Fitness 101: How to Begin and Maintain an Exercise Routine That Lasts

Before starting any new exercise program be sure to check with your doctor.

Starting a fitness routine is one of the best things you can do for your health. How many times have you heard that? There’s no doubt we all want increased energy, stronger immune systems, improved sleep, and reduced stress. It’s why many of us start each New Year with those same goals to lose weight and get in shape.

But as spring approaches many of you are learning (or remembering) a common truth. It’s fairly easy to start a fitness routine but hard to stick with it over time. Especially if you haven’t exercised in a while or, well, ever! Even so, there is good news. With the right planning, preparation and motivation you can structure a solid fitness routine. Better yet, you can make it a regular and enjoyable part of your life.

What’s your reason?

Anything important in your life comes with a reason behind it. A need to know why. It’s the same principle here. To help you start and maintain a fitness routine, ask yourself, “What’s my main motivation?” Maybe you had a bad medical report. Maybe you want to look good for an upcoming event – a wedding or reunion. Maybe you just want to feel healthier.1 Whatever the case, there are reasons to get excited once you’ve made your decision! Regular exercise:

  • Can help slow the aging process.
  • Helps to improve your mood.
  • May lengthen your lifespan.
  • Improves your body composition.
  • Can boost your brain health.2

Also keep in mind that sooner or later you’ll hit a mental and physical wall. You’ll have to find a way to push through it. Knowing why you want to maintain a fitness routine can help you stay on track when you feel like quitting. Continue to remind yourself of your “why” when those urges to quit come.


Of course talk is cheap. Saying you’ll exercise routinely is much different than actually doing it. You need to have a solid plan. If you don’t, you could be setting yourself up for failure. So as you prepare for and design a fitness program keep these points in mind:

  • Be exact. Set a specific goal to exercise a certain number of days each week.
  • Set short-term goals. Setting short-term goals, even if they are minor, can help you stay motivated. Instead of having a goal to swim 200 laps in a month, set a short-term goal to complete 50 a week. Or about 17 laps per session.
  • Know your limits. Start low and progress slowly. Don’t set goals you know you can’t achieve. Again, this can help keep you inspired.

Mark it down

Exercise veterans will tell you there are many things that keep people from starting a new workout routine. A common theme is not having enough time. There are, however, proven ways to build workouts into your daily routine. A good way is to figure out the best times for you to exercise, and mark them on your calendar. Make it easy on yourself. Plan your workout at the time of day when you’re most awake and full of energy.4

Most importantly, schedule your exercise times the same way you’d schedule anything else – a work meeting or a doctor’s appointment. And plan on sticking to it! Put it on paper. Or try teaming up with another person. A workout partner will hold you more accountable.5

Also remember to have a backup plan. Even if you have time blocked off on your calendar, have a backup plan in case something comes up. So if you miss a Zumba class at the gym, you can make it up by doing a 30-minute bike ride around your neighborhood.

Know your numbers

Before you start a fitness routine be sure to get your doctor’s clearance first. Make sure you’re OK to exercise!

Once you begin, recording your baseline fitness scores are a good way to measure your progress. Be sure to write down:

  • Your weight.
  • Body measurements – chest, arms, waist, hips.
  • Your pulse rate just before and right after walking one mile.
  • How long it takes to walk/run a mile or 400 meters.
  • How many sit-ups, standard pushups or modified pushups you can do at a time.
  • Your waist circumference, just above your hipbones.
  • Your body mass index (BMI).6

Get your gear together

When it comes to buying accessories, it’s all about the shoes, right? That may be true, but make sure you pick shoes designed for the sport or activity you have in mind. For instance, running shoes are lighter than cross-training shoes.7 Basketball shoes (high tops) provide more ankle support than tennis shoes but tennis shoes are more durable.

And if you plan on buying exercise equipment, choose something that’s practical (doesn’t take up too much space), enjoyable and easy to use. If you can, test certain types of equipment at a fitness center before you buy.

Another option is to use fitness apps or smart devices that track activity. Even the most basic devices can track the number of steps, calories burned, and monitor your heart rate.8

Getting started

Now that you’re ready, there are two types of workouts to consider: cardiovascular (cardio) and strength training. Cardio training burns calories by raising your heart rate. Strength training builds lean muscle that boosts metabolism (the rate you burn calories). Ideally, your weekly routine should include both types of workouts.9

For cardio workouts:

  • Start slowly and build slowly. Give yourself plenty of time to warm up with easy walking and stretching. Then speed up to a pace you can continue for 5 to 10 minutes without getting overly tired. As your stamina improves, slowly increase the amount of time you exercise. Always end with a cool down of mild stretching.
  • Break things up. If time or boredom is a concern, try mixing in exercises throughout your day. Shorter, but more frequent, sessions a few times a day may fit into your schedule better than a single 30-minute session.
  • Think outside the fitness club. If you and fitness clubs don’t match you’re not alone. For many, the great outdoors makes all the difference. Maybe your cardio routine already includes walking, cycling or swimming. But don’t stop there. There are plenty of cardio exercises including:
    • Horseback riding.
    • Martial arts.
    • Ballroom dancing.
    • Rollerblading.
    • Hiking.
    • Paddle boarding.
    • Rock climbing.
    • Zumba.
    • Kayaking.
    • Fencing.10
  • Listen to your body. If you feel pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, or nausea, take a break. You may be pushing yourself too hard.

The bottom line: Finding the right cardio training routine can make exercise both enjoyable and something you will most likely stick with.

Strength training outside the gym requires some light equipment, including:

  • Weighted dumbbells. Some exercises need heavier weights; others need lighter weights or none at all. It’s good to have a range of dumbbells:
    • A light set of 3 to 5 pounds for women, 5 to 8 pounds for men.
    • A medium set of 5 to 10 pounds for women, 10 to 15 pounds for men.
    • A heavy set of 10 to 20 pounds for women, 15 to 30 pounds for men.
  • An exercise ball. These giant balls are great to strengthen the abs and back. They also help to increase stability.
  • Exercise mat. Yoga mats are thin and have better gripping ability to hold poses. Thicker mats are best for Pilates and abdominal exercises. They cushion the spine while you’re lying on your back.

As with cardio training, it’s important to start slowly to determine how much weight you should use. This includes moving slowly enough that you’re using muscle – not momentum – to lift the weight. And you should be able to keep good form while doing it.11

Water please

Remember to stay hydrated. Your body performs at its peak when it has lots of water. Not drinking enough water when exercising – especially when it’s hot – can be dangerous.12


Cardio and strength training are the pillars of any solid workout program, but you don’t want to end your workout without a proper cool down and stretching. Stretching when your muscles are warm has a number of benefits, from building greater flexibility to offering relaxation and stress relief. The great thing about stretching is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time to get the benefits. A good total-body flexibility warm up or cool down can take between 5 and 10 minutes.

Track your progress

Retake your personal fitness assessment six weeks after you start your program and then again every few months. You’ll probably notice that you need to increase the time you exercise in order to continue improving. Or you may find that you’re doing just the right amount to meet your fitness goals.13

Finally, no matter how much you enjoy your exercise routine, you may find that you will eventually have setbacks or lose interest. If you do, shake things up. Try something new or change the way you perform exercises that have worked so far. Most of all, remember your reason why you started in the first place.

Starting an exercise program is an important decision. But it doesn’t have to be a daunting one. Plan carefully and pace yourself. If you do, you can establish a healthy habit that lasts a lifetime.






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Jamey Mann