Exercise: If you're starting out, what should you do, and how much?

"I know I should be exercising but I don't know what to do." New patients often say this to me.

"I hurt myself in the gym." This is something else that new patients often say.

"Can I do this?" is a common question in my office.

Of course, if a person's not exercising, it's probably a good idea to begin. But "exercising" is often done inaccurately and inappropriately. If a person doesn't have a pretty good idea of what they're doing and what they want to accomplish, exercise-related injuries are likely to occur.

What to do and how much to do are important questions for anyone who wants to be healthy and fit.

How old are you, and how long has it been since you exercised regularly? We'll look at two general groups: those 30 to 55 or so, and those 55 and up. For both groups, the goal is to incorporate both cardiovascular exercise and weight-training. The combination of these two activities, done on different days for greatest benefit, provides optimal results.

Weight-training should incorporate exercises for your chest, back, shoulders, arms (biceps and triceps), and legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves). There are many ways to accomplish this. You can do one exercise for each muscle group and do all muscle groups on the same day. Or you can do "split routines", doing two or three exercises per muscle group and doing two or possibly three muscle groups each session.

For example, I do chest and back exercises on one day, and shoulder and arm exercises on another day. I do legs occasionally, adding leg exercises to the day's training.

For any exercise involving weights, you should begin with the weight with which you can comfortably do six or eight repetitions. If you're in the first age group, do eight reps. If you're in the second age group, do six reps. A sequence of repetitions is a set. Do three sets per exercise, resting for about a minute between sets.

Cardiovascular exercise provides many choices, including running, brisk walking, swimming, stair-climbing, and stationary bike riding. You can do one type, or you can mix and match, depending on the day. There is no "right" type of exercise here. The bottom line is doing cardiovascular exercise consistently. The particular choice is personal.

How to begin? Begin slowly and build up gradually, just as with weight-training. Those over 55 who haven't done any type of cardiovascular exercise for a few years should begin by walking for 15 minutes. I don't mean walking to the store or walking home from work, although those walks are worthwhile. I mean walking specifically for exercise. You put on some exercise clothes, stretch first for 10 minutes or so, and go out and walk.

If 15 minutes feels OK, do 20 minutes the next time. Then add a couple of minutes each session until you're walking for 45 minutes. Now, you can begin to increase your pace slightly. Your goal is to do a nice, brisk walk for about an hour. That's an excellent cardiovascular workout.

For those in the 30-to-55 group, start by walking 30 minutes, build up from there to an hour, and then start to increase your pace. Or, if you're in pretty good shape, consider running. If you're going to run, start at 15 minutes and build up over six weeks or so to a 45-minute run.

These are the basics: cardiovascular exercise and weight-training. The key is to begin. Make sure you're paying attention to good form, and make sure you're not doing too much too soon. Before you know it, you'll be deriving wonderful benefits from your new commitment to fitness.

Dr. David Lemberg is a chiropractic orthopedist in his 21st year of practice on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He is the author of Commitment to Fitness: Real Fitness for Real People. You can visit his Web site at www.corporesano.com.

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