Exercise for the Rest of Us: How to Become More Fit and Active

Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

This article offers a quick primer on the role of exercise in a healthy lifestyle. It also gives you some great tips for incorporating physical activity into your daily life and some strategies for creating a program that you enjoy. Best of all, it offers you access to a community of like-minded people, who you'll meet on the Live Discussion Message Board.

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You'll discover ways to view exercise as a treat, not a chore. You'll learn how beneficial simple physical activity (versus hard-core "working out") can be. You'll also examine strategies for making exercise more fun, interesting and sustainable as you move forward into lifetime health and well-being. Let's begin!

Don't kid yourself: If you don't exercise regularly you're shortchanging yourself when it comes to getting the best results possible.

Why Exercise? Positive Reasons to Get Started
Why is exercise so important? Take a look at the benefits. Regular exercise:

increases your metabolism
speeds fat loss
helps you maintain a healthy weight
builds muscle tone
decreases stress
increases your energy level
decreases your risk of certain diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer
strengthens the heart muscle
widens the arteries that supply extra oxygen-rich blood to weaker areas of the heart
helps keep your skin from sagging as you age
helps you sleep better
reduces your risk of injury
improves balance
maintains bone mass
As you think about exercise, keep one thing in mind: Any physical activity is better than none at all. Don't get discouraged if you lack energy during a single workout or if you miss the occasional day. The key to building a lifetime fitness habit is making fitness fun and accessible. That means doing things you like with people you like and starting with small, achievable goals.

Take a look at the exercise options available to you.
If you're trying to build a fitness habit from scratch, there's good news on the horizon: You don't have to be an elite athlete to be fit. However, you do have to get out there and do something. The truth is that according to the American College of Sports Medicine, as little as 30 minutes of physical activity a day can improve your health. That's the time it takes to watch your favorite sitcom.

So, you ask, does that mean I'm supposed to be in the gym, huffing and puffing for a half-hour a day, every day?

 No! Just be sure to do something consistently. Strap on your watch and head out the door. Walk for 15 minutes and see how it makes you feel. Over time, you should increase your time and intensity with a goal of being active for a total of an hour a day. (Don't worry! That hour can be broken up into 15-minute chunks, including everything from aerobics to a brisk bout of housecleaning or yard work!)

The bottom line is this: Your fitness routine has to fit your lifestyle; otherwise you won't stick to it. If all you can manage is a brisk 20-minute walk four days a week, then good for you. If you're like many people, that may be a lot more than you were doing before, and it will help you stay healthy. (That said, more exercise is certainly better.)

And if you're really committed to building a lifelong exercise habit, you need to devise a regimen that you'll actively miss when you aren't able to do it. In other words, you need to have fun. After all, your life is crowded with obligations to family, work and friends, among other things. It's hard to add another commitment to the list. Having fun is the best chance you have of creating a habit you'll stick to.

You may have always viewed exercise as a chore, but the truth is that fitness comes in a lot of flavors, at least one of which you're sure to like. From now on, make yourself a promise: Every time you hear yourself complain about exercise, think about ways to make it fun. For instance, if you like to chat with your best friend, call her up and make a twice-weekly date to meet her at the park for a 20-minute, talk-as-you-walk session.

Types of Exercise
True fitness depends on three factors: aerobic exercise, strength and flexibility. Each plays a critical role in long-term health maintenance.

Aerobic exercise includes brisk walking, jogging, running on a treadmill or outdoors, climbing stairs, swimming, bicycling or sports such as soccer, basketball and any of the countless others that accelerate your heart rate.
Strength training or anaerobic activity involves weight or resistance exercises to condition the large muscles. (Don't worry about bulking up! Weight training offers subtle sculpting that will change the way clothes hang on your body and the way you hold yourself when you walk.) Your target areas should be your stomach, arms, shoulders, chest, and back muscles. Although you can also focus on leg muscles, they tend to build strength as you do aerobics.
Flexibility is also a critical part of fitness, especially as we age. Flexibility helps mobility and also helps us avoid falls. To that end, stretching the major muscle groups at least two days a week is a good idea. Yoga is one way to do it, but even some of the basics, such as touching your toes, are a place to start.
With strength training, it's vital that you use correct form and technique to avoid injury. Consult a professional, whether a trainer at the gym or a video, to learn what to do and how to avoid injury!

So what's the right mix of activities? It depends on a lot of factors, including your age. In general, however, experts advise that:

From 20 to 40, you should focus on building a strong foundation in each area.
From 40 to 65, your goal should be replacing lost muscle in order to maintain strength.
From age 65 and up, your goal should be maintaining flexibility and strength so you can stay active.
Check with your doctor before embarking on an exercise routine. If you're out of shape, you may need to start with only 10 minutes a day. Just make sure that your 10-minute exercise session takes places five times a week. Increase gradually: The body can usually handle a 10 percent increase in workload per week.

Getting Ready.
 

Before you design a workout, it's important to get a firm fix on your current health. Doing so will allow you to establish a realistic and safe plan to get you from where you are now to where you hope to be in the future. If you're over 35 and you have (or your immediate family has) a history of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or if you're a smoker or mostly inactive, you should visit a doctor before you begin a more intensive fitness regimen. Let your doctor know that you plan to start exercising, and ask him or her if there are any risks you should know about.

Beyond that, there are some additional baseline measures -- specifically your heart rate and your blood pressure -- that you'll want to establish. Knowing them will help you understand your capacity now; it'll also help you mark your progress later, which can be a great motivator as you track your advancement.

Aerobic Exercise
Aerobic endurance is the ability to keep moving for long periods of time; it helps build your cardio-respiratory system, which in turn lowers your risk of heart attack, stroke and pulmonary disease. Aerobic exercise also helps you keep your weight under control by burning calories. In order to maximize aerobic fitness and undertake your new program safely, it's important to know two things at the outset:

Your heart rate is the number of times your heart beats each minute. Regular aerobic exercise will lower your heart rate as your heart becomes more efficient. That means your heart pumps more blood with less work, which means less stress on this vital organ. To measure your resting heart rate, find your pulse on your wrist. Watch a clock for one full minute, counting the beats of your pulse as you go. This is your resting heart rate. (According to most sources, the ideal resting heart rate is between 60 and 90 beats a minute.)

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following formula to calculate what your heart range should be when you exercise for aerobic fitness:

The formula for calculating your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age.
To find out your lower-limit exercise heart rate, multiply your maximum heart rate by 0.6.
To calculate your upper-limit exercise heart rate, multiply your maximum heart rate by 0.9.
During aerobic exercise, your heart rate should fall between your lower and upper target heart-rate limits. Exercising for a longer time at the lower limits will provide the maximum benefit.
Your blood pressure indicates how easily blood moves through your blood vessels. Normal blood pressure is approximately 120/80. (In this instance, 120 is the pressure when your heart pumps blood; 80 is the pressure at rest.) 145/95 is considered high blood pressure. If you take medication for high blood pressure, it may affect your heart rate during exercise; be sure to discuss this with your physician to find out what your target rate should be.

Setting a Realistic Pace
Say you haven't run a lick in 20-plus years. Now you've invested in some jogging shorts, great pair of shoes and a sweatband, and you're ready to go out and run the three-mile loop around the lake. Good idea, right?

Wrong! If you blast out of the gate with excessive effort, you're likely to exhaust yourself or, worse, sustain an injury, and neither of those outcomes will serve your ultimate goal to build an exercise habit. Instead, set a goal you want to achieve three months from now, and then create a progressive schedule that'll get you from here to there without injury or exhaustion.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following schedule (with the caveat that jogging may not be the right activity for people with cardiac or orthopedic issues or for people who are more than 20 percent overweight):

Week  Minutes  Intensity 
1  20  Walk 
2  22  Walk 
3  22  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 5 minutes 
4  24  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 5 minutes 
5  24  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 4 minutes 
6  26  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 4 minutes 
7  26  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 3 minutes 
8  28  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 3 minutes 
9  28  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 2 minutes 
10  30  Jog 30-60 seconds, walk 2 minutes 
11  30  Jog 2 minutes, walk 1 minute 
12+  30  Gradually progress to continuous jogging 

Other experts recommend different schedules, but the common element is this: You should start out easy and build toward a bigger goal. This rule applies across all forms of exercise. After your first week or two, you'll have a better idea of your comfort level and will be able to adjust accordingly.

As you establish your comfort zone, remember one other thing: You should be able to carry on a conversation as you exercise. If you can't, you're probably pushing too hard.

Moving Forward
We've covered a lot!  We established positive reasons for exercising, looked at different types of exercise, discussed the need to meet with your doctor before you begin a program and talked about making exercise fun.

Next, we'll look at practical strategies for building and sticking to an exercise regimen. In the meantime, be sure to get on the Live Discussion Boards to meet the instructors and online community to learn what works for them. See you on the message board! http://learningcenter.atkins.com/

Nurture a Habit that Lasts a Lifetime
Optimal results are all about creating change for life, and exercise is a key part of what should be a regular routine. Which leads to an interesting question: How do you start a fitness regimen that you can stick with for good? We already discussed the first step: Turn exercise into something you crave, something you will actually miss if you skip a session. Now let's take a look at some practical suggestions for transforming exercise from a daunting task into a pleasurable ritual.

Make a schedule and follow it. Following a schedule is a powerful tool in the battle to stay on target. Look at the week in advance and pick the time you allot for exercise carefully. Remember that it's usually safer to start the day with a workout, rather than plan on getting to it later. Distractions are less likely to crop up first thing in the morning than later in the day. If that doesn't work for you, find the time that works best for you and stick with it.
Find a buddy. If you plan to exercise in the morning, try the buddy system. If you commit to meeting someone for an early workout, you'll be more likely to show up.
Get up 30 minutes earlier. Performing a stretch routine first thing in the morning can be a great way to get moving early on. All you need is a video showing some stretches (and maybe a Pilates ball), and you're good to go -- with little muss or fuss!
Exercise with friends or coworkers. If you use your exercise time as a way to socialize, you can accomplish two goals at once. Group workouts are also a great way to meet new people with a shared interest, so check out local running clubs, spinning classes or aerobics studios for classes that fit your schedule.
Ride your bike or walk to work. If it's practical, this is a great way to start the day and maximize your time. It gets your blood pumping and your mind going before you get to work.
Work out at lunchtime. A midday exercise break boosts energy and allows you to make the most of your afternoon.
Exercise in front of the television, perhaps using a mini-trampoline or a rebounder. Call it multitasking, if you like. This arrangement means you'll be less likely to put off a workout so that you can watch your favorite sitcom.
Exercise at home. For some people, it's tough to be away from home and family for long periods of time. Hopping on a treadmill that you keep in the basement or a spare room is a great way to squeeze in a run while you remain a part of the household (just set some ground rules with the other members of yours, so there are no interruptions unless it's absolutely necessary).
Exercise on your way home. If there is a way to work out and avoid getting stuck in traffic, seize the opportunity (you'll also circumvent the temptation to lie back when you get home). Check out gyms near your workplace.
Remember why you're exercising: Exercise will give you more energy while it reduces stress. Remind yourself that the reason you're getting in shape is so you can live a longer, healthier life. Find the Workout You Love.

We said it before, we'll say it again: A critical aspect of creating a lifetime desire for fitness is finding an activity you love. Try to identify something that you'll look forward to and that you can easily incorporate into your schedule. Those two factors will make a world of difference in your ability to follow through. For instance:

Love gardening? Get out in the yard and start digging. Push the lawn mower. Walk around the block and look at your neighbor's gardens. Just be sure to do it for a minimum of 20 minutes a day!
Are you an outdoorsy type? If so, running or walking around your neighborhood or a local park might be just the ticket. As we said before: Try to find a workout buddy who will commit to exercising with you at least three days a week. Having a set appointment will ensure that you exercise even on days when you feel like flaking out. Try setting a firm goal and working toward it. For example, sign up for a charity walkathon or fun run, and then set up an exercise schedule aimed at competing in that event.
Are you a water baby? Swimming is considered one of the best full body workouts; if you have access to an indoor pool, you can swim year-round in the coldest climate. Water aerobics are an excellent way to get a workout, especially if excess weight is putting stress on your joints. Kayaking, canoeing and rowing are also great exercise if you live close to water.
Are you a team player? If you love organized sports like basketball or soccer, look for a regularly scheduled game that you can join. Local YMCAs often have pick-up basketball games, and many cities have informal soccer games.
Do you love the environment of the gym? If so, consider signing up for some classes or for several sessions with a personal trainer who can show you the ropes on the exercise machines, guide you through a few workouts, help you establish your baseline and goals and create a workout schedule to get you there.
Add variety. As your endurance improves, try alternating different activities to work different muscles in different ways, giving you a more well-rounded workout. It also keeps you from getting bored with the same old routine.

More Tips for Making it Happen
Rule # 1: Just Do It
Beginning your new routine can be the hardest part. You need to make exercise a habit, like brushing your teeth. Believe it or not, once your body gets used to the routine and increases its fitness level, you will even look forward to your workouts! You'll also find out how much better you feel physically and mentally after a workout.

Pick the activity you will most enjoy (or dislike the least). If you're riding a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill indoors, watch TV or play music, which creates a rhythm you can get into. Some people prefer to read a book or magazine or listen to books on tape to occupy their mind. By focusing your attention, you'll avoid negative thoughts and your routine will seem to take less time. Most important, consider the long-term potential for improving your appearance and your health. Remember: Research has shown that even minimal physical activity, like 20 minutes a day of walking, had profound effects on health, including certain long-term benefits.

Rule # 2: Be Patient
One note as you begin: Be patient. Two weeks is not enough time to notice changes in your body from exercise. Some people may even observe a small weight gain on the scale when they start exercising. That's because muscle mass increases as you get stronger, and muscle is more dense than fat. As we age, beginning in our early 30s, we begin to lose muscle mass. That's one reason your metabolic rate slows down. The more muscle you have, the more oxygen you take in; oxygen burns fat, thus you burn more fat. If you follow an exercise program five days a week you should see results within a month.

Rule # 3: Start Smart
If you're trying to lose fat, start your exercise regimen with aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise helps you burn fat. For cardiovascular benefits, you need a bare minimum of 20 minutes of aerobic exercise, three times a week. To enhance fat loss, you will need to do aerobic exercise five times a week and get beyond 30 minutes a day.

Start with any aerobic exercise at any level you can sustain. If you're out of shape, you may be need to start with only 10 minutes a day. Just make sure that your 10-minute regimen takes places five times a week.

You can add weight-bearing exercise once you've built a base of endurance.

Since your body can usually handle a 10 percent increase in workload per week, increase your workout time by 10 percent each week.

Rule # 4: Make Fitness a Priority
We've discussed the importance of trying to turn exercise into an activity you enjoy. That means finding an activity you like, finding a partner (or partners) you like and committing to a schedule. It also means knowing when to push yourself and when to give yourself a break.

No matter what exercise program you choose, no matter how simple or rigorous it is, make sure that you make it a priority. Schedule time for it and stick to it.

One great tool is the buddy system: Make sure that you and your exercise pal or pals keep your commitments to one another. If one of you starts flaking out on a regular basis, the others will feel permission to do the same. But if you stick to it, you'll be able to encourage one another as you go. Exercise will become as much fun as meeting for coffee or drinks, or chatting on the phone -- just a little more vigorous.

Rule # 5: Know When to Give Yourself a Break
Okay, now let's do a little reality check: The truth is that setting a schedule along with some specific goals, as well as knowing when to cut yourself a little slack are both critical to keeping you on track. If you try to push through to your goal on days when you simply don't have the energy, workouts will seem like torture, which is exactly what you don't want. After all, if you dread your workout, it won't be long before you give up your new routine all together.

All your good intentions aside, the truth is that some days you have more strength than others: Some days you'll come to your workout session bursting to go; other times you may feel as though lifting a fistful of broccoli to your mouth is even way too hard to even contemplate. Like bad hair days and the weather, off days are a reality of any exercise routine.

The golden rules of building an exercise habit you can stick to, while still dealing with the moments when you feel like you just can't do it, are as follows:

Unless you're ill or injured there's no excuse to skip your exercise date. After all, you want your buddy to keep the commitment he or she made, so you have to commit to doing the same thing.
For the first 10 to 15 minutes of your session, stick to a planned workout. Most days, you'll have a breakthrough: 10 minutes in, you'll suddenly find that the workout doesn't feel quite as strenuous. You may even feel as though you're gaining energy, rather than losing it.
If, after 10 to 15 minutes, you still feel like you're slogging through swamp mud, give yourself a break. This may mean walking instead of running or shortening your workout. Or it may mean simply turning around to go home. Remember: You are trying to build an enjoyable habit, not kill yourself. If the session feels miserable, it's better to cut it short than force yourself through. Just be sure that you're back tomorrow or the next day to try it again.
Rule # 6: Understand Your Motivations
Knowing why you want to get fit will help you stick to your routine. It's important to get fit for yourself, not because your mother/wife/boyfriend/ is hounding you to do it. So, before you start, ask yourself why you want to get fit:

Are you concerned about your health?
Do you want to have a more toned body?
Do you have a specific race or event you want to compete in?
Do you want more energy?
Do you want to reduce stress?
Do you want to stay fit so you can enjoy an active retirement?
Next, think about how it'll make you feel to get fit. Most likely it'll raise not only your physical sense of well-being, but also your mental one. There's no self-esteem booster like setting a goal and meeting it.

Rule # 7: Chart Your Progress
Keep a diary of your progress. Write down a weekly schedule when the week begins. Then, after you exercise each day, jot down what you did. If you lift weights, note the machines you used, the amount you lifted and the number of repetitions you did. If you run, note how far you went and how you broke up your run. Your workout diary will inspire you to nurture your blossoming habit. Within a few weeks, you'll be able to see substantial progress in your ability to exercise, which is a great reward in and of itself.

Rule # 8: Mix It Up
Another way to keep yourself going is to add variety to your schedule. Maybe you walk most days. But if you love golf, take the time to get out and play a round or two. Just be sure to walk the course rather than tool around in an electric cart. If dancing is your bag, take a night off from jogging and cut a rug for a couple of hours.

Dealing with injuries. 
If you haven't exercised in a while, you may be in for a little pain. That doesn't mean you'll hurt yourself; it just means you'll be working muscles that haven't been flexed in a while. But how do you tell the difference?

The pain you should expect to feel is achy, dull and typically generalized. An entire muscle or area of your body may hurt when you first start exercising. That's normal.

If you feel a sharp pain when you're exercising, stop immediately. General aches are normal; sharp pains may be indicative of injuries that require rest and other treatment. Continuing to exercise when you feel a sharp pain may exacerbate the injury and make it harder to recover.

Pain that's more problematic (and typically indicative of an injury) tends to be very sharp, specific and localized. It also tends to hurt when you do certain movements, rather than ache in general. The injuries listed below may be caused by improper footwear or overtraining, but other factors may be involved as well. If you suspect you have an injury, avoid stressing it with more exercise and go see a doctor, who can tell you whether it's okay to continue your fitness regimen, or whether you should modify it in some way. Common sports injuries include:

shin splints
strains and sprains
Achilles tendonitis
knee pain
stress fractures
The best immediate treatment for sports injuries is the old standby formula, R.I.C.E: Rest (from the activity that caused the injury, not all activities); ice; compression; and elevation.

Wrapping Up
We hope this article has helped you identify a few habits that will help you establish a fitness regimen you love. Before you go, be sure to stop by the message board to share thoughts and questions with the online community and instructors.

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Disclaimer: Nothing contained on this Site is intended to provide health care advice. Should you have any health care-related questions, please call or see your physician or other health care provider. Consult your physician or health care provider before beginning the Atkins Diet as you would any other weight loss or weight maintenance program. The weight loss phases of the Atkins Diet should not be used by persons on dialysis or by pregnant or nursing women.