Taking the First Step Toward Fitness.

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June 12, 2000 -- With her wedding quickly approaching, Julie, a 30-year-old New York advertising executive, is eager to maintain a regular exercise routine so she can look as good as possible on her special day.

"I am trying to walk or run four times a week, averaging about three or four miles per session, and I try to use the free weights for my arms on occasion," she tells WebMD. While she is making strides, it's not easy, she says.

"My problem is motivation, because I don't find exercise to be particularly inspiring," says Julie, who spoke on condition that her full name not be used. "Exercise is ultimately a routine. Routines are boring."

In addition to the boost it can give your looks, the health benefits of regular exercise include protection against heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and the brittle-bone disease osteoporosis, as well as increases in mood and self-esteem. Yet more than 60% of American adults do not get the recommended amount: 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week.

The reason? It may be as simple as taking that first step. Most experts agree that getting started is the hardest part of establishing a regular exercise routine.

"All of America can do some exercise if all of America wants to do it," Gerald F. Fletcher, MD, a cardiologist at Mayo Medical School at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., tells WebMD. "You've got to make up your mind to do it and overcome all the inconveniences and all of your rationalizations."

Here's how most inactive Americans can start getting physical, says Fletcher, who is also a spokesman for the American Heart Association: "Most of America - meaning most adults age 18 and older - should start by walking properly. Thirty minutes a day, six days a week, is ideal."

Those 30 minutes don't have to be all at once, either. "You can get up in the morning and walk 15 minutes, then walk a little at lunch, and then a little in the afternoon," Fletcher says. He advises walkers to buy quality, brand-name shoes, not discount brands.

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"If you have two or more risk factors for heart disease -- such as having high blood pressure levels, high cholesterol levels, are a smoker, or have a strong family history of heart disease -- then see a doctor for a physical and possibly an exercise test before beginning any exercise regimen," he says. "But generally, for low level walking in moderation, you don't need to see a doctor."

According to the Chicago-based American Medical Association, if a person weighing 200 pounds adds a daily brisk walk of 1.5 miles while consuming the same amount of calories as usual, he or she will lose 14 pounds in a year.

Once you have started walking or doing other types of aerobic exercise, such as biking or swimming, "a little weight exercise is good two to three times a week if you want to get a little more pretty ...," Fletcher says. "Have a trainer to talk to you first," he advises.

A recent National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute study conducted with the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas indicated that small lifestyle changes to increase activity levels are as effective as a structured exercise program at improving blood pressure and overall heart fitness.

Wayne T. Phillips, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise, science, and physical education at Arizona State University, in Tempe, calls this the "user-friendly" approach to physical activity. "Now with the new physical activity guidelines from the U.S. Surgeon General, we can tell people with confidence that doing things they are already doing -- like activities of daily living, just a little more vigorously -- can have health benefits," Phillips tells WebMD.

The AMA recommends several creative ways to accumulate moderate exercise: take the stairs (for 5 minutes of exercise), park a few blocks from your destination (for 10 minutes), take a brisk walk after dinner (for 15 minutes), or mow the lawn (for 15-plus minutes).

"In general, I encourage people to look for ways to become more active in their lifestyles during the day, such as by walking more, using the stairs, and going to the bathroom or water cooler on the next floor while at work," Phillips says.

"The bottom line is that anyone can certainly find lots of ways to add extra minutes of walking or activity to their day. It's easy to do this extra stuff."

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