Beginning an exercise program can be a daunting task, especially for those who have limited knowledge in the area. How often should I go? What exercises should I do? How many sets? How many reps? These are all questions that need to be answered, but can be difficult to address without any kind of basic background in exercise or fitness. All of those questions will have different answers depending on your goals, prior experience, availability, and the tools you have at hand. A good trainer will be able to incorporate all these factors to create an individualized program for you. Outlining all the details of exercise programming is outside the scope of this post. For more information regarding programs it is important to seek the assistance of an exercise professional. What I will outline are some basic tips to put you on the right path to reaching your goals outside the program itself.

The wonderful thing about exercise programs is that there is really no single “right” way to create one. 4 different trainers could come up with 4 different programs that all effectively help you reach your goals, so looking for that one best program isn’t necessarily going to happen. Many different programs can be effective for your purpose, but exercises, sets, and reps won’t mean a thing if you don’t follow these other keys to exercise success that I will outline below. Missing out on any one of these will be detrimental to success and can potentially undermine a lot of hard work.

The best exercise program in the world (which I’ve already mentioned doesn’t exist), won’t make a lick of difference if you don’t consistently show up to do the work. Getting back into shape (e.g. getting stronger, better conditioned, more mobile, etc.) is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes dedication and showing up day in and day out to truly get the results you want. Busting your butt in a single workout, and then doing nothing the rest of the week won’t help you reach your goals.

snoopyAn often overlooked variable, sleep, is vital for a successful program. Hard work in the gym without a good night’s rest is like spending all night typing up a great essay only to lose half of it because you forgot to hit “save”. Sleep is the unsung hero of program success. The body’s response to exercise is muscle damage (small micro-tears in the muscle) and then reparation and adaptation. That is how the muscles grow and change to accommodate new stimuli.  The workouts themselves represent the damage stage and rest/sleep are the recovery and repair stages. Any disruption in the latter stages means you can’t maximize the return on all the work you put in.

Of all the factors I’ve mentioned, nutrition has the biggest impact and is the most difficult to outline and implement. In a world where a staggering percentage of food produced is over-processed, it can be difficult to practice good nutritional habits. Exercise with poor dietary habits is similar to scooping water out of a leaking boat with a thimble. No matter how fast you can get the water out you will not be able to overcome the water coming in. I am not a nutritionist, so outlining a detailed nutrition plan is outside my scope of practice. I will however, give a few basic tips to help you get started.

This seems like a no-brainer and everyone has heard it before, but it can be hard to put into practice.  Limiting your portion sizes will go a long way in helping you keep your weight in check regardless of what you eat.

Avoid Using Food As Comfort
All too often food is used as a stress-reliever or a means of delivering a quick dose of happiness. There is nothing wrong with finding joy in preparing and eating food, but relying on it to make you happy can have a dangerous result. It’s important to have other outlets to deal with life’s stresses that don’t have a negative impact on your health.

Limit Intake of Over-Processed Foods
This is a subject that has been absolutely beaten to death, but I want to reiterate the point here. Many foods are created today to have long shelf-lives and to taste good, not to provide healthy sustenance. A general rule of thumb for grocery store shopping is to stay around the perimeter and avoid the middle of the store. The outer portion of most grocery stores is where you’ll find the fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, and some of the more unhealthy options with the great marketing will be located in the aisles. Obviously this isn’t foolproof and there are some exceptions, but it is a good start.

Do Not Drink Your Calories
A good quick way to cut some calories is to stick to low calorie drinks like water, coffee (without added sweeteners) and tea. 100% fruit juice is okay in moderation since it is more nutritionally dense (more vitamins and minerals per calorie) than other sweet drinks. Be careful; however, because fruit juice still has a substantial amount of calories. Soda or other sugar sweetened drinks can add a lot of calories to your daily intake and provide very little in the way of nutrition.

On the opposite side of the spectrum from adherence is restraint. This means knowing when to back off. There are going to be some days where you feel absolutely beaten down, which could result from rigorous training, being sick, or not adhering to some of the other keys to success. It can be hard to determine when to push through it and when to take it easy. The risk of injury is greater on days like this and sometimes it’s best to just take the day off to recover. However, if you are constantly experiencing days like this then it may be time to take a step back and re-examine other potential causes.

It’s important to take some time to examine potential barriers that are preventing you from getting to the gym (e.g. lack of time, low motivation, transportation, etc.). Eliminating barriers puts you one step closer to reaching your goals and being a more consistent exerciser. Unfortunately, I’ve been around enough individuals struggling to make a lifestyle change to know that a molehill barrier will often be turned into a mountain barrier. That’s why everything eventually comes down to whether or not you want it bad enough. For many people, the price they must pay exceeds their willingness to make the change, but those that have already made the change know that lifelong health is priceless.

By: Bo Stansell, MS, CSCS
SPARC Specialist