Getting started with exercise


New federal guidelines on health released in February of 2005 say we should get more exercise, 30 to 60 minutes of it most days of the week, but few of us follow that recommendation.

The U.S. Surgeon General says that more than 60% of American adults don't do the recommended amount of exercise -- and about 25 percent of us don't exercise at all.

Just as frustrating, most of us who do start exercising don't stick with it. Studies show that more than half of all exercise programs fade away within six months.

What's the problem?

Why can't we embrace a routine that need only occupy the time we spend on watching one sitcom a day? The answer is more mental than physical. Adopting an exercise plan requires a change in schedule, lifestyle and perhaps self-image. We need to be realistic, and find activities that are fun.

Several factors make starting to exercise so difficult, says Rodney K. Dishman, Ph.D., a University of Georgia professor of exercise physiology. "For starters," he says, "beginning to exercise isn't just a single behavior. You have to pick an activity, make time for it and then keep it up. And telling yourself to change your attitude is just not enough."

The first ingredient is the desire for change. Don't be discouraged if your first attempt falls short, says Dr. Dishman. Even regular exercise buffs can face burnout.

Motivating yourself:  When it comes to starting an exercise program, nearly everybody has an excuse. Psychologist Alan S. Kagel, Ed.D., has heard them all. A specialist in sports psychology, he works regularly with people who want to exercise but can't get started or keep going.

"The first thing I ask people is to verbalize all the reasons for exercising," Dr. Kagel says. "This lets them understand the real benefits from changing their behavior. Then I ask them for all the reasons not to."

That helps people realize that excuses are just that: There will always be reasons not to exercise.

Dr. Kagel also asks people to examine their exercise history, "because that's often the reason for failure. For some people, exercise represents a traumatic experience, like the time they didn't make the team."

Finally, Dr. Kagel makes sure people understand what they must do to succeed. This includes motivating yourself with a calendar or journal, setting flexible goals and setting up a program with a choice of activities.

The new federal guidelines call for adult Americans to get at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week to reduce the risk for disease. The guidelines are even more rigorous for children, recommending 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily. To help prevent weight gain, the guidelines say you should exercise 60 minutes every day. To keep weight off that has been lost, you should try for 60 to 90 minutes of exercise. A fitness program should include cardiovascular exercise, as well as stretching for flexibility and strength training for muscle strength and endurance.

Start slowly:  Before starting any exercise program, you should check with your health care provider first. To avoid soreness and injury, you should start out any exercise program slowly and gradually build up.

Sticking with it:  To stay with your program, Dr. Dishman suggests some guidelines:

  • Don't expect immediate results. It can take 10 to 20 weeks of sustained effort to make a noticeable fitness difference, so be realistic.
  • Don't gauge your progress during the first few weeks by how much you weigh.
  • Joining an exercise group can help you stick with your program.
  • Realize that the benefits of exercise aren't all visible. Regular moderate exercise helps reduce stress, fight depression and make you feel better.
  • "Don't just focus on adding years to your life," Dr. Dishman says. "Adding life to your years is just as important."