Exercising for the First Time? Here's Everything You Need to Know
By: Holly Van Hare
So you’ve decided to start exercising again. Or maybe you’re going to work out for the first time ever. Either way, congratulations! Exercise has so many benefits for both your mental and physical health. And, if you’re going about it the right way, exercising can be an effective and fun form of self-care. After a while, it might become one of the more enjoyable parts of your day.
That being said, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The fitness industry is huge, and there’s a lot that’s unknown. With all the fads and programs for sale, it’s hard to know where to start. Yet everyone else at the gym seems to know exactly what they’re doing. Sporting headphones and trendy workout gear, the other gym-goers seem confident and collected.
You’re probably brimming with questions, and you’re not sure who to ask. Like: How often should you work out? What routine should you try? What should you do when you start to feel like you want to quit?
As a group fitness instructor who has taught HIIT, strength, and kickboxing classes, I’ve met lots of people just like you — people who are trying to get started at the gym, but don’t know exactly how to do it. I’ve taught group fitness classes to participants of all ages and fitness levels since 2015, when I received my certification through AFAA. And I have a lot of personal experience with fitness myself. Taking all of that into account, here is a rundown of everything you need to know before you get started with exercise.
Get the right gear
If you’ve never exercised before (or if your workout clothes are circa 1983), you might not have the shoes and clothes you need to make your workout a success. Buy comfortable shoes that fit and clothes that allow you to move freely. If you tend to feel self-conscious, avoid clothes that are tight-fitting or that leave you feeling uncomfortable. Think function over fashion. If fashion-forward, bold-print leggings make you feel great, go for it. But if not, then keep in mind: No one at the gym is going to care that you’re not wearing them. The only person that’s going to critique your outfit is you, especially if your mind is stuck on feeling body conscious the entire time. Save the self-confidence work for another day; let the only challenging thing about your first time back at the gym be the physical task at hand.
Don’t be intimidated
Yes, this is easier said than done. You are surrounded by machines you don’t know how to use (more advice on that later) and fitter-than-thou personnel are pacing the gym floor. But don’t let the six-pack imagery and stone-faced personal trainers scare you away. Nothing about your fitness level makes you less worthy; there is no image-related prerequisite for exercising. If anyone thinks less of you because you don’t have chiseled abs, that’s their problem — not yours. The hardest part of conquering gym intimidation is getting through those first couple of visits. Before you know it, you’ll feel comfortable and calm.
Expect a learning curve
That being said, you might not know exactly what you’re doing right away. You might do a couple of squats wrong or drop a few dumbbells before you feel comfortable. But that’s true of any skill. You weren’t born knowing how to ride a bike, and you weren’t born knowing how to use a bench press. Both skills take time to learn — and you will! Whatever type of exercise you decide to take on, expect a learning curve.
It’s OK if you miss a planned workout
Especially if you’re exercising as part of a New Year’s resolution, you might have a strict plan that you intend to adhere to every week. So what happens if you miss one? The problem isn’t you — it’s the plan. “Most of the New Year fitness challenges out there do not leave any room for the ebb and flow of life,” says Caitlyn Corradino, certified group fitness instructor and co-founder of F.I.T. 4 All, a nonprofit that delivers accessible and community-focused wellness programs. “Your exercise needs to support where your energy levels are on a given day; that means your movement might need to be different than whatever you or your trainer had originally planned.” Don’t beat yourself up about it — there’s nothing wrong with missing a planned workout now and again. In fact, many healthy, physically fit people skip workouts they intended to do with some frequency. “Overall, it is natural, normal, and OK to not stick to the same exercise routine every week,” Corradino says.
Bring a water bottle with you and make sure you’re drinking water throughout your session. You’ll probably require more hydration than usual when you’re exercising, because you lose water in the form of sweat. Additionally, your body needs the water to work effectively. If you don’t drink enough water before or during your workout, you’re at risk for muscle cramping and fatigue.
Always include a warm up
If you attend a workout class or try an online video, chances are the workout will include a warmup. But if you’re planning your workout on your own, it might not be the first thing on your mind. A warmup is important! It gets blood flowing to your muscles so they have the support they need to work the way you want them to. Increase your heart rate gradually with a dynamic warmup that incorporates multiple muscle groups. Perform a light jog or do some simple bodyweight exercises. Warming up beforehand helps prevent injury and maximize performance.
Make sure you stretch
It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to be flexible or not; after a workout, you should always take the time to stretch out your muscles. Why? One, it improves your range of motion, which makes exercising easier and prevents injury. Two, it helps with your muscles’ recovery. If you walk out of the gym without stretching first, you’re going to pay for it tomorrow when you feel sorer as a result. These simple stretches are a good place to start.
Don’t stick to something you hate
People sometimes talk about exercise as if it’s a necessary punishment or something to be endured. But this mindset towards exercise is actually really unhealthy. Exercise should be something that adds to your life and makes you feel good — not something you’re trudging through resentfully. If you think you hate exercise, you’re probably either not choosing workouts you enjoy or working out for the wrong reasons. Doing workouts you hate is stressful and detracts from your happiness; and happiness is actually really beneficial for your health. Trust that there’s exercise out there that you’ll enjoy. You just may not have found it yet!
Try new things
Try on a few different types of exercise for size until you find one that fits. There’s more out there to discover than just free weights and the elliptical. Get out there and sample some new, more exciting forms of fitness, such as dance fitness, Pilates, or whatever else piques your interest. They all have their health benefits. Remember that exercise should add to your life, not subtract from it. Find a form of fitness that you genuinely enjoy!
Don’t overdo it
There’s a myth out there that you should only need one rest day a week. While that may be true for some, it’s not true for everyone — and it’s definitely not true if you’re used to not working out at all. Down the road, you may find you can exercise more often. But ease into it at first. Give your body ample time to rest and recover. If you don’t, you’re likely to either suffer from burnout and quit altogether or injure yourself trying not to. In addition to the number of days you’re exercising, keep your workout intensity in mind. Workouts like Tabata and other forms of HIIT can be fun and rewarding, but don’t do these workouts more than a couple of times per week. They require more recovery time than other lower-intensity movements. Some signs you need more rest include fatigue, excessive soreness, constant thirst, feeling like you dread exercise, and high levels of stress and irritability.
It’s okay to ask for help
If you don’t know how to use a piece of equipment, just ask! Often, gyms will have personal trainers and other fitness experts circulating the floor. Walk up to one of them and ask for some help using the equipment — they really don’t mind. And it’s better to have some assistance than to do something wrong and hurt yourself in the process.
Exercise isn’t supposed to hurt
Muscle soreness is OK and nothing to fret over. But know that if something starts to hurt while you’re exercising, that is not normal — especially if the pain is sharp and sudden. You should stop what you’re doing and make sure everything is safe before you keep going. You may need to make an adjustment to your movement — such as tightening your abs or rolling your shoulders back — to prevent an injury.
Listen to your body
Exercise is supposed to improve your health and quality of life. If your body is fighting back, there’s a reason. Tired? Take a rest day. Are your muscles aching? Give them a stretch. Are you feeling restless? Go find some way to move. As you get used to exercising regularly, tune in to what’s happening in your body and honor it. Trust your intuition and that it will lead you to better health.
It takes time to get used to a routine
Fitting in the time to work out is an adjustment. It might feel difficult at first to adapt to the routine. Don’t let that discourage you. Expect for it to take time to get used to thinking about where, when, and how you’re going to exercise. Eventually, you’ll fall into a routine that works for you.
Don’t fall into the comparison trap
If you’re new to the gym, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing your fitness level with that of those who are working out around you. But don’t let yourself fall down that spiral! You have no clue how long those people have been working at their strength, flexibility, or whatever else it is that catches your envy. And even if you have been working at it for the same amount of time as they have, you are guaranteed to have different levels of ability. Why? Because every person’s body is different. Some people are able to advance more quickly towards certain skills while others take a little more time. Remember that there is nothing superior about that person that allows them their ability — it’s just a difference in experience and body type. And it doesn’t in any way take away from the benefits that you’re receiving from your exercise.
Check on your motives
So why are you working out in the first place? Is it to lose weight? Is it because you’re ashamed you’re out of shape? If so, you’re not likely to want to keep going. When you exercise, focus on how it makes you feel. If you’re doing it right, it’ll probably feel good — you’ll feel energized, happy, and like you’re taking care of yourself and your body. Your body will feel better having been used, moved, and stretched. You might gain mental clarity or feel calmer. Focus on these benefits. Focus on the reasons you’re exercising that have to do with how you feel today — not in three months when you hope you’ll have dropped five pounds. This shift in mindset will make a huge difference in how you feel during your workouts and after.
Fuel your workouts effectively
“Exercise requires fuel,” Corradino says, “primarily in the form of food and rest.” When you’re adding exercise to your routine, you may find that you need more food and more rest than usual. And that’s OK! How can you tell you need more food or sleep to adequately support your workouts? Clue in to your body’s signals. Eat when you’re hungry. Skip the gym when you feel worn out. “Be sure to honor your intuition not only with movement, but also with food and sleep,” Corradino says. She also notes that lack of enjoyment is a clue that you may need something more. “If you find yourself not enjoying or sticking to any form of movement, it is possible that you haven’t fueled properly,” she said. If your body isn’t getting what it needs, it’s going to try and fight back. You might have heard that when starting to exercise to get healthy, you should be careful not to eat more so that you achieve a calorie deficit. That is really bad advice — and one of the more common diet mistakes you might be making.