If you haven't included exercise in your lifestyle before (or have just had a really long break from it), a fresh new year is a great time to commit to starting your workout journey as a beginner.
Not only will being more active empower your body and mind, but it will also reduce your risk of major illnesses like coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer, as well as lower your risk of early death by up to 30%.
So, to help you get fit for the first time, and stay fit, we've compiled a list of top tips to help you set some achievable, but effective, exercise goals.
How to get motivated
First thing's first, it's important to check in with your GP about your health before starting your fitness journey. There might be certain things to be mindful of when picking your exercise routines, or activities that could help you the most.
When that's all clear, try and identify why it is you want to get fit for the first time. Is it to help with strength? Toning your body? Mental health? Whatever your goal, you can visualise what it will be and feel like when you achieve it, to help keep you going. Plus, the more you exercise, the more endorphins you'll be hit with, with instant benefits motivating enough alone.
Setting mini goals can also help you work towards your end target. It's better to start small and make these achievable, to save yourself feeling like you've failed at something that wasn't possible in the first place. As you improve, you can adjust how much you do accordingly. And if you need any additional support with motivation, however, joining an exercise class or club or working out with a friends is a great way to stay accountable, and share the experience with others.
But the key part of staying motivated is simply allowing yourself to do what you enjoy, whether that's running, lifting weights, yoga, swimming or even going on long walks. Exercise shouldn't be a form of punishment. That way, you'll be more likely to get out of bed in the morning and look forward to moving your body, consistently.
How to prepare your body
Warming up is one of the most important parts of exercise (especially if you're doing something for the first time) to help prevent injury and enable you to get more from your workouts. It increases your heart rate and blood flow, which enables more oxygen to to reach your muscles, and improves the efficiency of movement.
Dynamic stretching (where joints and muscles go through a full range of motion) can also increase your flexibility. Despite what some people might think, there is little evidence to suggest static stretching (when you hold a single position for a period of time) reduces your risk of injury or soreness the next day. As well as your body, warming up prepares your mind for the activity to come.
A warm up could involve fast-paced walking, walking up and down stairs, fast-paced side stepping, jogging on the spot, arm swings, lunges and squats. If you're after a specific warm-up routine, try marching on the spot for three minutes, doing 60 heel digs in 60 seconds, 30 knee lifts in 30 seconds, rolling your shoulders forwards and backwards five times each for two sets and bending your knees and rising 10 times. And you're good to go.
How to eat when working out
Nutrition is a key part of performing your best when exercising. You should allow three hours between having a main meal like breakfast or lunch and exercising. But having a light snack an hour before physical activity can be a good bet. Opt for something with protein that's higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat, like porridge, a banana or a slice of wholegrain bread with nut better.
Avoid fatty foods like chips, avocados, olives or crisps and high-fibre foods like raw veg and cereals which could cause discomfort. You should be starting exercise well hydrated, so make sure you're drinking enough water throughout the day (six to eight glasses).
Generally speaking, the more you exercise, the more carbs you'll need in your daily meals and around exercise. Despite their bad rep, healthier carbs provide the source of energy you'll need to help with with concentration, performance and recovery. Protein should also be included in most mealtimes to aid muscle building like beans, peas and lentils, cheese yoghurt and milk, fish, eggs, tofu, tempeh and other plant-based alternatives, lean cuts of meat or chicken.
You should of course also eat a balanced diet outside of this, with plenty of fruit and veg. If you're trying to lose weight, you can use the NHS Weight Loss Plan to help you determine your calorie allowance. Restricting certain types of food groups is never advised, unless you have a condition that requires you to.
How to work out from home
As gyms, sports and leisure centres were all closed during the pandemic, we've become more aware that home workouts can be just as effective as any other (and you might prefer them in these colder months).
"Keeping fit and active puts you in a better position to fight off illness and helps relieve stress and anxiety," said Deepak Dwarakanath, North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust medical director and deputy chief executive. "But it needs to be done properly. No one wants to end up in A&E after overdoing it or causing an injury to themselves."
Getting the boring parts out the way, the Trust's top tips to exercise safely at home include:
If you are new to exercise, don’t overdo it. Build up slowly, and take extra care to ensure you are doing any exercise correctly. Five good press ups are better than 20 poorly performed press ups, and much less of an injury risk.
Avoid needless risk. Make sure you have enough space around you, that your fingers aren’t going to get caught if someone opens the door and that you are not misusing any furniture that could topple over.
Whether you want to try aerobic exercises, strength and resistance exercises, or pilates and yoga, you can find free fitness studio exercise videos on the NHS website. It's likely all you'll need is a matt or some free space in your home. Chair-based exercises are also great for older or less mobile people.
"You don’t need a home gym to exercise – just some space, your own bodyweight and a routine is enough," advises the Trust. Have fun with it, and get your family, children or housemates involved too!
How to work out for free
Other ways to work out for free include the plethora of apps and online tools we have at our fingertips.
If you need a refresher of some of the favourites out there, Couch to 5K is an app designed to get complete beginners running 5km in just nine weeks. Might sound daunting, but it was developed by a new runner just like you, Josh Clark, who wanted to to help his 50+ mum get off the couch and outside running. It will build you up with three runs a week, and you can listen to a friendly voice like Jo Whiley or Michael Johnson, as well as your own music.
Other than that, there's the Active 10 app, which anonymously records every minute of walking you do, helps you set goals, shows your achievements and gives you tips to boost your activity, (everybody's favourite) Joe Wicks' endless collection of workout videos on his The Body Coach TV YouTube channel, or (everybody's other favourite) Yoga With Adriene.
You can also just throw on your exercise gear, head outside and get moving or turn the music on and enjoy a dance in your living room.
How to work out at the gym
It's normal to feel some sort of gymtimidation, especially if you've never stepped foot in a gym before. But, if you do want to go, there's no reason you shouldn't. Opting for an induction is the best way to start, as a trainer will show you all you need to know about the facilities, how to use machines safely and give tips and advice tailored to you.
But if you'd rather do a little research of your own before going, for that added confidence, it's helpful to know which machines are best for what. Cardio, for example, is best for losing weight and strengthening your heart and lungs. Some gym machines to try for this include the treadmill, cross trainer, elliptical, stair climber, rowing machine and exercise bike.
Meanwhile, muscle-strengthening activities help you perform everyday tasks and slow down the rate of bone and muscle loss (and build muscle of course). If you want to lift weights, start with bodyweight training like squats and push ups to build strength.
Then you could move on to lifting dumbbells, starting with lighter weights first. When you're ready you can also move on to lighter barbells, but ask for a training session, and get someone to spot you (support you). This ultimate beginner's guide to the gym has more details.
How to work out every day
Ever heard of exercise snacking? Sadly, it doesn't involve food, but it may well be your answer to maintaining a bit of exercise everyday. This will also help you achieve the NHS' suggestion of spreading exercise evenly over four to five days, or everyday. With exercise snacking, you can opt for multiple short bursts of exercise, from one to 10 mins of activity at a time, spread across the day. For some, this can be a more manageable than aiming to do a solid hour everyday, which is quite a stretch.
One study even suggests the benefits of little and often are better. Researchers followed 21 participants through a short-bout exercise programme of 10-minute walks throughout the day, and a long-bout exercise programme of one 30-minute walk per day. While there were no reduced benefits of the short-bout programme, participants in this group even gained slightly more from what they did.
Both showed lower levels of cholesterol and decreased anxiety and tension, but those exercise snacking showed a greater increase in VO2max (your body's ability to take oxygen from the air and pump it via your heart to your muscles).
How to cool down after exercise
Now for the easy part. All you need to do at the end of an exercise is reduce the intensity of what you've been doing. So, if you've been jogging walk, if you've been cycling fast cycle slower, and so on. Avoiding a hard stop will help gradually reduce your heart rate and begin the recovery process.
The NHS then suggests gently stretching each of the main muscle groups for 10-15 seconds to restore their length and bring your mind and body back to a resting state. If you need some more inspiration, check out this 10-minute cool down video.
Watch: Active video games can help 'inspire people to exercise'