How to Start Working Out, According to Trainers

It's all about taking baby steps.

Exercise Tips
Photo: Getty Images

Whether it's to combat election stress or anxiety over the pandemic, exercise is consistently offered up by mental health experts as an incredibly powerful coping mechanism. But if you haven't been in the habit of working out on the reg, simply starting (or re-starting) a workout routine can be tough — whatever your end goal may be.

It's easy to get overwhelmed, but fitness experts say the number one tip for getting back into a workout routine is to take baby steps. “Going hard or going home isn’t going to work,” says Sylvia Nasser, a certified personal trainer and Equinox group fitness instructor. “Start slow, start basic. Don’t go so hard that your body will hurt the next — that'll discourage you.” Instead, Nasser says, you’ll want to assess your progress over time and gradually increase your workout intensity as the weeks go on.

Beyond simply easing in, there are some tried-and-true methods for implementing a routine that actually sticks — and not burning out or hurting yourself along the way.

Here, personal trainers offer their top tips for starting a fitness routine, the best workouts for beginners, and — music to our ears —share the importance of rest days.

1. Be clear about your fitness goals.

Before you get moving, make sure you have a firm understanding of what you hope to accomplish with your workout routine, says Justin Seedman, a certified personal trainer and health coach. "Are you looking to lose weight, firm up, run a marathon — or just start building good health routines?" he says. "By answering these questions, you can best decide what kind of exercise to do and how often to do it."

To help you get started and maximize your motivation, try to focus on the benefits you'll feel immediately, suggests Brooke Nicole Smith, Ph.D., a mind-body coach and former cognitive psychology researcher. For example, exercise because it feels good, calms your nerves, and helps you sleep, rather than in service of an elusive future goal, she explains.

2. Find a form of exercise you actually enjoy.

When you're first getting into the groove of working out, it might take a bit of trial and error to find something you enjoy doing, says Shana Schneider, a certified group fitness instructor and the founder of Fitstyle by Shana. But despite the outdated concept that gains can only come from pain, actually having a good time is an important part of sticking with a workout routine long enough to see results. Plus, she says, there's an added bonus to having fun while working out: "When the burn comes (and it will), you might not even notice it as much if you're having a good time!"

The good news: Most workout apps offer free trials, and there are plenty of free workouts available on YouTube and Instagram (and here on InStyle!), so you can test out a bunch of options to see what clicks. Between barre, yoga, strength training, and cycling classes, or just lacing up your shoes and hitting the pavement, there’s something out there for you.

3. Just go for a walk.

Many people got into the habit of taking walks during the pandemic to get some fresh air and keep their mental health in check. If this is you, you've already taken the first step (no pun intended) towards starting a workout routine. "I know walking doesn't sound as sexy as some of the other fitness routines out there, but it's one of the easiest to start doing," Schneider says. "You can easily track your progress by counting those steps or seeing how long you can actually go for, and increase the intensity on your own simply by changing your route, adding in a hill, or increasing your speed."

Want to add a fun challenge? Consider snagging a Fitbit or another fitness device, and connect with friends or family. Not only will you add a bit of friendly competition to your routine, but you’re also more likely to get those steps in when you have other people holding you accountable.

4. Don't forget to stretch before you work out.

A lot of people know stretching is important to a fitness routine, but they don't know the right way to stretch, says Demi Dee, a trainer and founder of The Knockout Room.

If you're starting a workout routine, keep this in mind to prevent injury: Before working out, you'll want to do some dynamic stretching, which involves "active movement where you take your body through a full range of motion," — such as hip circles, bodyweight lunges, and arm circles, Dee says. "Ideally, the warm-up should reflect the motions that you will do in your exercise routine but at a lower intensity."

5. Focus on post-workout recovery, too.

Post-workout, when your muscles are warm, opt for static stretching, which involves holding a stretch for about 30 seconds, Dee says. "At this point, you want to stretch your muscle fibers to increase your overall flexibility and to prevent lactic acid accumulation” — which can be the culprit behind that next-day all-over-sore feeling you get after a tough workout.

In addition to easing into exercise and taking the time to stretch, ice baths can also help prevent lactic acid buildup and the muscle soreness that comes with it.

6. Slowly ease into running.

If you're looking to start running, take it slow at first, says Stephanie Blozy, owner of Fleet Feet, a running store in West Hartford, Connecticut. "In the beginning, it doesn’t matter how far or how fast you go, just that you go," she says. "It can take six to 10 weeks for your body to adapt to the work running requires."

Blozy recommends starting with 20 minutes (about 1.5 miles), alternating run/walk intervals if necessary, for three days per week. Two additional days should be filled with 30 to 60 minutes of cross-training (e.g. swimming, biking, lifting weights) and the remaining two days should be rest days. Blozy adds: "As you get into the habit of exercise, aim for a three-days-on, one-day-off routine."

7. Splurge on cute workout clothes.

You dress for other occasions when you want to feel confident, like a night out with friends or an important work event, and the same should go for working out, Nasser says.

“Buying cute workout clothes will help you feel good," she says — and when you feel good, you’re more likely to want to stick with your workout routine.

8. Don't shy away from the term 'beginner'.

If you’ve just joined a gym, the sheer number of exercise machines and available classes can be intimidating. That’s why Amanda Murdock, Daily Burn’s director of fitness and an ACE-certified personal trainer, recommends keeping things simple and choosing beginner-friendly options. “Walking on the treadmill and using the elliptical machine are always safe options,” she says.

In addition, many boutique studios — like barre or Pilates — and gyms offer workouts for beginners at introductory rates so you can get a feel for the movement before you go into a more intense version of that class, Murdock says.

9. Pencil in your workouts.

Whether you're a beginner or have been at the game for some time, it's important to stick with a schedule, says Cary Williams, CEO of Boxing & Barbells.

"You will be far more successful with your workouts and the results you get if you are on a set schedule," she says. "If you have more energy in the morning try to get in your workout before work. If working out in the evening fits better in your schedule, then get it done after work. As long as you stay consistent, you will see the results you are looking for."

And that means treating your workouts as a non-negotiable. If group workouts are your thing, then consider signing up for a month-long challenge through your favorite boutique studio, or through a digital community (like Tone It Up or SWEAT) to keep you accountable.

Another motivator? Most studios will charge you for a missed class, which might be just what you need to get your workout in on the days you feel like skipping.

10. Consider your heart rate and RPE.

Once you do find the time in your schedule, you want to make sure you're being effective. In order to assess whether you're getting the most bang for your buck, consider your heart rate and rate of perceived exertion (RPE), or how hard you feel the workout is, explains Amanda Barton, a NASM-certified personal trainer.

“On a scale of one to 10 (one being sitting on the couch and 10 being, ‘OMG I'm gonna die’), where does your walking, for instance, come into play?” Barton says. “Could you speed up the pace? Or add in intervals of 30 seconds fast pace, 30 seconds recovery?”

By considering heart-pumping intervals, or even breaking to do jumping jacks before hopping back on the treadmill, you can not only shake things up, but make sure you are making the most of the time you set aside for exercise.

11. Relax your expectations.

When you're starting a workout routine, it's easy to get discouraged if you don't see results as quickly as you'd like — but the most important thing is to simply show up for a workout and nix expectations, Murdock says.

In fact, even as you move past a beginner level, giving yourself wiggle room is key to success. “I go in and do the best that I can on any given day,” she says. “Sometimes your body is tired or hormonal and that may not be the workout you set a PR, but it’s still a valid workout.”

On other days, of course, you’ll crush it, Murdock says, and those are the results you keep in mind on days you’re feeling less than your best.

12. Use positive self-talk.

You're likely to feel a burst of inspiration when you first start working out. But hanging onto that motivation can be a struggle, especially if you aren't mindful of the way you talk to yourself, says Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer in San Francisco.

"Think of five positive thoughts each morning about your health and wellness and say them out loud," she suggests. That can include: "I am going to do the best I can in my workout today" or "I know I can continue to make healthy choices and see results."

"Positive self-talk can help us stay encouraged when we don't feel like going to the gym," Roser says. While it's perfectly OK if weight-loss happens to be one of your workout goals, remember that body-shaming yourself won't benefit you in the long-run. You know the saying: "Work out because you love your body, not because you hate it."

13. Don't underestimate the importance of rest days.

Finding success with a workout routine also means knowing how to incorporate proper rest time, Roser says.

"If you're training back to back days, you'll want to work opposite muscle groups to prevent injury and see the best results," she says, adding that, for example, you won't want to follow up leg day with a spin class the next day. "You want to give your muscles ample rest time and spacing out your workouts will help you achieve this."

Roser recommends planning your workouts so that full-body strength or HIIT days are spaced with cardio days in between and a rest day (or two) thrown into the mix. On rest days, you’ll want to give your muscles a little TLC with foam rolling or restorative yoga, both of which can help prep your body for your next workout.

Another vital part of muscle recovery? Sleep. You’ll want to get your recommended seven to eight hours per night — not just on rest days, but every day — to ensure proper muscle recovery and to keep your mental game sharp.

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