How to Start Exercising Safely

According to the new Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, starting an exercise program has even more benefits than were known back in 2008 when the first guidelines came out. These benefits include brain health, decreased risk of falls, and decreased risk for several cancers. The only question left is “How do I start exercising?”

how to start exercising

You can start exercising at any age, but it's important to start safely to avoid injury.

© kali9 | Getty Images

The latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services came out in November 2021. The new guidelines add even more benefits from exercise, based on research done after the first guidelines came out in 2008. New benefits include reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, postpartum depression, and cancers of the bladder, uterus, esophagus, kidney, stomach, and lung.

There is no doubt that a regular program of physical activity can help you live a longer and healthier life. If you don’t already have an exercise program, this is the year to start. One big question is: how do you start an exercise program when you are out of shape? Others are: how much and what types of exercise are best?

How Much Exercise Do You Need To See Health Benefits?

The new guidelines say that any exercise has benefits, and the benefits start right away. In fact, just getting up and moving around during the day helps, so move more and sit less. To get the full benefits for adults, the guidelines recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities are brisk walking or fast dancing. Adults should also include strength exercises at least two days per week. Strength exercise – also called resistance training – is any exercise that causes your muscles to push or pull against resistance. Examples include weights, exercise machines, and push-ups.

How to Get Started: Creating a Workout Plan

If you are out of shape or you have any type of long-term disease or disability, the guidelines recommend talking to your health care provider first. Find out what type and how much exercise is safe for you.

The Mayo Clinic suggests recording some physical fitness baseline numbers before you get started. You might record your weight, your waist circumference, how long it takes to walk a mile, how far you can bend over, or how many push-ups you can do. Taking your pulse after walking a mile is another good way to measure fitness.

The next thing to do is establish the goals of your fitness program. Everyone has different levels of fitness. Your goal may be to lose weight and walk farther. Someone else may want to run 10 miles and build muscles. Mayo Clinic offers these tips for getting started:

  • Work with an exercise specialist to create a workout plan that fits your goals and physical ability or limitations.
  • For strength training, include all the big muscles and do about 10 to 15 repeated exercises (reps), enough to cause your muscles to get tired.
  • For flexibility, include stretching exercises.
  • For older adults, include exercise that improves balance.
  • To get your moderate-intensity exercise you can choose any exercise you like such as walking, swimming, dancing, riding a bike, or taking an aerobic class. Including different types of exercise can make your workout plan more enjoyable, and easier to stick with.
  • Start slowly and build up your routines gradually over time. This will help you avoid an injury or muscle strain.
  • Schedule your exercise as you would any other important activity.

After about six weeks, recheck your baseline numbers. Seeing an improvement helps motivate you to continue with your workout plan.

How to Exercise Safely

Almost everyone has the ability for some level of exercise that will safely improve their health. Whatever your level of exercise, the guidelines suggest some simple safety tips:

  • Choose exercises that are safe for your ability.
  • Increase your activity gradually.
  • Use the right sports equipment, like good shoes for running and a helmet for biking outside.
  • Exercise in a safe environment. Avoid exercising outside in hot weather or walking on a busy road.
  • Listen to your body. If you are sore from exercise, give yourself time to recover.
  • Don’t exercise when you don’t feel well.
  • Let your doctor know if you have persistent pain or if you experience pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath while exercising. Stop exercising and call your doctor if you have trouble breathing or have chest pain during exercise.

In addition to the new benefits from exercise, you also get the established benefits of lowering your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, heart attack, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression, arthritis pain, and more. If you don’t have an exercise plan yet, it’s never too late to get started.


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Chris Iliades, MD

Chris Iliades has an MD degree and 15 years of experience as a freelance writer. Based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, his byline has appeared regularly on many health and medicine … Read More

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