Welcome to Workout Advice For Lazy Girls, where Refinery29’s Deputy Editor of Health & Wellness (who also just so happens to be an ACE-certified personal trainer but is, we swear, not even a little bit athletic) fixes your biggest, laziest exercise conundrums. Got a Q? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's the best way to transition into working out if you've never been active (or it's just been a really long time)?
You’re already hinting at it — thinking of this process as a transition is the key to success. Why? Well, here’s how “finally getting in shape” tends to go: You gear up mentally to get active, strap on your sneakers, and, overly excited and determined, go on an insanely long run or throw yourself into a killer workout. (And yeah, maybe a small part of you feels like you have to go hard to make up for all the time you’ve been spending with Netflix and your cats. Or just me?) You feel awesome! And you’re planning to do it again a couple days later, but when the time comes, every inch of your body is in excruciating, unrelenting pain.
That phenomenon is called delayed onset muscle soreness (also known by the sexy acronym DOMS), and to new or not-so-experienced exercisers, it can be a death sentence for your motivation. Because unless you’re a glutton for punishment, or you happily interpret DOMS as your body’s signal that you had a great workout (which is only sort of accurate; basically it just means you worked your body harder than it’s used to), you’re probably going to think, “Ow, this hurts. I can’t move. Never mind on this whole fitness thing.”
So ease in. If you’re planning to start a running regimen, consider using a Couch to 5K app — it starts you off mostly walking with short bursts of jogging, then increases the jogs and decreases the walks, so that your body can gradually get used to running. Take it from me: I could barely jog down the block before I tried Couch to 5K, and after I finished the program I was breezing through 40-minute runs and actually, miraculously enjoying it. Make sure you warm up before your run and stretch afterwards — I do an extended version of the World’s Greatest Stretch (I add a standing hip stretch, along with a forward fold at the beginning and a downward dog at the end), and it feels awesome.
If you want to do weight training (which you totally should, btw), it’s smart to create a foundation of stability and mobility before you actually pick up a weight — that may mean a couple of weeks of stretching, yoga, and Pilates to build some basic strength and flexibility, and then easing into some bodyweight exercises such as squats, lunges, push-ups, and assisted pull-ups. When you're ready to progress, don’t drop the yoga and Pilates if you enjoy them — they’re an amazing accompaniment to weight training and pretty kick-ass workouts on their own.
When it's time to add resistance, opt for weights just heavy enough that your last 1-2 reps feel challenging — but light enough that you can perform the movement with perfect form throughout your set. During your first few weeks of lifting, the main work is getting your body used to the movements — then you can start gradually adding weight and/or reps (aim for no more than a 5% increase of either variable at a time) and really challenging yourself. (You’ll ideally feel a little sore a couple days after your workout, but not so sore that you want to skip the next round.) If you’re not sure what kinds of movements to try, check out our 30-day challenges for inspiration.
Oh, and if you’re combining a resistance workout and a cardio workout in one day, you might want to try doing cardio after weights — there are different schools of thought on this, but following weights with cardio may help reduce your DOMS and make your next workout a bit more comfortable. Or consider doing 5 minutes of cardio as a warmup, then doing your weight routine, and then finishing the rest of your cardio at the end.
And if all this sounds a little overwhelming, consider signing up for a small package of sessions with a personal trainer: It's not cheap, but it can be a great investment in your fitness future. Just be real with him or her about your goal — you want to learn the basics and set up a straightforward exercise routine you can stick to even when your training sessions are over.
Whatever you do, I’d also suggest taking a realistic look at your schedule before getting started on a new regimen. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, and you can divide that up however works for you — maybe it’s three hour-long sessions, five half-hours, or six 25-minute bursts. Sure, you might get totally ripped if you sign up for daily hardcore bootcamp classes — but you might also get burned out and end up right back where you started. It’s wonderful to feel ambitious about working out, but the most important thing about your exercise regimen is that you’re actually able to stick to it in the long haul. And that you enjoy it!