How to Start An Exercise Program
starting an exercise program

How to Start an Exercise Program

Unless you live under a rock, it is likely that you have heard exercise is good for you. Unfortunately, the demands of modern life keep most Americans from reaching even the minimum requirement to keep us healthy. According to the CDC, only 49% of Americans are currently meeting the requirements of 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days per week or 20 minutes of vigorous activity 3 days per week. It is scary since this is only the minimum required to maintain health. Much more activity is needed to lose weight & fight obesity which are also major problems we face.

Two- thirds of American adults are classified as overweight (BMI over 25) and 32% as obese (BMI over 30). This represents a two-fold increase from 1980  and there has been a four-fold increase in childhood obesity during the same time. Excess body fat (especially around the abdomen) is associated with high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and high cholesterol. Fortunately, an appropriate amount of exercise is one of the ways we can help control our weight and reduce our risk for these lifestyle diseases.

Benefits of Physical Activity

  • aerobic endurance (heart & lungs work better)
  • body composition improvement (less body fat, more muscle, stronger bones, ligaments, tendons, etc.)
  • muscular strength (you are stronger)
  • muscular endurance (you don’t get tried as easily)
  • increased agility, balance and coordination (your body is quicker & more accurate to react in a change of position, ex: slipping and falling)

Generally speaking, exercise has a dose relationship meaning that the more you do, the better off you are. People who exercise regularly enjoy benefits including decreased mortality, decreased chance of being overweight or obese, decreased type 2 diabetes and colon cancer risk, increased quality of life, and a higher chance for independent living as they age.

How much exercise do you actually need?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) suggest that healthy adults ages 18-65 get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days per week or  20 minutes of vigorous exercise 3 days per week of consistently to get the health/fitness benefits listed above. It is also recommend that every adult perform activities to maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance 2-3 days per week. Keep in mind that these recommendations are to maintain health/fitness, more exercise and diet intervention is needed in order to cause weight loss.

Starting Your Exercise Program

If it’s been a while or this is your first time starting an exercise program, it would be a good idea to look over a PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) to make sure you’re OK to start.

Check with your doctor if you…

  • have pain or discomfort in the chest, neck, jaw, arms
  • have shortness of breath at rest or with mild exertion
  • have ever experienced unexplained dizziness or loss of consciousness
  • swelling of the ankles
  • rapid heart beat
  • muscle cramping during mild activity
  • have a known heart murmur
  • unusual fatigue

Additionally, it is also good to have your lab work current and baseline fitness assessments done by a professional so that you can measure your improvements along the way.

Lab Tests & Ideal Numbers:

  • Fasting cholesterol
    • Total – under 200
    • HDL – over 50
    • LDL – under 100
    • Triglycerides – under 150
  • Fasting glucose – between 60-99
  • Blood pressure – under 120/80
  • Thyroid function

Fitness Testing to Consider:

Here are a few measurements you should consider tracking to access the effectiveness of your fitness regimen. Measure at least once every 6 weeks to track your progress and keep in mind that each measurement has its benefits and limitations. Keeping track of all the numbers will give you a good overall picture of how you’re progressing. If you find that progress has stalled, seek the advice of a certified fitness professional.

  • BMI (measurement of your weight relevant to your height) – ideal is 18.5-24.9, go here to calculated your BMI.
  • Waist circumference (measured at the level of the belly button)
    • Men under 31 is ideal, but up to 39 inches is OK, over is considered high risk for heart disease
    • Women under 27.5 is ideal, but up to 35 is OK, over is considered high risk for heart disease
  • Waist to Hip Ratio (another measure of heart disease risk, go here to calculate yours)
  • Body Composition (measurement by skinfold testing is ideal, but BIA- bioelectrical impedance analysis is the easiest for most. BIA is commonly seen on scales and handheld devices). Recommended ranges vary depending on age and ethnicity but generally speaking wonder should stay under 30% and men under 20% to be considered in the “healthy” range. The table below has more details.

ACE body fat percentage categories

Exercise Guideline Summary

  • Check with your doctor first before starting an exercise program
  • Know your baseline fitness and health measurements
  • Seek the guidance of a fitness professional if you have questions or are not seeing improvements (seek out professionals with certifications from at least one of the following: ACSM- American College of Sports Medicine, NSCA- National Strength and Conditioning Association, ACE- American Counsel on Exercise, NASM- National Academy of Sports Medicine)
  • Your minimum goal is 30 minutes per day of activity, 5 days per week (or 1000 calories per week)
    • Example: walk/ bike/ swim for 30 minutes 3 days per week, 30 minutes resistance training 2 days per week
  • If weight loss or weight loss maintenance is your goal, you may need to increase your exercise to 60 minutes per day, 5 days per week or (2000 to 3500+ calories burned per week)
    • Example: 60 minutes brisk walk/run/bike/swim 3 days per week and 30-60 minute resistance training sessions 2-3 days per week (go here for a beginning workout routine)

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