Take note that, your dream of a leaner, fitter body may take time, especially if you've stuffed yourself one too many times or if you haven't been physically active in a while.
Yet exercise does not have to be an all-consuming and excruciating endeavor either. "There's a connection between exercise and pain, discomfort, and soreness. We watch Gatorade commercials and we see athletes whose eyeballs are sweating because they're working out so hard. People think that's what exercise is supposed to be," says Jonathan Ross, ACE, NSCA, a personal trainer in Bowie, Md. He says such high-intensity workouts are done only by a very small percentage of the population.
For the average person, a good fitness program consists of exercises that work out the whole body. A cardio workout improves the function and health of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Weight-bearing exercises enhance the function and health of the bones, muscles, joints, and connective tissues.
Because bodies are living, breathing matter, they need to be stimulated in order to become more fit. This means exercise is ideally done just outside your comfort zone. "You're taking your body a little outside where it is, because it needs that challenge - that stimulus - to be able to improve," says Ross.
If that is basically what exercise is, then you as an average Joe or Jane should be able to "just do it," and be on your way to a healthy, well-toned body, right? Perhaps. But as many people know all too well, it's not that easy to start a fitness routine, particularly for the out-of-shape and the inconsistent. There's the workout to begin, and the diet to plan, too.
To avoid overwhelming yourself, set realistic expectations, says Marilyn Tanner, RD, co-creator of the Head to Toe program at the St. Louis Children's Hospital and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"Assess where you are now, and then break it into achievable goals," says Tanner, noting how important it is to limit the number of resolutions. Stick to one small physical activity goal and to one small nutrition goal, and keep a reserve list of objectives, she says. Once you have accomplished your primary goals, move on to the next set.
How does one go about choosing an appropriate fitness program? Different things work for different people. Fortunately, there are more than enough options.
Starting to Make Healthy Choices
When fitness clients ask, "Which machine is the best for cardiovascular training?" Ross usually answers, "The one that you hate the least."
Exercise does not have to be dull. Yet as people grow up, they lose the connection between fun and movement, says Ross. He suggests thinking about the kind of person you are and what you like to do. Some people may love going to the gym while others prefer to play team sports. Still others favor jogging or walking around the neighborhood.
"It really doesn't matter what you do, if it's running up and down the stairs in your house, if it's sitting up and down in a chair 20 times, or running around the yard, or running around the treadmill, all (cardiovascular) exercise has to be is something that increases the demand for oxygen," says Ross. "If you are asking your body to use oxygen more rapidly, that is by very definition, cardiovascular training."
Exercise does not need to be a formal activity, either. It does not require a big chunk of time carved out of your day. Decades ago, people stayed fit by doing ordinary things like doing housework, taking the stairs, and playing with their kids, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a personal life coach in Camp Hill, Pa.
Some activities can even double as weight-bearing exercise, the other component of an ideal fitness program. This type of exercise involves anything that uses body weight against gravity. Examples include walking, jogging, playing basketball, yoga, martial arts, push-ups, weight training, and free weights.
To get maximum benefits, focus on working out the larger muscle groups. Most of the muscle mass in the body lies in the trunk, thighs, chest, back, and abdomen. Targeting these areas will give "you the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak, for your workout time," says Ross. He suggests starting out with one set of 8 to 15 repetitions of one exercise two days a week.
If you are unsure about how to perform certain exercises properly, seek expert help. You may hire a personal trainer for one or two sessions to get started. "Many people try to (start a fitness program) on their own, and they try things that really aren't meant to get the long-term result," says Ross. "It's extremely beneficial to get education if you feel like you need it."
Consulting a dietitian for nutrition advice may help as well. Healthy eating is an essential part of a good fitness program. A person who works out a lot but does not nourish the body properly could be sabotaging or hiding the fruits of his labor.
Dee Sandquist, MSRD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, advises having a general plan, and investing some time in advance to make it happen. "Taking five minutes on the weekend to plan your food for the week can pay huge dividends," she says. "Look at your schedule for the upcoming week, and find out how many meals you'll be eating in and how many meals you'll be eating out. Make a list, and then go to the grocery store."
Planning works regardless of your dietary goal. Some people may prefer to work on reducing fat in their diet, adding fruits and vegetables, watching portions, eating at a slower pace, or curbing junk food.
Whatever your aim, avoid getting too hungry. At that point, people tend to overeat and ignore their best intentions. Also, figure out what triggers you to overeat or disregard your nutrition plan. Determine how to avoid problems or how to tackle them.
Many a New Year's resolution has been thwarted by injury. Some people are so gung-ho about getting fit that they are too aggressive at the beginning of their fitness program. As a result, they may become injured, feel a lot of soreness, or think of exercise as an unpleasant experience.
"Start low and then gradually progress," advises Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "The thing most people forget is that they didn't become deconditioned and out of shape overnight. You shouldn't expect to become well-conditioned overnight."
To figure out whether you are exercising at the right level, try the talk test. The goal is to carry on a basic level of conversation without being out of breath. If you find that you are too chatty, however, chances are you are not working hard enough.
You can also assess your energy level after a workout, says Bryant. If you are still tired one hour after exercise, you probably overdid it. He says the average person should be reasonably recovered in that time.
Lee Igel, NSCA, a sports psychology consultant and faculty member at New York University, simply shakes his head at some of the less-than-bright things people do at the beginning of a fitness program.
"It's easy to walk into a gym, and see somebody with a body that you want, and say, 'I'm going to do everything that I can to get that,'" says Igel. He says some people assume they know how to achieve the perfect body, jump into a workout routine without educating themselves on proper form and use of the equipment, and then get hurt.
To ward off injury, he suggests consulting a trained professional or reading books, magazines, or reputable web sites for advice.
If you do get hurt, don't work through it. Don't think your whole fitness routine is out the door either. An injured shoulder does not prevent you from working out your lower body, and a sprained ankle does not mean you can't exercise your upper body.
"A sprained ankle doesn't mean your whole body is shut down, and it doesn't mean you can eat pizza and ice cream," says Ross. "Try to use the rest of your body as much as you can, and still maintain exercise, and still maintain a good nutrition program."
Indeed, it is possible to begin a fitness program and stick with it. If you do, perhaps you can scratch off that resolution next year and have the satisfaction of knowing you have accomplished something very important.