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Fitness 101: The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Exercise

How to get started with an exercise program.
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Sample Workouts for Beginners

Before beginning any fitness routine, it's important to warm up, then do some light stretching. Save the bulk of the stretching for after the workout.

Once you're warmed up, experts recommend three different types of exercise for overall physical fitness: cardiovascular activity, strength conditioning, and flexibility training. These don't all have to be done at once, but doing each on a regular basis will result in balanced fitness.

  • Cardiovascular activity. Start by doing an aerobic activity, like walking or running, for a sustained 20-30 minutes, four to five times a week, says Bryant. To ensure you're working at an optimum level, try the "talk test": Make sure you can carry on a basic level of conversation without being too winded. But if you can easily sing a song, you're not working hard enough.
  • Strength conditioning. Start by doing one set of exercises targeting each of the major muscle groups. Bryant suggests using a weight at which you can comfortably perform the exercise eight to 12 times in a set. When you think you can handle more, gradually increase either the weight, the number of repetitions, or number of sets. To maximize the benefits, do strength training at least twice a week. Never work the same body part two days in a row.
  • Flexibility training. The American College on Exercise recommends doing slow, sustained static stretches three to seven days per week. Each stretch should last 10-30 seconds.

To learn how to perform certain exercises, consider hiring a personal trainer for a session or two, or take advantage of free sessions offered when you join a gym.

Home Exercise Equipment

Exercise doesn't have to be done at the gym. You can work out in the comfort of your own home. And with calesthenic-type exercises such as squats, lunges, pushups, and sit-ups, you can use the resistance of your own weight to condition your body. To boost your strength and aerobic capacity, you may also want to invest in some home exercise equipment.

Experts offer their thoughts on some popular home exercise items:

  • Treadmill. This best-selling piece of equipment is great for cardiovascular exercise, says Bracko. He recommends starting out walking at a low intensity for 30 minutes and applying the talk test. Depending on how you do, adjust the intensity, incline, and/or time accordingly.
  • Free weights. Barbells and dumbbells make up this category of strength-training equipment. Dumbbells are recommended for beginners. Fichera suggests purchasing an 18 pound adjustable dumbbell set, which can be adjusted in 3 pound increments.
  • Other strength training equipment. This includes weight stacks (plates with cables and pulleys), flexible bands, and flexible rods. Fichera says flexible bands are good for beginners, especially since they come with instructions. But he doesn't recommend them for long-term use; your muscles will likely adapt to the resistance and need more of a challenge.
  • Exercise ball. Although instructions and/or a companion video can accompany this gadget, Bracko worries that beginners may use exercise balls improperly. "Some people fall off or can't keep the ball still," he says. But if you enjoy working out with an exercise ball, it can provide a good workout.
  • Exercise videos and DVDs. Before working out with a home exercise video or DVD, Siegrist recommends watching through it at least once to observe the structure and proper form of the workout. To further improve form, she suggests working out in front of a mirror, if possible, or having someone else watch you do the exercise.
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Reviewed on February 12, 2008
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