How do I start exercising if I’m not active?

Bupa Logo at the reception
David Baines is a Lead Physician and Sarah Griffiths is a Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK
27 September 2023
Next review due September 2026

Regular physical activity has lots of health benefits. But if you’re a beginner or returning to exercise after some time out, it can be hard to know where to start. Don’t worry - becoming more active may be easier than you think. Here, we give you tips and advice for how to start exercising.

a group of people in an exercise class

How can I become more physically active?

If you’re not currently physically active, think about why that might be. Do you feel like you lack time, energy, or motivation? These are 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 to physical activity you may have, and how you can overcome them.

  • If you struggle with finding time - try to make exercise a 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 could move more 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 and hydrated.
  • 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.
  • 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 lot of money to keep fit. 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.

What sort of exercise should I do?

Exercise doesn’t have to be a structured session that you struggle to fit into your day. Here are a few ideas for different activities you can try – if one thing doesn’t suit, something else might.

  • 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 aqua aerobics – it’s a good activity for everybody as the water supports your weight.
  • Give yoga or Pilates a try. They’re great for flexibility, strength, and balance.

As well as exercises that get your heart and lungs working (aerobic exercise), it’s also important to build up your muscle strength. This can involve anything from lifting weights to carrying heavy shopping.

Strength training (also known as resistance training) helps to maintain your physical function as you get older. Exercises that improve your range of motion (flexibility) and balance are also important, especially if you’re over 65.

How much physical activity should I do?

Any amount of physical activity is 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. This could mean breaking up periods of sitting down with some light activity, walking rather than driving, or taking the stairs rather than the lift. Or you could get off the bus or train one stop early, so that you walk further.

Go slowly at first and gradually increase the amount or intensity of activity you do, based on what feels right for you. Doing too much too quickly not only increases your risk of injury, but it may also be harder to maintain motivation in the long term. It’s easy to lose motivation if you find 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 at least 150 minutes (two-and-a-half hours) of moderate intensity activity a week.

This is anything that gets you warm and a little out of breath – like a brisk walk, cycling, or swimming.

If these amounts sound like a lot, don’t worry – you can break it down across the week however you like.

For example, the exercise routine below shows how you could fit some moderate-intensity activity into your lifestyle. Don’t forget, you can adapt this to suit you, too – you can adjust days, times, and activities as needed.

  • Monday – Brisk walk or bike ride (20 minutes).
  • Tuesday – Housework or gardening (20 minutes).
  • Wednesday – Brisk 10 minute walk, twice a day (20 minutes).
  • Thursday – Online yoga or Pilates (30 minutes).
  • Friday – Light activity only.
  • Saturday – Playing football 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

It’s important to listen to your body when you start to increase the duration and intensity of exercise.

You should warm up before and cool down after physical activity, to limit your risk of injury. And don’t push through the pain - this can also lead to injury.

If you have low energy, depressed mood, or sleep poorly, these could be signs that you’re taking things too fast. If this happens, make sure you get enough rest and that you’re eating enough.

What exercise goals should I set?

It’s a good idea to set some specific and realistic goals when you start exercising. These can give you something to work towards and help keep you motivated. Think about what you want to get out of the effort you put in – it’s fun to challenge yourself and get better at something!

Aiming to run a marathon is admirable, but if you’re new to running, why not sign up for a 5km race first? This is a more realistic and attainable short-term goal.

Having goals is also great for reminding yourself how much you’ve improved and tracking your progress. Keep a record of your exercise and remember to celebrate your wins – big and small.

How can I stay motivated to exercise?

It can be easy enough to set yourself a goal, but harder to stick with it, especially if you’re feeling tired, stressed, or 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 motivate you to stay physically active.

1. Use mobile phone apps to measure your progress

Step counters, structured exercise plans, and personal trainer apps are free to use. Couch to 5K is a popular choice for new runners. Or, if you have a smart watch or fitness tracker, you could use the functions on there.

2. Tell your friends and family about your plans

They can be a good source of support, and they might like to join you in going for a walk or to a gym class. They can also help keep you accountable! You don’t want to risk disappointing someone who’s interested to know how your run went, or if you enjoyed a class you’ve talked about.

3. Follow a structured plan or exercise programme

We have a range of running training programmes for different distances – and tips for if you’re just starting out.

4. Join an organised group

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. And a regular class can make exercise part of your routine, as well as introducing you to new people.

5. 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.

6. Don't be too hard on yourself

And remember, 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.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Bupa Logo at the reception
David Baines and Sarah Griffiths
David Baines is a Lead Physician and Sarah Griffiths is a Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK



Sheila Pinion, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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