Not sure how to start and maintain an exercise lifestyle? Ease into it

Q. I am a 40-something woman who has been inactive most of my life. I know I should exercise, but I just don't know where to start, and the thought of going to a health club keeps me from doing anything. Any suggestions?

A. You've already taken the first step, which is asking for advice. Your next step should be a visit to your physician to make sure everything checks out before you start. (Not to mention that when you go back in a year, you'll be able to see your improvement!)

Once you've gotten the OK from your doctor, it's time for the exciting part. After losing close to 50 pounds 20 years ago, I can speak to this from experience.

Too often when people make the decision to begin an exercise program, it is overzealous and ultimately dangerous. The best way to begin is with baby steps. Remember, you've had years of inactivity.

Like anything new, starting an exercise program must be done with careful planning and regular practice.

Generally, I suggest evaluating your lifestyle to figure out where you can feasibly sneak in just 15 to 20 minutes of walking. For most beginners, two or three days per week is a good start simply because it is manageable.

Once you feel that you can comfortably fit two or three 20-minute walks or the activity of your choice into your schedule, you can begin to lengthen the time. For example, if you're walking Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 20 minutes, add five minutes onto each day.

Stick with that for a while (generally three or four weeks) before adding on more time.

Your goal? Five days of cardiovascular exercise for 45 to 60 minutes. Don't worry about reaching that goal today or even tomorrow. Pace yourself. Remember, too much too soon is what causes most people to quit exercising.

After about three months of sticking with your walking program, it's time to consult a professional and begin adding weight-training exercises. Again, start with one day per week until you reach two to three days a week of regular weight training.

When I lost my weight years ago, it was about 1 1/2 years before I found my niche and the activities that I loved. Additionally, don't underestimate the importance of positive mental input. Read uplifting material, and congratulate yourself on a daily basis for making positive changes.

The mental component of healthy living is essential. Be patient with yourself and explore a variety of exercise options so you can discover what is right for you.

Trainer tip: Keeping track of your daily exercise is a wonderful way to gauge your progress. Whether it's a notebook or a formal exercise journal, tracking your activity will motivate you to work harder and advance yourself to the next level.

Nicki Anderson is a certified personal trainer, author and owner of Reality Fitness in the Chicago area. Contact her at or see

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