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Exercise - getting started


Expert reviewer, Dr Leon Creaney, Sports & Exercise Medicine Consultant
Next review due February 2021

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.

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
    OR
  • an hour-and-a-quarter of vigorous intensity activity
    OR
  • a combination of both
    AND
  • 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

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: Walking (brisk)
How long?: 30 minutes
How often?: 5 times a week

Exercise: Walking (brisk)
How long?: 15 minutes
How often?: 3 times a week

Exercise: Running
How long?: 25 minutes
How often?: 5 times a week

Exercise: Skipping
How long?: 15 minutes
How often?: 6 times a week

Exercise: Walking ... … and running
How long?: 30 minutes each
How often?: 2 times a week each

Exercise: Cycling (with few hills)... and swimming (fast)
How long?: 30 minutes each
How often?: 2 times a week each


"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

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

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

  • Take a cycle around the park with the family.
  • Go for a brisk walk – make it more interesting by listening to some new music or a podcast while you walk.
  • Go for a game of badminton with friends.
  • Try aquarobics – it’s a good activity for everybody as the water supports your weight.
  • Go for a bike ride – for a moderate level of exercise, stick to a steady pace below 10 miles per hour.
  • Play an active game with your kids or grandkids.
  • Gardening – mow the lawn to make your outdoor spaces look enticing.
  • Head out for a day hiking in the country.
  • Have a clean-up such as vacuuming – it all counts!
  • Go dancing – it doesn’t have to be a formal class, put some music on and dance around the living room.
  • Play a round of golf.
  • Take on your friends in doubles tennis.

Vigorous intensity

  • Try out a skipping rope.
  • Go for a run.
  • Swimming – try having a go at front crawl to really get your heart going.
  • Aerobics will get your blood flowing.
  • Hockey – this can be a great social opportunity.
  • Cycling up hills – to keep going, think of the sense of achievement you’ll have once you reach the top!
  • Basketball – you could sign up to a league.
  • Football – another great social sport.
  • Shovelling or carrying heavy loads – get your jobs done and a good workout at the same time.
  • Go rollerblading or ice-skating at a brisk pace.
  • Try lifting some weights in the gym.
  • 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.

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!

Monday

Activity: Walk to the station and back

Time: 20 minutes

Activity: Step out of the office to get some lunch

Time: 10 minutes

Tuesday

Activity: Walk to the station and back

Time: 20 minutes

Activity: Nip to the dry cleaners after work

Time: 15 minutes

Wednesday

Activity: Walk to the station and back

Time: 20 minutes

Activity: Go to yoga class after work

Time: 40 minutes

Thursday

Activity: Walk to the station and back

Time: 20 minutes

Friday

Day off

Saturday

Activity: Vacuum the house

Time: 30 minutes

Sunday

Activity: Go for bike ride

Time: 60 minutes

Total minutes: 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?

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.


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Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Disability in older people. PatientPlus. patient.info/patientplus, last checked 28 January 2016
    • Physical activity benefits infographic for adults and older people. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, last updated 29 June 2017
    • Start active, stay active. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, last updated 11 March 2016
    • Overview of exercise. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision October 2016
    • Therapeutic exercise. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 3 January 2016
    • How to set goals that work. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 3 January 2018
    • Physical activity for a healthy weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, page last reviewed May 15 2015
    • How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, page last reviewed June 4 2015
    • Measuring physical activity intensity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, page last reviewed 4 June 2015
    • Personal communication, Dr Leon Creaney, Sports & Exercise Medicine Consultant, 15 February 2018
    • Osteoarthritis. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, 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. www.arthritisresearchuk.org, accessed 27 February 2018
    • Exercise for osteoarthritis. Arthritis Research UK. www.arthritisresearchuk.org, accessed 27 February 2018
  • 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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