Beginner’s Guide to Developing an Exercise Routine

Morgan Wharton and Caitlin Kennedy, B.A.

Updated June 2013

Exercise is one of NRC’s seven recommended ways to maximize your health. If you want to exercise but aren’t sure where to begin, we can help! If you feel like your daily life doesn’t allow you to get fit (not enough time, no money for a gym membership, etc.), we have some “work-arounds” that may help.

Benefits of Exercise

Everyone knows that exercise helps keep you healthy by preventing weight gain, but did you know that it also lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, and depression? Exercising to improve muscle strength improves balance, and reduces the risk of falling, fractures, and arthritis. Overall, regular exercise improves your chances of living a longer, healthier life1,2. Even people who have been diagnosed with cancer can benefit from exercise. Click here to read more how exercise can help cancer patients.

How much should I exercise?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week (such as walking quickly) or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity per week (such as running), plus two days of strength training (training with weights or resistance bands). If you haven’t been very active, start exercising at a low intensity, then slowly increase the amount and intensity of exercise each week.3

How do I create an exercise routine?

Regardless of your fitness goals, start small to avoid discouragement or burnout: if you set your initial goals too high and aim for perfection, you’ll be more likely to abandon your exercise plans before they improve your health. Follow these exercise routines from the CDC to create a balanced, varied routine.

To prevent injury, always start your workout with a good warm up-short aerobic activity followed by dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves moving different muscle groups through a full range of motion and is the best form of stretching before exercise because it warms up groups of muscles rather than individual muscles. Static stretching, such as holding a muscle in a position of resistance for up to 30 seconds, is helpful for improving flexibility and muscle imbalance over time, but is not beneficial just before exercising.4 Investing in good running shoes will also help with preventing injuries such as shin splints that can develop after running on hard surfaces with the wrong kind of footwear.

If you don’t feel up to completing a full workout or are too busy on a given day, even taking the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator, walking around while you make phone calls, or walking to work or during your break can make up your exercise for the day. Even if it’s a shorter, less intense workout, it’s always best to get some activity each day, and you might be more likely to continue if you get co-workers involved.2,5 Form a walking group and walk to work with people who live near you, or walk together on your daily breaks. If you don’t have a group of people to exercise with at work, consider using social media to benefit from peer pressure. You can download the HealthyShare app on Facebook to get people from your social network involved and use Nike+ to track your workouts and upload your progress to sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Keeping track of your fitness goals and exercise can help you form a routine until exercise becomes a habit. If you don’t want to use mobile technology to keep track of your exercising, click here to check out some tools designed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human services for other ways to track your fitness goals and routines.

In addition to running- and movement-based exercise, weight training is very valuable. If you enjoy weight lifting, joining a gym can add a financial incentive to working out: if you’ve already paid for a membership, you’ll have more reason to go and get your workout in! If you need more motivation to get to the gym, check out GymPact - you can get paid just for completing workouts at your gym! If you aren’t sure how to use the machines in the gym, check out these instructional videos and these tips for better technique.

Whether or not you go to a gym, there are plenty of ways to get a good workout at home! You can get a great workout with bodyweight exercises alone. Use this guide from the National Institutes of Health to begin resistance training and weight lifting at home. Investing in a jump rope, balance ball, medicine ball, resistance bands, and 5-pound dumbbells can give you more flexibility with your workouts. Variation is important to get the most benefits from exercise and prevent boredom from the same routines. The Nike Training Club app for smartphones has free workouts, sorted by difficulty, which can be done with these basic training tools. The app also tracks your progress and adds new workouts once you reach specific milestones based on the number of minutes you’ve exercised.

Signing up for a race is a great way to motivate you to begin an exercise routine. It gives you a deadline to work towards – the date of the race – and a concrete goal to train for – the length of the race.  A 5k is a great first race to train for because it’s only 3.14 miles. If you’re in the DC area, consider signing up for or supporting the Stop Cancer Now 5K Run/Walk on September 22, 2013. This 5K supports the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund, a charity that has been designated one of America’s best. You can even form a team and create a web page to honor a loved one and fundraise in his/her honor. (If you raise $350 or more, you can get his or her name on the race shirt that everyone wears!) Exercise with your team members and use the fundraiser for extra motivation to stick to your fitness goals! This 5K allows runners and walkers, so you can participate even if you can’t run all five kilometers by the date of the race. It’s perfect for participants of all ages, and you can even race with a stroller!

Even if you aren’t in the DC area, you can still register to participate in the race’s Virtual 5K–run the distance at home and submit your time online!

Avoiding the risks of exercise


Dehydration

People who exercise outside and do not drink enough water put themselves at risk for heat stroke and exhaustion. Drink plenty of water beginning the day before you exercise, and drink 10 ounces of water for every 20 minutes of exercise (a can of soda is 12 ounces). Drink before you get thirsty, because thirst is the first sign of dehydration.6 Finally, beware of the dangers of water bottles containing BPA. Be sure to select a stainless steel bottle or a plastic water bottle that is labeled “BPA free.” Read more about the harmful effects of BPA here.

Skin cancer

While running and exercising outside, remember to apply sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher that offers full spectrum protection (protection against both UVA and UVB rays) and is water-resistant. Apply at least fifteen minutes before going outside to allow your skin to soak up the sunscreen. Reapply often-every two hours and after swimming and excessive sweating. You should also apply lip balm of at least SPF 30. This will reduce your risk of sunburn, skin cancer, and premature aging of the skin.7 Read more about running and skin cancer here.

Overtraining

Overtraining can put too much stress on the immune system and keep it from doing its job, which is to keep you from getting sick! People who overtrain put themselves at risk of developing illnesses like colds and the flu because their immune systems are “run down.” You may feel fatigued all the time, or find yourself getting injured.  Some soreness and fatigue is a normal part of training, but if your discomfort becomes excessive, increase your rest/recovery time in between workouts.8

Regular endurance exercise may be risky, as well.  Running more than 30 miles per week may lessen or erase the health benefits, including a longer life, which moderate levels of running provide.  People who run a lot of marathons have been found to have higher levels of coronary plaque, a type of heart disease and a cause of heart attacks.9 Therefore, moderate levels of regular exercise are recommended.

The bottom line

The potential benefits far outweigh the potential risks of regular exercise. Grab a friend, use social media, and register for a race to keep your motivation levels high until exercise becomes a part of your daily routine. Regular physical activity can improve your physical health, and also your mood and overall mental well-being. Maybe you’ve heard of a “runner’s high” – well, you don’t have to be a runner to experience the calming effects of exercise.  If you want to experience these health benefits and live a longer, healthier life, now is the time to begin a fitness routine!

  1. Physical activity and health. Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity 2011; Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health/index.html.  
  2. Health, O.o.W.s. Physical activity (exercise) fact sheet. 2009.  
  3. How much physical activity do adults need? 2011; Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html.  
  4. Parracino, L., A Simple Guide to Stretching, 2002, National Academy of Sports Medicine.  
  5. Make Physical Activity Fun, in Overcoming Barriers to Physical Activity, W. Can!, Editor, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.  
  6. Healthy Hydration. 2012; Available from: http://www.acefitness.org/fitfacts/fitfacts_display.aspx?itemid=173.  
  7. Sunscreens. 2012; Available from: http://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/sunscreens.  
  8. Kellmann, M., Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2010. 20 Suppl 2: p. 95-102.  
  9. Mohlenkamp S, Lehmann N , Breuckmann F, Brocker-Preuss M, Nassenstein K, Halle M, Budde T, Mann K, Barkhausen J, Heusch G, Jockel K, & Erbel R. Running: The risk of coronary events. Prevalence and prognostic relevance of coronary atherosclerosis in marathon runners. European Heart Journal, 2008. 29(15): p. 1903-1910.