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Exercise - getting started


Expert reviewer, Dr Stephen Thompson, Sport & Exercise Medicine Consultant, and Caroline Wood, Head of Behavioural Insights at Bupa UK
Next review due January 2024

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 how to get started. But it may be easier than you think. Here we give you tips and advice for how to start exercising.

What’s stopping you?

If you’re not currently very active, there might be a number of reasons why. Lack of time, energy and motivation are some of the most common things that put people off. Having a long-term health condition might also make you feel more cautious. Or, it may just be that you don’t know what to do – or how to go about it.

If you want to get more active, start by thinking about what barriers you may have to exercising and how you can overcome them.

  • If you struggle with finding time to exercise, the best thing to do is try to make it part of your normal routine. If you work, can you fit exercise in first thing in the morning, at lunchtime or later in the evening? Think about how you can move more generally throughout the day, rather than finding time for a long workout.
  • If you feel like you’re too tired to exercise, think about the time of day when you’re likely to have the most energy. Plan ahead, so you’ve eaten well (but not too recently) and are well rested.
  • If you find exercise boring, think about what you can do to make it more enjoyable. You might find it helps to ‘couple’ your exercise with something you want to do – such as listening to music or a podcast while walking or running. Would you find it more enjoyable to join a group rather than exercising alone? Or perhaps it’s time to try something different. See our section below for ideas of types of exercise you can do.
  • Perhaps you feel self-conscious about exercising or don’t think you’re “good enough”. It’s all about starting small. You’ll gradually build up your confidence as well as what you’re able to do – and the sense of achievement when you do will make it all worthwhile!
  • Not having the right equipment or facilities might put you off, but you don’t need to spend a fortune on this. For walking or running, for instance, you’ll just need a decent pair of walking shoes or trainers and clothing to keep you warm and dry.
  • Having a long-term health condition needn’t mean that you can’t exercise. In fact, it’s often beneficial for your health. You might just need to take it slower, or adapt what you do. For more information, see our section, What if I have a health condition?

What sort of exercise should I do?

Exercise doesn’t have to be a structured session that you struggle to fit into your day. The key is to start small, and do activities that you enjoy and can easily fit into your everyday life. As a first step, think about how you can be more active generally – whether it's walking rather than driving, taking the stairs or doing the gardening.

To get the most health benefits though, you want to do something that’s at least moderate intensity – that means it gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster. It may be that you’re already quite active, but just not quite doing it at the intensity needed to benefit your health.

Here are a few ideas for different activities you can try – if one thing doesn’t suit, chances are something else will.

  • Go for a bike ride around the park – getting family or friends involved too if you can, to keep you motivated.
  • Go for a brisk walk – make it more interesting by listening to some new music or a podcast while you walk, or if possible, walk with a friend.
  • Check out exercise classes and routines you can follow online – all from the comfort of your own home!
  • If you have young children, think about activities you can do as a family – such as bowling, ice-skating or kicking a ball around in the park.
  • Challenge friends to a game of badminton, tennis or squash.
  • Try aquarobics – it’s a good activity for everybody as the water supports your weight.
  • Head out for a day hiking in the country.
  • Give yoga or Pilates a try. They’re great for flexibility, strength and posture.

As well as exercises that get your heart and lungs working (aerobic exercise), it’s also important to do different types of exercise. For instance, aim to do activities that build up muscle strength at least twice a week – as this will help to maintain your physical function as you get older. This can be anything from lifting weights to carrying heavy shopping. Exercises that improve your range of motion (flexibility) and balance are also important, especially if you’re over 65.

Many activities incorporate several of these things, so you don’t need to pick separate types of exercise for each one. Just aim for a wide range of different activities if you can. This will help to keep you interested too!

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How much exercise should I do?

Any amount of exercise you do will be beneficial to your health. So even if you only do a little bit to start with, it’s better than nothing. In fact, you’ll gain the most benefit if you’re currently not doing a lot.

As a start, aim to cut down on periods where you’re inactive as much as possible – even if this just means breaking up periods of sitting down with some light activity. When you’re ready to get started with more activity, go slow at first and gradually increase the amount or intensity of activity you do, based on what feels right for you. Everyone is different and will progress at their own pace. If you try to do too much too quickly, you risk an injury, or losing motivation if you’re finding it too difficult.

Once you’re used to doing some exercise, you can think about building it up. You’ll gain the most health benefits if you aim for the following targets, over the course of a week.

  • At least 150 minutes (two-and-a-half hours) of moderate-intensity activity (anything that gets you warm and a little out of breath – like a brisk walk, cycling or heavy gardening).

OR

  • Seventy-five minutes (an hour-and-a-quarter) of vigorous-intensity activity (where your breathing and heart rate are much faster, and you struggle to talk without pausing for breath). Examples include running, aerobics or swimming.

OR

  • Even shorter durations of very vigorous-intensity activity (such as sprinting or stair climbing, which you can only do in short bursts).

OR

  • A combination of moderate-, vigorous- and very vigorous-intensity activity.

If these amounts sound like a lot, don’t worry – you can break them down across the week however you like. For instance, you might choose to have five 30-minute walks during the week, or 10 shorter ones. Or you can combine different levels of exercise – maybe having one or two 20-minute running sessions or a 40-minute fitness class, alongside walking or cycling on other days. See our section on Weekly exercise for beginners below for more inspiration!

HIIT (high intensity interval training) is an increasingly popular type of exercise that involves short bursts of high-intensity activity alternating with short bouts of light exercise. HIIT can help to improve your overall fitness, and a real bonus is that it doesn’t take very long. You can even follow a HIIT workout at home so it’s easy to fit into a busy day.

Weekly exercise for beginners

If you’re thinking you can’t possibly fit activity into your lifestyle, you might be surprised by what you can achieve. These examples show you how you could build it up across a week – but don’t forget, you can adapt it to suit you too.

Example A

This example incorporates moderate-intensity activity only and splits it quite evenly across the week.

  • Monday – Brisk walk or bike ride (20 minutes)
  • Tuesday – Housework or gardening (20 minutes)
  • Wednesday – Brisk walk (10 minutes), twice a day
  • Thursday – Online Yoga or Pilates (30 minutes)
  • Friday – Light activity only
  • Saturday – Kick-about with kids in the park (20 minutes)
  • Sunday – Bike ride or walk with friends or family (40 minutes)

Total: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise

Example B

This example incorporates a couple of vigorous-intensity exercise sessions, for those who feel ready to build up to it or prefer doing this type of exercise. You can see how this takes up less time overall, allowing for more days of light activity only – while still having the same health benefits.

  • Monday – Light activity only
  • Tuesday – Brisk walk (30 minutes)
  • Wednesday – Run (20 minutes)
  • Thursday – Light activity only
  • Friday – Light activity only
  • Saturday – Run (20 minutes)
  • Sunday – Bike ride or walk with family (40 minutes)

Total: 70 minutes moderate-intensity + 40 minutes vigorous-intensity exercise

Remember, these are just examples of how you might build up your exercise – you can adjust days, times, or swap in other activities to suit you. And don’t forget, on days where you’re not doing moderate or vigorous exercise, it’s still important to be as active as you can. For instance, walking when possible and reducing the time you spend sitting.

Set goals for exercise

It’s a good idea to set some goals when you start exercising to give you something to work towards and help keep you motivated. Think about what you’re aiming to get out of the effort you’re going to be putting in. Make sure you pick a goal that is personally important to you, rather than being something that you feel you should be doing, or others want you to do. You’re more likely to achieve it if it really matters to you.

Making your goals SMART can help you to achieve them.

  • Specific – say exactly what you will do. For example, you’ll go to the gym twice a week before work or you’ll get out for a walk every day.
  • 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.

Keeping motivated

It can be easy enough to set yourself a goal, but harder to stick with it, especially if you’re feeling tired or stressed or are very busy. It’s important to plan ahead and think of potential challenges that may arise, as well as things that will help you to stay motivated.

The following ideas 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. Step counters, 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 ‘walk to run’ 5km plan.
  • You might find it helpful to join an organised group – such as a walking, running or cycling club. Knowing you have a commitment to do something with other people can be a great motivator.
  • Bring out your competitive spirit. Enter yourself into a charity run or event so you have something to aim for, or join a sports league that has regular fixtures.
  • Think ahead about potential barriers that may come up, and how you’ll deal with these. For instance, if you can’t exercise at your planned time, or if you have an injury. Having a strategy in place in advance to avoid or manage barriers can help you to achieve your goal.
  • That being said, don’t be too hard on yourself if you have an ‘off’ day (or week!) We all have times when we let things slip. It doesn’t mean you have to give up; just get back on track as soon as you feel ready.
  • Be sure to reward yourself when you achieve your goals.

How to warm up and cool down

Warming up and cooling down can improve your performance and prevent injuries. The movements in these videos can help you to get ready before you exercise and stretch your muscles when you’ve finished.

What if I have a health condition?

If you have a long-term health condition, it’s understandable that you might feel anxious about exercising. But actually, for most conditions, it’s usually best to keep as active as you can. It might mean you can manage your condition better, as well as improving your overall health and mental wellbeing. It may be that you just need to build up to things more slowly, or adapt what you do.

If you have specific concerns about a health condition, ask your GP or physiotherapist about what you can and can’t do. They can recommend the activities and exercise that are most suitable for you.

Lots of people find that being more active improves both their physical and mental health.



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Related information

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  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, January 2021
    Expert reviewer, Dr Stephen Thompson, Sport & Exercise Medicine Consultant, and Caroline Wood, Head of Behavioural Insights at Bupa UK
    Next review due January 2024

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