Winter can be an especially challenging time to start or maintain a fitness program, but our bodies are built for motion. Regular physical activity helps the body achieve peak performance. Everyone from the Olympic athlete to the 10-minute mall walker can experience benefits from exercise. The optimal rewards of exercise are gained by engaging in 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise each day, but improvements in flexibility and endurance, as well as lower blood pressure, also can be achieved with 5-minute bursts of activity such as walking up several flights of stairs.
Do you want to lubricate your joints, massage your heart, strengthen your bones, elevate your mood, boost your metabolism, reduce stress, or enhance your immune system? Try exercise! Exercise lowers cholesterol and blood sugar, melts fat, and slows down the aging process. Exercise also decreases the risk of having a heart attack or developing breast and colon cancer. Thus, exercise can be considered as a form of detoxification for the body or as a way to give the body a daily tune-up. With all these benefits from exercise, who would want to just sit all day?
How Do You Start an Exercise Program?
- Check with your physician to determine what types of physical activities are safe for you to engage in.
- Make a list of physical activities that you enjoy. Try to include cardiovascular or aerobic exercise — for example, walking, running, biking, swimming, dancing or jumping rope — and muscle-strengthening activities — such as lifting light weights or doing push-ups — into your routine on different days. Walking is always a good option to include in a fitness program, because no special skills or equipment is required.
- Include a variety of activities to avoid boredom, and use different muscle groups. Make sure the type and site of activities fit into your daily routine to lessen the hurdle of preparing for exercise.
- Strive to increase your physical activity throughout the day. Take 10-minute stretch breaks at work. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Take time to visualize yourself engaging in regular exercise and developing a fitter body that is ready to prevent and fight disease and to help you pursue your dreams.
- If you are just starting to exercise, begin with 15 to 20 minutes, three times a week.
- Do stretching exercises before and after any physical activity to prevent muscle strains.
How Do You Stay Motivated?
- Form the exercise habit. Consistency is one of the most important ingredients. Repetition of actions yields habits. Just as you have a time slot for brushing your teeth, make an appointment for exercise.
- Keep an exercise diary. Record the type and duration of exercise. Also, keep track of your periods of inactivity. The diary will serve to reinforce and help you visualize your accomplishments.
- Be patient with yourself. Focus on your successes, not your failures, and reward yourself. Choose rewards other than food.
- Enlist the support of family and friends. Teaming up with others to exercise allows you to encourage each other. Keep your friends updated about your progress. Friends also can applaud and reward your accomplishments.
- Set measurable and reasonable goals. For example, if you walk for 30 minutes three times a week, you might consider adding a 2-minute running period to each session.
- Finally, have fun. Distractions like talking to someone, deeply inhaling fresh air, or reading a magazine can soothe your mind and allow you to enjoy the sweat, pulsating heart and contracting muscles of the body in motion.
Paulette Chandler, M.D., M.P.H., is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.