You know exercise is vital for your health, but taking that first step can be overwhelming — especially if it’s been a while since you’ve been physically active.
You may be concerned about a chronic health condition, hurting your joints or losing your balance. Or maybe you just don’t know where to begin.
Fortunately, research proves that the benefits of exercise far outweigh any risks. Regular physical activity lowers your risk of falling and having a heart attack, and it also boosts your memory, lifts your mood and helps you live longer. Studies show you reap the health benefits even if you start late in life.
Here, experts offer their best advice on the concerns that may be holding you back — from worry about already achy knees to fear of taxing your heart. From there, you may have to dig deep to find the motivation to get started, but you’ll feel so much better once you do.
Fear #1: It’s been years since you exercised, and you don’t know how to start. One of the hardest things about starting to exercise is figuring out where to begin. Experts recommend choosing something you think you’ll enjoy — whether it’s doing yoga, ballroom dancing or walking with a friend — because you’re more likely to stick with it.
If you are new to exercise, one of the safest activities to start with is walking, says Wendy Kohrt, an exercise physiologist and aging expert at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Center for Women’s Health Research. “Just about everybody can walk, and walking is great exercise,” she says. While any movement is better than none, you will reap more benefits if you do it at a pace that gets your heart rate up, so you start to sweat a little and your breathing quickens. Kohrt recommends aiming for at least a moderate intensity of about 65 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.
Fear #2: You have no idea how to lift weights (and you’re not sure you want to!). Adding resistance training to your routine helps keep your muscles and bones strong, experts say, and it doesn’t have to mean lifting heavy weights and barbells. Researchers have found that lifting light weights many times is just as effective as lifting heavy weights for fewer reps. You can also avoid weights altogether and use a resistance band or your own body weight, says Tracy Bonoffski, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Simply getting up and down from a chair is a great strength move, Bonoffski says. So are standing toe raises, pushups against the kitchen counter and planks.
Fear #3: You might fall. It’s true that your risk of falling increases as you get older, so a dose of caution is appropriate. But surveys show that many older adults are so paralyzed by fear that they avoid activities they are capable of, which ends up putting them at greater risk of a tumble.
In fact, research shows that simply staying active can reduce your risk of a fall by 10 to 20 percent, and exercising more than three hours a week is linked to a 39 percent reduction in falls. If you feel unsteady walking outside, walk inside the house or on a smooth track to build up your strength and confidence. Use a cane or walker if it makes you more comfortable, or have a strong relative accompany you.
If walking makes you nervous, you can get your heart rate up with activities that require less balance, such as riding a stationary or recumbent bike or rowing.
Fear #4: You might trigger a heart attack. If you have a heart condition or coronary artery disease, the idea of pushing your heart to beat faster through cardiovascular exercise may seem scary. But the research is indisputable: Engaging in regular physical activity actually lowers your risk of having a cardiac event over the long term. In fact, a 2018 Swedish study found heart attack survivors who identified as being the most active had a 71 percent lower risk of death than those who defined themselves as inactive.
Fear #5: Your aching knees will just get achier. If you have arthritis, just getting around the house can be painful, so going out for a brisk walk may seem out of the question. What you may not realize is that exercise is a powerful pain reliever. In one study of nearly 10,000 people with knee and hip osteoarthritis, people who exercised twice a week for six weeks experienced a 25 percent drop in pain on average.
If walking hurts too much, start with getting up and down from a dining room chair. Do a set of 10 three times a day, Hartley advises: “It sounds simple, but over time, that will build strength around your knees and hips, and help you to get strong enough for a walking program. Low-impact cardio exercises like walking and stationary biking put less stress on your joints. Water exercises are especially good, Bonoffski says, because the water’s buoyancy “helps take the pressure of your body’s weight off your joint, but you’re still moving.