Beginner Workout Routine: How to Start Exercising in 4 Easy-to-Follow StepsDec. 22, 2021 - Katie McCallum
The hardest part of doing anything new is almost always getting started, and exercising is no exception.
The health benefits of physical activity are indisputable. That's why you have a goal to start exercising in the first place. But that doesn't mean you don't have questions about planning a beginner workout routine — starting with where you, specifically, should begin.
"When thinking about exercise from a beginner's perspective, the most important thing to do is create the structure needed to get moving in an intentional way, and then build from that foundation," says JJ Rodriguez, a clinical exercise physiologist at Houston Methodist.
Whether you're starting for the first time or getting back into it, here's how to approach your workout routine, broken down into Rodriguez's four easy-to-follow steps.
Step 1: Determine what you want out of exercise
"There are three primary ways we define exercise: health, fitness and performance," says Rodriguez. "To meet the specific goals you have in mind, it's critical to understand what each type of exercise means and identify which you're aiming for."
An exercise health routine is needed to accomplish the following goals:
- I want to live longer.
- I want to be able to play and keep up with my kids.
- I want to be able to pick up my grandkids.
- I want to lower my cholesterol.
- I want to prioritize my health and well-being.
An exercise fitness routine goes one step farther and is needed to accomplish the following goals:
- I want to be stronger.
- I want to be faster.
- I want to look tone.
An exercise performance routine goes even farther and is needed to accomplish the following goals:
- I want to run a marathon.
- I have a specific weightlifting goal.
- I want to be faster than other people my age.
Once you've determined what you hope to get out of your workouts, it's time to get to work.
Step 2: Set aside time for structured movement at least two to three days per week
According to Rodriguez, exercise in its simplicity is quantified movement. So when it comes to starting any of the exercise plans above, start simple and start small.
"Studies show that going from being sedentary to making time for movement at least two to three times a week can reduce your health hazard risk by half," says Rodriguez.
Finding the time, energy and motivation to get moving isn't always easy, but Rodriguez has advice for removing a few of the barriers that make it even more difficult.
"Two of the hardest parts of exercising are starting and staying compliant," says Rodriguez. "Creating a structured movement routine can help you overcome both — providing you with a plan to get moving and helping you develop the habits needed to stick with it and even improve."
When it comes to your routine, don't overthink it to the point that you never start or won't get it done.
In these initial stages, Rodriguez recommends focusing less on how exactly you're moving and instead on choosing the types of measurable activity that work best for you.
"I actually don't care what kind of exercise you're doing when you start as long as it's something that's structured and gets you moving at least a few days a week," says Rodriguez. "Just make sure it's quantifiable. And make sure it's intentional."
For instance, your structured movement routine could look like:
- Taking a walk for 10 minutes
- Tracking your steps and improving week to week
- Stretching for five minutes daily
- Doing modified body weight exercises, such as chair-to-stand squats and knee push-ups
- Going to a class, such as yoga or Pilates
- Using the elliptical machine at your gym for 20 minutes
- Using a device for pedaling your feet as you sit at the TV or your desk
You'll eventually want to progress to a point where you have the structure in place to be moving more.
"Consistency is key, and, ideally, there should be no days off when it comes to moving," Rodriguez adds.
You might even start leveraging your fitness tracker for more than just step-counting. Whether it's getting your active minutes by filling your lightning bolt or your rings, try to build up to meeting your activity goal each day.
Step 3: Add intensity into your workouts and start tracking total minutes
Once you're consistently moving and making progress, it's time to ratchet up the intensity of your movements.
"For instance, if you have a daily step goal, now it's time to really make those steps count," says Rodriguez. "You got your 7,000 steps, but did your heart rate increase within those steps? Did you mix in a flight or two of stairs? Did you increase your pace on your walk?"
If you're doing resistance-based movements, start thinking about increasing the intensity via resistance bands, light dumbbells or completing more reps or sets. If you're doing yoga, can you hold your plank a few seconds longer?
"Slowly increasing the intensity of your workouts can help you build towards moderate-intensity exercise," says Rodriguez. "This is important since the most significant health benefits result when you're getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week."
There are some complicated calculations you can do to determine what's considered moderate-intensity activity for you, specifically, but you can also let your body be your guide:
- Moderate-intensity cardio will feel like a comfortable pace that invokes slightly deeper breathing but still allows for conversation.
- Moderate-intensity resistance training will feel challenging to the muscle(s) being targeted and should also invoke a slight burn there.
Step 4: Revisit your exercise goal and decide if you want more out of your workouts
You've got a structured routine. You're building endurance and getting stronger. Now it's time to revisit your exercise goal from step one.
If you're getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, you've met the health exercise goal mentioned in step one.
"At this point of your exercise journey, you're officially no longer a beginner," says Rodriguez. "Your all-cause mortality is reduced, you've added three to five years to your lifespan and your risk of diabetes and heart disease are reduced anywhere between 40% to 60%. You're reaping the health benefits of exercise."
Some people may want to get more out of their workouts than health benefits. Others who, say, started exercising for health reasons now may have changed their goal. This is where exercise fitness and performance routines come into play.
"For those who are striving towards fitness and performance goals, the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week achieved via an exercise health routine now needs to become specific," says Rodriguez. "Exercise fitness and performance plans can get more complicated so now it might be time to consider working with a trainer who can help you develop the right workout plan for your more advanced goals."
(Related: Does Your Workout Routine Match Your Exercise Goal?)