How to Start an Effective Exercise Program When You've Recently Been Inactive

Vicky Prater, MDby Vicky Prater, MD
How to Start an Effective Exercise Program When You've Recently Been Inactive


Although we all know the importance of staying active, the majority of Americans do not exercise routinely. Around a quarter of American adults are completely inactive, and 60% do not perform the recommended amount of routine exercise. 

Inactivity is a major health risk for both physical and psychological conditions. Unfortunately, many people do not realize that struggling with their health can lead to inactivity and vice-versa. 

This is why recognizing and understanding the importance of exercise as a treatment and preventative measure is so important.

While exercise is more accessible than ever thanks to online resources, getting into the groove of a routine can be difficult after being inactive. 

Whether you haven’t ever had a serious regime, or you’ve recently become inactive due to other life circumstances, this guide will help you learn how to ease back into exercise safely and effectively.

How Much Exercise Do You Really Need?

Millions of Americans resolve themselves to “exercise more” at the start of every year, but what limit should they be striving for? 

Although some people seem to live for their daily gym visits, exercise does not have to be intensive or exhaustive to be beneficial. The average amount of exercise you need doesn’t demand hours a day or any expensive equipment, either.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lays out guidelines for how much Americans should exercise to stay healthy. For adults, the CDC suggests you perform two physical activities a week for 150 minutes total. 

It may sound like a lot, but 150 minutes is roughly two or three episodes of a series on Netflix. In 2021, the average American watched TV for 12 hours or more each week. While exercise may seem difficult to fit into your schedule, it actually takes up less time than the majority of our other hobbies and daily activities. 

What Types of Exercise Do You Need?

The two types of exercise activities the CDC recommends are moderate aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening exercises. Each one serves a specific purpose and has unique benefits. There are also a number of ways you can perform either activity, so moving your way is actually easier than you think.

One of the reasons people shy away from exercise routines is worrying they cannot perform adequately. You may not enjoy high-intensity, fast-paced workouts, but that does not mean exercise isn’t for you. 

Toning your muscles also doesn’t require lifting heavy weights or taking routine trips to the gym. You can perform any and all exercises you need from the comfort of home. 

What Is Aerobic Exercise? 

Aerobic exercise engages the body's core muscle groups and elevates the heart rate. This helps strengthen the cardiac muscles, burn calories and prevent a number of diseases. Moderate aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, can be done for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

You don’t have to exercise daily to reap its rewards, but a daily cardio workout is one of the most accessible and effective ways to boost your mood, raise energy levels and ward off heart disease. 

If you prefer more intensive workouts, then jogging or running can be done for an hour and 15 minutes once a week. The more intense a workout is, the less you’ll have to perform for it to be effective.

However, starting any workout routine requires patience. No one should start running or even jogging after a period of inactivity. Instead, you have to help your body adjust to moving regularly and build endurance before introducing more demanding exercise. 

Here are some examples of aerobic exercise you may enjoy:

  • Walking exercises (either at home or outdoors)

  • Light jogging

  • Cycling

  • Swimming

  • Dancing

  • Using an elliptical machine

  • Kickboxing

  • Martial arts 

  • Playing tennis 

You can experiment with different types of aerobic exercises to find what works for you; you should also be mindful of your breathing during this type of workout. 

According to the CDC, moderate aerobic workouts will elevate the heart rate and break a sweat without leaving you completely breathless. To measure this, you can check whether you’re still able to talk but not sing the lyrics to a song you like.


What Are Muscle-Strengthening Exercises? 

Any exercise that makes your muscles work more than usual. The major muscle groups that these exercises target include:

  • Chest and back

  • Legs and arms

  • Shoulders

  • Abdomen

To gauge how effective a muscle-stretching activity is, you should perform enough repetitions to the point that doing one without help is difficult. You should not strain yourself to do an activity the first time. 

Aim for muscle activities that are easy and natural to do but offer muscle contraction. 

A single repetition is one movement, e.g., one complete push-up or high-knee. Generally, 8 to 12 reps are enough for someone who is new to working out. You can gradually work your way to performing sets, which is a group of multiple reps in a row.

For example, you could eventually perform three sets of 10 reps of sit-ups, high-knees and 10-second planks. 

In addition to lifting weights, you can also try working with a resistance band or performing no-equipment strength-training exercises. 

Tips for Beginning Exercise After a Period of Inactivity 

There are some suggestions you can follow to make sure your new workout routine is fun, effective and, most importantly, safe. 

Be sure to adjust these suggestions to suit your own needs and abilities. Remember that exercise is supposed to accommodate your body, not push it beyond its limits. 

Whenever you feel like you need to stop, take a break or experience any pain, it’s okay to modify your exercise routine.

1. Talk to Your Doctor Before Starting a Program

Let your healthcare provider know that you’re thinking of starting an exercise program. They can check your vitals and even perform a stress test to ensure you have no underlying conditions that may put you at risk or limit what types of activities you can perform.

A doctor can also help you set realistic and reachable fitness goals, build a healthy exercise routine and offer suggestions on the best types of exercise to perform for your fitness ability.

2. Make a Long-term Commitment 

Exercise releases endorphins, strengthens muscles and engages your body immediately, but bigger changes take time. Make sure you don’t judge your success by every individual workout.

Some days, you may not enjoy working out as much as another. That’s okay. What matters most is being consistent with your routine.

Aim to exercise for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week for at least 6 months. This is a good baseline for measuring how much exercise can benefit your life and lower any health risks.

3. Take It Slow

If you are unable to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at first, lower your time limit to 20. If that’s too much, perform two or three 10-minute sessions per day. 

What matters most about exercise is not duration or intensity but consistency. Even if you break up your workouts, they are still just as effective.

You should start slow and perform easy exercises. No one should take on an intense aerobic workout routine right off the bat. And even if an exercise seems “mild”, it could be strenuous for you if you have been inactive for some time.

The easiest activity to start is walking. You can also incorporate some gentle movements like arm lifts and low kicks to get your blood pumping.

4. Find Simple Ways to Move More

Not every form of exercise has to feel like a workout. Running the vacuum, mopping the house, cleaning the tub or taking the dog for a walk can also be great forms of exercise. You may take on a relaxing exercise like yoga, or decide to start a home garden to get outdoors and move more.

Any activity that has you on your feet and actively moving is a plus. You should start doing more of the most accessible movements, like walking, and work your way into a dedicated cardio plan.

5. Get a Fitness Buddy

Working out with a partner is more fun and can help you stay accountable. Even your dog can be a fun exercise companion! Take them for a daily walk or invite a friend to join you for a stroll. 

You can also choose social activities that encourage movement. Sign up for a fitness class, join a gym or take the kids to the park to kick a soccer ball or throw a frisbee. 

6. Be Mindful of Your Diet

What you eat impacts more than just your weight. Diet plays a large role in mental health, including your energy levels and motivation. If you are exercising to lose weight, then you’ll want to pay particular attention to what you eat and how much you consume.

Even if you are not overweight, making healthier eating choices can help exercise leave a greater impact on your body and mind.

Benefits of Starting a Workout Plan 

Exercise has an extensive number of benefits that have all been heavily researched and supported by medical professionals. Your doctor can even explain why exercise is so valuable and specific ways it can improve your health.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits of working out regularly. 

1. Prevent a Number of Chronic Diseases

Your risk for chronic diseases is linked to a number of factors, including family history, smoking and exercise. Fitness can have a large impact on your health now and in the future. 

By working out more, you can help lower your risk of developing a number of conditions including:

  • Certain types of cancer

  • Heart disease

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Dementia

2. Improve Your Mental Health

Research shows that exercising for 30 minutes 3 to 5 days a week can have a noticeable impact on depression symptoms. Even smaller amounts of physical activity may show improvements. 

In some cases, following an exercise routine has been as effective as taking antidepressants. This makes fitness an approachable and accessible all-natural mental health treatment worth exploring. 

If you are currently on any medications for a psychological disorder, do not discontinue them in favor of exercise. Instead, talk to your doctor about how you can incorporate exercise into your treatment and symptom management.

3. Sleep Better

Exercise can help wake you up by releasing energy-boosting endorphins, but it can also help you sleep more deeply. Numerous studies have found that adults who perform moderate or vigorous exercise each week fall asleep faster and enjoy a better sleep quality than those who don’t. 

If you struggle with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) due to heavy weight, exercising can help you safely lose weight and possibly reduce the number of apnea episodes you experience.

4. Improve Brain Function and Memory

Regular exercise helps your brain perform tasks faster and may improve memory as well. Because exercise increases blood flow, your heart is able to deliver more oxygenated blood to the brain. This can boost performance while also encouraging the production of hormones that improve cognitive function.

Among older adults, exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia and stimulate the part of the brain associated with memory and learning. 

Elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia should also stay active to delay the progression of the diseases; staying active also helps them avoid depression and have more stable moods.

When Is the Best Time to Exercise? 

Most people exercise when it’s most convenient for them, but you should consider the effect your workout will have on mood and metabolism.

Exercising in the morning can be a good way to boost brain function throughout the day, while afternoon workouts are able to naturally boost your energy levels when they start to wane.

Exercising in the evening can be a good way to destress, but avoid any aerobic activity at least 1 hour before bed. If you exercise too close to bedtime, you could find yourself feeling “buzzed” and unable to fall asleep. 

Exercise Safely With a Doctor’s Advice

Your exercise routine is an important part of your preventative healthcare plan. It's also critical to seek expert advice prior to getting started if you have any existing health conditions. If you'd like to speak with a physician before beginning your new workout routine, we've got you covered — you can book an IRL or URL appointment anytime on our website.

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