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Exercise - getting started

Regular exercise is an important part of leading a healthy lifestyle. If you’re a beginner or returning to exercise after some time out, it can be hard to know where to start. But it may be easier than you think. Here we give you tips and advice for how to start exercising.

Looking after your bones and muscles
Dr Tross talks about looking after your bones and muscles


  • How much exercise should I do? How much exercise should I do?

    The UK Department of Health has set down minimum recommendations for how much exercise different age groups should aim to do. Don’t be put off if these seem a lot. If you’re just getting started, go slow at first and gradually increase the amount and intensity of activity you do by a couple of minutes each day to build up your fitness. If you try to do too much too quickly, you might lose motivation and stop. Even doing 10 minutes of exercise at a time can provide benefits to your health. But to get all the benefits of exercise, each week adults should eventually aim to do:

    • at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate intensity exercise in bouts of 10 minutes or more
    • an hour-and-a-quarter of vigorous intensity activity
    • a combination of both
    • activities that build up muscle strength, such as lifting weights or exercises using your body weight, (push-ups and sit-ups for example), at least twice a week

    Moderate intensity means:

    • your breathing is faster
    • your heart rate is faster
    • you feel warmer

    Vigorous intensity means:

    • your breathing is much deeper and more rapid
    • your heart rate increases quickly

    It’s also important to do some regular exercises to improve your range of motion. Flexibility exercises involve slowly stretching your muscle groups without jerking or bouncing. Do some simple stretches to get your body moving at least two or three times a week to stretch all the major muscles in your upper and lower body. You can do these in your front room and they’re a great way to get started.

    If you would like to read about the exercise guidelines for adults over 65, see our information on: Exercise for older people.

  • Weekly exercise plans for beginners Weekly exercise plans for beginners

    There are plenty of ways to pack activity into your week so you’ll probably reach the target before you know it.

    Here are some sample exercise routines to achieve them.

    Exercise How long? How often?
    Walking (brisk) 30 minutes 5 times a week
    Walking (brisk) 15 minutes 2 times a day, 5 days a week
    Running 25 minutes 3 times a week
    Skipping 15 minutes 6 times a week
    and running
    30 minutes
    30 minutes
    2 times a week
    2 times a week
    Cycling (with few hills)...
    ...and swimming (fast)
    30 minutes
    30 minutes

    2 times a week
    2 times a week

    "I’ve joined a running club that I go to once a week. I was a bit wary at first as I’m a total beginner but they were so welcoming and I’ve really surprised myself with what I’ve achieved. I won’t be doing a marathon any time soon but I’ve signed up to do a 5km race with some friends from the club." Becca, doctor

    Image of Bupa's walk-to-run 5k running programme


    Please click on the image above to open a larger version of the 5km walk to run programme PDF

  • Set goals for exercise Set goals for exercise

    It’s a good idea to set some goals when you start exercising. Think about what you’re aiming to get out of the effort you’re going to be putting in. Making your goals SMART can help you.

    • Specific – say exactly what you will do. For example, you’ll go to the gym twice a week before work.
    • Measurable – if you can’t measure your goal, you won’t know if you’ve achieved it. For example, if you ride a bike, time how long it takes to cycle a set distance and keep track of how this improves.
    • Attainable – your goal needs to be something you can and are willing to do. Although ‘I’ll run a marathon by my next birthday’ is admirable, if you’ve not run before and don’t enjoy it, it’s unlikely to happen. Why not sign up to a 5km in three months’ time instead?
    • Realistic – something you can do with the resources you have. Although it might be nice to have a personal trainer, perhaps a group exercise class is more in line with your finances.
    • Time-based – give yourself a sensible timeframe in which to meet your goal. For example, try to be able to swim a mile after a month of regular swimming sessions.

    Having goals is also great for reminding yourself how much you’ve improved and tracking your progress – think how great you’ll feel if just a few months after you start jogging, you can complete a 5km run. Keep a record of your exercise and remember to celebrate your progress achievements – big and small.

  • Make exercise fun Make exercise fun

    If you’re put off by the thought of exercising at first, choose an activity you know you’ll enjoy. There are lots of different types of exercise to choose from and you don’t have to go to the gym to get the health benefits of exercise. It can also be helpful to join a group of like-minded people, such as a running club or football team.

    If running puts you off, try an aerobics or dance class instead. Or perhaps yoga or tai chi is more your style? Start small and have a go at a few things until you find something that suits you. Over time, exercise will become more of a habit and a part of your routine.

    We’ve put together some of our favourites to give you ideas – both moderate and vigorous intensity depending on how energetic you’re feeling. 

    Moderate intensity Vigorous intensity
    Take a cycle around the park with the family.  Try out a skipping rope. 
    Go for a brisk walk – make it more interesting by listening to some new music or a podcast while you walk. Go for a run.
    Go for a game of badminton with friends.  Swimming – try having a go at front crawl to really get your heart going. 
    Try aquarobics – it’s a good activity for everybody as the water supports your weight.   Aerobics will get your blood flowing.
    Go for a bike ride – for a moderate level of exercise, stick to a steady pace below 10 miles per hour.  Hockey – this can be a great social opportunity.
    Play an active game with your kids or grandkids.  Cycling up hills – to keep going, think of the sense of achievement you’ll have once you reach the top!
    Gardening – mow the lawn to make your outdoor spaces look enticing.  Basketball – you could sign up to a league.
    Head out for a day hiking in the country. Football – another great social sport.
    Have a clean-up such as vacuuming – it all counts!  Shovelling or carrying heavy loads – get your jobs done and a good workout at the same time.
    Go dancing – it doesn’t have to be a formal class, put some music on and dance around the living room. Go rollerblading or ice-skating at a brisk pace. 
    Play a round of golf.  Try lifting some weights in the gym. 
    Take on your friends in doubles tennis. Play singles tennis for a more intense workout. 


    Once you’ve chosen an exercise you enjoy, you need to stay motivated and stick with it. The following may help.

    • Put your goal on paper and stick it on the fridge so you have a constant reminder of what you’re aiming to achieve.
    • Use mobile phone apps to measure your progress. Structured exercise plans as well as personal trainer apps are freely available.
    • Make a structured plan to follow. We have a range of running training programmes for different distances – if you’re just starting out, try our walking programme or ‘walk to run’ 5km plan.
    • Bring out your competitive spirit. Enter yourself into a charity run or obstacle race so you have something to aim for, or join a sports league that has regular fixtures.
  • Build exercise into your life Build exercise into your life

    You’re likely to find it easier to do physical activity if you build it into your everyday life. Try to spend as little time as possible being inactive. You can include daily activities, structured exercise and sport, or a combination of these, into your weekly goal. It all counts. Here’s just a selection of ideas for beginners to break down those barriers and get you more active without realising it.

    • If you have children and they take up the majority of your time, why not exercise with them? You could go on a family bike ride for example, or go bowling or ice-skating. Or if they’re younger, take them to an indoor soft play area and run around with them.
    • If you have a busy work life, fit exercise around it. Head out early and hit the gym before work or wind down with a swim afterwards. It can be a great way to process the day.
    • Walk or cycle to work or with your kids to school a couple of days or more a week.
    • Instead of watching TV in the evening, walk to and from the cinema to watch a film.
    • Make the most of even small opportunities to be active – use the stairs, do manual tasks.
    • Walk instead of driving for short journeys, or get off the bus one or two stops earlier than usual.
    • Build some activities into your weekend – do some DIY or gardening.
    • Join an organised bike ride, running club or walking group. Knowing you have a commitment to do something with other people can be a great motivator.
    • Keep in mind why you decided to start exercising in the first place and why you want to get active and use it as motivation
  • One-week exercise plan One-week exercise plan

    If you’re still thinking you can’t possibly fit activity in to your lifestyle, you might be surprised by what you can achieve. See how easy it can be in an average week for a working person who commutes to the office. This example shows you can smash the target, just in everyday life!

    Day Activity Time
    Monday Walk to the station and back;
    step out of the office to get some lunch
    20 minutes
    10 minutes
    Tuesday Walk to the station and back;
    nip to the dry cleaners after work
    20 minutes
    15 minutes
    Wednesday Walk to the station and back;
    go to a yoga class after work
    20 minutes
    40 minutes
    Thursday Walk to the station and back 20 minutes
    Friday Day off
    Saturday Vacuum the house 30 minutes
    Sunday Go for bike ride 60 minutes
    Total 235 minutes

    “I’m a freelancer so make sure I get out of the house at least once a day for a brisk walk with friends who also work from home. It’s valuable contact with others and having a dog that demands walking helps!” Rachael, freelance editor

  • What if I have a health condition? What if I have a health condition?

    If you have a health condition, such as osteoarthritis and back pain, it’s understandable if you feel anxious about exercising. But actually it’s usually best to keep active to help treat your symptoms. Research has shown that if you have osteoarthritis in your knee, exercise reduces pain and improves how well your knee joint works. It’s also shown that it might help with hip pain too, and possibly with how well your hip joint works. You might prefer to start with strengthening exercises and build up to something more lively that gets your heart rate up. Both of these are thought to be better than bed rest or steering clear of activity.

    Walking is very safe but if you have specific concerns about health conditions such as osteoarthritis, ask your physiotherapist or a sports physician about what you can and can’t do. They can recommend the activities and exercise that are most suitable for you.

    And remember, any amount of exercise is good for your physical and mental health. 

  • Other helpful websites Other helpful websites

    Further information



    • Disability in older people. PatientPlus., last checked 28 January 2016
    • Physical activity benefits infographic for adults and older people. GOV.UK., last updated 29 June 2017
    • Start active, stay active. GOV.UK., last updated 11 March 2016
    • Overview of exercise. The MSD Manuals., last full review/revision October 2016
    • Therapeutic exercise. Medscape., updated 3 January 2016
    • How to set goals that work. British Heart Foundation., accessed 3 January 2018
    • Physical activity for a healthy weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., page last reviewed May 15 2015
    • How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., page last reviewed June 4 2015
    • Measuring physical activity intensity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., page last reviewed 4 June 2015
    • Personal communication, Dr Leon Creaney, Sports & Exercise Medicine Consultant, 15 February 2018
    • Osteoarthritis. BMJ Best Practice., last updated 24 November 2017
    • Hochberg MC, Altman RD, April KT, et al. American College of Rheumatology 2012 recommendations for the use of nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic therapies in osteoarthritis of the hand, hip, and knee. Arthritis Care Res 2012; 64(4):465–74. doi:10.1002/acr.21596
    • Why is exercise important? Arthritis Research UK., accessed 27 February 2018
    • Exercise for osteoarthritis. Arthritis Research UK., accessed 27 February 2018
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    Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, February 2018
    Expert reviewer, Dr Leon Creaney, Sports & Exercise Medicine Consultant
    Next review due February 2021

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