Yet we all know that we need to exercise for a number of reasons. The most recent research indicates that exercise alone doesn't cause weight loss for most people, and it's certainly possible to lose weight without exercise. But weight loss isn't the only, or best, reason to exercise. We all know the reasons--heart health, bone health, etc. I think the most immediate results that we get from embarking on an exercise plan are improvement in mood and energy level, a sense of accomplishment, and an overall sense of well being. It feels good to move.
When you're overweight, you might feel too conspicuous to start working out in a gym or in front of others. It's easy to feel like people are noticing you, your size, making judgements about you while you are feeling clumsy and doing something new. First off, you have to start realizing that people really aren't paying as much attention to you as you think. We all think that everyone notices our every flaw, but the truth is that most people are paying attention to themselves and how THEY appear to everyone else, especially when exercising. That can be enough to get your foot out the door.
The hardest part about exercise is starting when you haven't done it in a long time (or ever). We have preconceived notions about what we "like" to do or don't like, and we have a comfort zone that doesn't include exercise. Let me tell you a secret: Most people who have lost a major amount of weight (and kept it off) will tell you that it can't happen without making some major changes to yourself personally, psychologically, spiritually. We have to change our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is what got us and kept us fat! Your comfort zone is not your friend. Get ready to challenge it, if you are serious about making healthy changes in your life. You can make that your new mantra when you are exercising: "My comfort zone is not my friend!"
How much should you exercise? The USDA has made exercise recommendations for the first time. Here they are:
- At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, above your usual activity, on most days of the week to reduce the risk of chronic disease in adulthood. Greater health benefits, say the Guidelines, can be reaped with a more intense program or one that is of longer duration.
- About 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity most days of the week to help manage body weight and prevent gradual, unhealthy body-weight gain in adulthood.
- At least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity daily to sustain weight loss in adulthood.
So the key there is "most days of the week", not 3 days a week. I find it's easier to just plan on doing something everyday, rather than the old 3 days a week recommendation. But, if you're just starting out, 3 days is better than no days. A goal of 5 days a week is good though. 30 minutes per session to reduce risk of chronic disease, 60 minutes to prevent gradual weight gain, and 60-90 minutes daily to sustain weight loss. That doesn't address the recommendation when you are trying to LOSE weight. But when you are just starting out, I think the best thing is to pick how many times a week you can commit to and start doing that. If it's 2 or 3, make that commitment and go from there.
Next you need to choose an activity that you will enjoy doing, that you feel relatively comfortable doing, and that doesn't present a lot of barriers against doing it every day, or almost every day. For a lot of people, walking is the best way to start out. It doesn't take special equipment, doesn't have to be done at a fancy gym, and can be done no matter where you are or no matter what the weather. You don't have to do it in front of people, and you don't have to drive anywhere to do it (although it's nice to pick out a variety of settings if you like--scenic parks, riversides, lake trails, whatever you fancy). For some folks, that doesn't do it for whatever reason. It's good to think about your personality for this--if you are competitive, maybe training for a 5k (walking or running or both) would keep you motivated. If you like variety or don't like to feel like you are "exercising", maybe taking a dance class or some other class. Or finding a gym with a wide variety of group exercises that you would like to try might be the thing.
If you are interested in the traditional gym setting, I recommend visiting a LOT of gyms before settling on one. I'm very particular about the setting because if it's too noisy or chaotic, or doesn't have any natural lighting, I won't go regularly. I'll pay a little more for a setting that is refreshing and recharging to me. One great thing that the YMCA offers is a program called the 12 week program. It's based on the idea that it takes 12 weeks to establish a habit. It's offered by most Y's, I think, and it's free to members. You meet with a trainer in the beginning and about every 3 weeks until you finish. They set you up on a weights and cardio program--very basic--and help you advance through it until you finish. At the Y in Portland, they had a special room set aside for the 12 week program so you didn't have to exercise in front of the 20 year old bodybuilder types--there were old and young, thin and overweight people there, and it was very comfortable and welcoming. It was almost set up like circuit training. That's a thought for you--and the Y doesn't have a hard-sell membership policy, each club sets their own monthly rates, and often you don't have to pay an enrollment fee, although that varies according to club. Furthermore, many of them offer childcare and other amenities for families. The Y is a very friendly place to start exercising, I think, and many of them are getting fancier these days, so go check yours out.
Another thing that lots of new exercisers enjoy is DVDs at home. You don't have to buy them--your local library has a selection, as does Blockbuster and Netflix. There's a service called Flickety Fit that is similar to Netflix but rents all fitness DVDs--dance fitness, martial arts, yoga, pilates, stretching, walking, step, aquatics, cycle, you name it. You can do a huge variety of things in the privacy of your own home. This is a great way to try something out before committing to a class or some equipment that you aren't sure you want to shell out a lot of money for.
You might decide to buy equipment for your home. This works for a lot of people. I didn't do this because I move a lot and I don't have space for big equipment. But I would make the recommendation that you look for used exercise equipment. People are always selling barely-used treadmills and other equipment, and frequently they just want it out of their house. You can get pretty nice stuff for dirt cheap this way. Check your local craigslist before you look to buy something new.
The most important thing about starting an exercise program is learning how and when to advance yourself in the intensity and difficulty of your workout. Many people start out with a program, but just keep doing the same thing over and over and no longer see any improvement in their fitness level or their weight loss. Your body is very smart and efficient, and will get used to whatever you throw at it in a surprisingly short amount of time. You'll have to keep working a little harder, or a little longer, every few weeks to keep seeing benefits.
About motivation: I don't really believe in it when it comes to exercise. When you are comfortable, or tired, or sleeping in your bed, you are not motivated to exercise. Doesn't matter--what matters is your decision. Most regular exercisers would tell you that many days they do NOT feel "motivated" to exercise until they've actually started doing it. I know that if I can get myself to change my clothes into my workout clothes, I will exercise, and I'll be glad I did. So all I have to decide now is to change my clothes. You might have to play tricks with your mind to accomplish it--like telling yourself that you're only going to walk for 10 minutes, or that you're going to put on your walking shoes and just check the weather outside. Once you've gotten out the door, you'll feel like doing your routine. And if you don't? Well, you can just do your 10 minutes. There are days that I'm just not feeling it and I do cut it short that day. Not very often, but if I've gotten midway through a workout and I'm still just slogging through, sometimes I just wrap it up for the day. Most of the time, you make the decision to do this, and you find a way to move your body until your brain catches up with it. Believe me, you'll feel especially good about yourself when you didn't want to go work out, but you did anyway and you felt great afterward. You'll feel like you found a secret that no one else has.
So, my biggest tips, in a nutshell:
1. Find the thing that you have the least excuses not to do, and something that you like, or at least don't hate
2. Find a way to get yourself out the door to do it--once you start doing it, you'll feel like continuing most of the time. Don't wait to get "motivated."
3. Know that most people aren't talking about how fat you are, or what you look like when you exercise--they are thinking those things about THEMSELVES. Get over yourself and go do it!
4. Challenge your idea of what you "like" to do, or your idea of what kind of person you are. You can be the kind of person who likes to exercise--or a person who does it because you have to--but either way, you have to challenge yourself to find out what you will like. The only way to find out is to do it.
5. While you are challenging yourself, do pick something that you are comfortable enough with that you will actually do it. You don't have to start running 5 miles a day, or taking spin classes, or going into a gym. You might find that you want to do those things later, so don't rule them out, but you don't have to start out there.
6. Be open to the changes in yourself that come with being healthier. We like to say that we will be the same person if we lose weight--but truth is, we aren't the same person. Few people are successful at major weight loss without experiencing significant changes in themselves personally. Almost always, this is for the better.
This was really long, but I hope it helps someone. You may shock the hell out of yourself one day, like I did, and discover that you enjoy running. Or some other crazy thing. You never know.