WHAT HAPPENED? To knees that used to sprint up stairs? To stamina that lasted all night and flexibility that welcomed the Kama Sutra? When and where our youthful chassis began to fail us may not be worth mapping, but the reward for bolstering the bodies we have right now is a happier, healthier, sexier life.
But how? Finding the fitness regime that's best for you is simple– it's one you'll actually do. You may have lofty goals and fine intentions, but if you don't enjoy the activity you select, odds are you'll never stick with it. And making exercise as pleasant as possible isn't rocket science. It's as easy as choosing to jog or walk in a beautiful setting, asking a friend to join you at the pool, signing up for a class with a great personal trainer, or just listening to music that rocks your world as you ride a stationary bike. But if you don't find a way to make activity interesting you risk the loss of time, money, and most importantly, motivation.
Getting and staying motivated is a challenge, and though the adage that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit is debatable in specifics, it's a fact that performing an activity consistently builds neural pathways that ultimately cause behavior to feel "instinctive." Which is why it's important to break long-range goals into a succession of smaller, easily obtainable ones. Promising to walk 30 minutes twice a week and accomplishing that objective is more beneficial than vaguely telling yourself that you have to lose 30 pounds and get into shape. Achieving a specific, pared-down goal sends a message to your brain, (and your spirit), that you're capable, and makes it easier to repeat that behavior. The more you repeat a behavior, the more habitual it becomes, and the more likely it is that you'll continue until you reach your long-range goal. You'll find that more reasonable expectations tend to incur fewer injuries as well, especially if you're just beginning to get fit.
Psychologists also recommend tackling one self-renovation project at a time. Exercising regularly, giving up junk food, and swearing off alcohol are worthy aims, but attempting them all at once is expecting a lot of yourself. It can be done, especially if your doctor orders you to do so, but taking things one step at a time increases the odds of success.
So those are the mindset basics for a positive fitness regime. To follow are steps to you get yourself moving.
WARM UP Take the time to get your blood pumping, your head clear, and your body prepped for action. Stretching your muscles before you exercise is the easiest way to prevent injury. Gretchen Reynolds debunks some long-held notions about warming up and offers optimum pre-workout exercises in this piece for the New York Times.
GO SLOWLY Don't expect to make up for years of sedentary life in one day. Building up muscle and endurance takes time, and pushing yourself too hard will only get you hurt, discouraged, or both. Ease into a new exercise routine, and even when you've gotten into the swing of things the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that you not increase your activity level by more than 10% per week.
FACTOR IN YOUR WEIGHT Every excess pound on your body puts an additional 1-3 pounds of stress on your knees and hips as they work. If you're overweight, chose a fitness program that's easy on joints and helps shed pounds. Swimming, yoga and Pilates are gentle-on-joint routines, and walking, if begun slowly, is also fine.
PAY ATTENTION Staying focused on what you're doing is vital to avoid injury, especially if you're overweight. If exercising at a gym or taking part in a specific exercise studio program, ask a trainer if you're performing activities properly. Tips on how to walk correctly can be found at Reader's Digest, and Dr. Emily Senay of WCBS weighs in with jogging advice here.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY You may have been able to shake off a spasm, twinge, or minor pain 20 years ago, but it's important to pay attention to the messages your body sends you as you exercise now. Ignoring symptoms can result in major problems, so listen to your bod, and remember that a slow start is the best way to gauge what you can do.
COOL DOWN Cooling down after a workout gradually reduces the temperature of just-used muscles and prevents soreness and stiffness. The Mayo Clinic recommends continuing whatever your workout activity might be at a lower intensity for about 10 minutes to help muscles relax.
CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN Check with your doctor before you begin any new or rigorous exercise regimen, especially if you're overweight or have specific health concerns. You'll get helpful advice as well as valuable positive reinforcement by doing so.