your progress is crucial. Set fitness goals for yourself to keep things interesting, and you may be surprised at the amazing things you can achieve that you thought would never be possible, like running a marathon or climbing a mountain. Find that inner athlete!


You don’t have to do your 30 to 45 minute workout all at once. An interesting variation is to do three or four 10-minute workouts during the day. It may be easier to fit in 10 minutes on the treadmill four times a day than to set aside one large block of time. Keep in mind that this option requires extraordinary determination because you must motivate yourself to exercise several times each day. It is also helpful to purchase a pedometer to wear all day. A goal should be to accumulate at least 10,000 steps per day.

Along with the long workout, or several short ones, you can also add small opportunities to move your body throughout the day. Start parking farther away from your office building, grocery store, or mall. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Take short, energizing strolls throughout your workday. Walk the dog a bit farther than usual. It all adds up. These shouldn’t take the place of your main workout, but they do help.


1. How much will it cost to buy workout equipment? Be realistic about what is within your budget. You do not need to spend a lot of money or join a gym. Exercising from home is a good choice, and walking is inexpensive. All you need is a good pair of walking shoes.

2. Will I have to travel to do the exercise? Consider how accessible your choice will be. If you join a gym, there is an extra step to exercising as you must drive to the gym.

3. Is there too much preparation time involved in doing my everyday workout? Do you have to prepare a large amount of equipment? Is there a time commitment for maintenance of equipment?

4. Do I need an exercise buddy to motivate me? If you need a partner, then activities where you will be accountable for missingaworkoutwouldbeagoodchoiceforyou. Perhaps joining a running club, setting appointments with workout buddies, or hiring a personal trainer would be beneficial. It’s hard to skip that workout when you know someone is waiting for you.

5. Am I interested in this activity? If it doesn’t interest you, it will be next to impossible to sustain the exercise routine. Just because your friend likes water aerobics does not necessarily mean it will be a good choice for you.

6. What will my backup exercise choice be if the weather is bad or my workout buddy is unavailable? Always have an exercise video, free weights, resistance bands, or some other type of physical activity planned for when something interferes with Plan A.

8. Will I actually do the exercise I choose or will I feel too self-conscious? Be realistic. If you cringe at the thought of exercising in front of other people, then joining a gym is not for you. Perhaps purchasing a stationary bicycle or finding an online workout you can do at home is a better choice, at least on a temporary basis.

9. What if I am injured or have a physical disability? If you are not able to exercise due to pain, mobility, or disability, you should consult with an exercise physiologist. Together you can creatively design an exercise program that will meet your needs. As you become more fit and hopefully gain mobility, your exercise program will evolve.


An exercise log is a helpful tool for long-term success. It is motivating to see your progress and is satisfying when you can add another workout to the list of completed activities. Another advantage to logging your workouts is the ability to look for trends. What time of day feels best to you for exercise? How many days per week of exercise works best for you? How does your workout feel if you missed a few days in a row? Some people might use their logs to track their feelings, their weight, and even major life events. Log books keep you honest. It keeps you mindful of your commitment and may help to motivate you whenever you have to write “no workout” on skipped days.

Here is another trick. If you skip a workout, you must write the reason in the log book. “No time” is not an option since there is always time to find at least 20 minutes. It may be at 5:00 am, or during lunch, or while catching the news in the evening, but in most circumstances, there will be an opportunity to fit at least a short workout into your schedule. You must be very honest with yourself. If you have 30 minutes to watch TV, you have time to exercise. Challenge yourself to be as healthy as you have the potential to be.

All the research confirms that self-monitoring tends to help people stick to a diet/exercise routine. It can serve as an early trip-wire. If you are writing down your workouts every day, and writing down “no workout” on days when you skip, you will be able to see when you are slacking off. Because of our human tendency to lie to ourselves about working out, we might not see that we’ve stopped until it’s too late. Research shows that when a person stops exercising for a full week, it is generally six months until they get started again. If you can see your logbook everyday it will tell you if you need to put on those shoes and exercise. Don’t let an entire week go by without getting a workout in, or you may be in trouble.

In your log book, you will indicate the activity you participated in, the time you spent doing it, the reps and weights you used, and/or your speed or pace, if appropriate. It is helpful to devise a rating system, such as a scale from 1 to 5, to rate your overall experience. When you achieve a 5, take note of the factors that contributed to such a great workout so you can recreate them.

There are several types of fitness logs from which to choose. There are exercise logs available for purchase at most major book stores, and they come in many different sizes and prices. There are plenty of free fitness logs available for download online, as well. Just Google “free workout [or fitness] log” and download the one you like. Fitness tracker apps, such as MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, for your computer or smartphone are quite popular, and many of them are either free or available for only a few dollars. The advantage to using an app to log your workouts is the ease of entering data. All of your exercises, routes, and preferences can be entered beforehand, and keeping up with your log involves just a few keystrokes. The same goes for social network fitness sites that are specifically for tracking workouts and connecting with other athletes, such DailyMile, MapMyFitness, Spark People, and Garmin, to name a few. Many are free, and they are very useful for two reasons: 1) it is easy to see progress over time via charts and graphs these sites can generate from your logged data and 2) you’ll be a part of an online community of athletes who represent all age groups and people of every shape, size, and fitness level imaginable. The encouragement and camaraderie that comes from connecting with these other athletes are priceless motivators.


Building and maintaining a consistent exercise regimen can be challenging. Use these tips to your advantage. Don’t strive for perfection. If 9 times out of 10, you do your workout, you’ll be just fine. Develop the voice within yourself that says “I need to exercise today,” and be accountable to yourself.


Make sure to check out Part 2 of “Beginning a Consistent Exercise Program” in the next issue of NHR. Here the author provides motivational tips and discusses goal setting and common pitfall and how to avoid them.

This article was excerpted and adapted with permission from The Emotional First Aid Kit: A Guide to Life after Bariatric Surgery, Second Edition by Cynthia Alexander, PsyD. Copyright © 2009 Matrix Medical Communications.

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