When you have a lot of weight to lose, starting an exercise program can seem daunting. But daily exercise can boost your mental health, help you sleep better, promote weight loss, and even keep any other health conditions you have under better control. These are all especially important benefits during this pandemic era since the CDC says people who are obese, smoke, or have conditions like chronic kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, heart conditions, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have a higher risk of severe illness if they get COVID-19.
With all the potential benefits, scratching out some time for exercise seems like a no-brainer. But, as many of us know, actually getting going AND being able to stick with a fitness plan is an entirely different matter, especially in the dead of a pandemic winter.
Whether you’re new to exercise or it’s just been a while, starting slowly is essential. The total amount of activity you accumulate throughout the day is more important than how long you do one bout of activity, says Chris Gagliardi, scientific education content manager for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and a health coach and personal trainer. As long as you’re being more active than normal, he says, you can still reap health benefits.
Gagliardi, who’s based in El Cajon, CA, suggests starting by filling in the blanks to this question: What is the easiest way for me to add ___ minutes of __________________ (type of physical activity) into my daily routine? (And remember, any amount of physical activity adds to your total daily amount.)
The adult recommendation for physical activity is half an hour a day, most days of the week, says Brad Lipson, DO, a bariatric doctor and medical director at U.S. Medical Care in Boca Raton, FL. While that may sound like a lot at first, he suggests building up your activity. Try parking farther from the store, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and breaking up a walk into 5- or 10-minute increments. Getting good nutrition, plenty of rest, and listening to your body are important to avoid injuries, he says.
If you’re not sure a fitness program is right for you, check with your doctor first. Gagliardi says that for most people, any risk from being active is less than the risks that come with being inactive.
Pick activities you enjoy and figure out how to make them part of your routine, Gagliardi says. Don’t worry about what you should or could be doing; instead, think about what you’re ready and willing to do now and the easiest way to make this new behavior part of your daily life. Safe exercises to consider include walking, bicycling, swimming, and weight training.
If you have 100+ pounds to lose, Lipson suggests beginning with chair exercises, water aerobics, or bike riding. “These activities are safer, gentler on the joints, and still effective for cardiovascular fitness and weight reduction.”
Establishing specific goals is vital to success, says Susan Dawson-Cook, a personal trainer in San Carlos, Mexico, and author of Fitter Than Ever at 40 and Beyond. Just saying you want to lose weight is “too vague to be motivating,” she says. Instead, focus on setting specific goals like losing 50 pounds or wearing clothing in a specific size by a certain date.
Be sure to set short-term goals as well as long-term ones because they’ll help you stay more motivated as you see your successes add up, Dawson-Cook says.
Staying Motivated (Especially During a Pandemic)
While it can be easy to start an exercise program with enthusiasm, many people find their motivation eventually slipping away. How to keep going? Try using a fitness tracker, which monitors your activity and shows your daily accomplishments.
Dawson-Cook also recommends exercising with friends and rewarding yourself, whether it’s with a spa trip or buying a new outfit in a smaller size.
If starting an exercise program just seems too overwhelming at the moment, Dawson-Cook says to try setting simple goals like walking for 30 minutes, 5 days a week, and adding more fresh fruits and veggies into your diet.
“The discipline required to accomplish these short-term goals will help you gear up for a post-pandemic day when you’re ready to tackle more aggressive goals,” she says.
“Staying motivated even during the best of times can be challenging,” Gagliardi says. “Especially now in light of COVID-19, this can be a great time to make your health a priority.”
His tips: Do a self-appraisal to come up with a plan to change some of your health-related habits. Set positive goals that aim to do more of something rather than negative goals that focus on giving something up. For example: “I will add an extra trip up and down the stairs this week.” Look for ways to be active every day. And stay focused on your “why,” the big reason you started a fitness plan in the first place.
Tackling Common Issues
What if you’re exercising regularly but the scale hasn’t moved? Take a look at your diet. In order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in. Exercise alone won’t melt away those stubborn pounds. Lipson says that when you raise physical activity, sticking to a well-balanced diet that gives you plenty of protein and eating healthy fats will cut cravings and help you feel full.
Evaluate what you’re doing and look for ways to do more, Gagliardi says. Can you add exercise on more days of the week, work out longer, or change the intensity?
“It’s important to remember also that health benefits occur even if weight loss isn’t happening,” Gagliardi says. If you can’t seem to lose weight despite cutting your calorie intake and upping your exercise, it’s possible that you have a medical condition that has slowed down your metabolism.
What about hitting a plateau? This happens to everyone, Dawson-Cook says. She tells her clients to keep following their exercise and eating plans and consider increasing the length of time they exercise for a few days or adding some high intensity intervals. Most people push past the plateau in a few days, she says.
If you need to lose weight to help other chronic conditions and you’re having trouble, Lipson says you may need to see an obesity doctor who’s familiar with FDA-approved weight loss medications. These medications can help with hunger, cravings, and metabolism.
Remember that weight loss is “a transformation to a new life,” Dawson-Cook says. Making small, daily improvements, like walking around while you’re chatting on the phone or not buying your favorite chips next time you’re grocery shopping, can have a big impact when you consistently add to them.
And be kind to yourself when you don’t have a stellar day. After all, this is a lifelong journey, and while it’ll be filled with ups and downs, it’ll mostly be days of patient plodding along as you gradually build good fitness habits.