No one is immune to the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Beyond helping to manage a wide range of health conditions — from hypertension and diabetes to COPD and anxiety disorders — regular physical activity strengthens cardiovascular health, supports healthy sleep patterns, and lowers your risk for many preventable diseases.
But while there are many reasons to exercise, getting up and moving is often easier said than done. Less than 5% of US adults get 150 minutes of weekly exercise — the minimum suggested by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And up to 65% of all those who begin a fitness program don’t continue it beyond the 3-6 month window, according to the New York Times.
Whether you’re trying to get back in the swing of a fitness routine or struggling to carve out time for your favorite workout, use the suggestions below to build an exercise plan that sustains you for the long haul.
Know your motivation.
On those days when life gets in the way of sticking to your routine, it’s easier to stay committed if you have a clear reason to prioritize exercise.
While the benefits of physical activity are universal, motivation looks different for everyone. Perhaps you’re navigating a recent diagnosis of a chronic condition or proactively taking care of your mental health. Whatever your reason may be, keep it in the back of your mind. And if you haven’t found one yet, here are some additional exercise benefits to consider:
It can help slow aging-related changes like the loss of bone density or shifts in cognitive function.
It supports good digestive health.
It’s fundamental to practicing a heart-healthy lifestyle.
It can help you live a longer life.
Choose the right activities for you.
There are as many reasons to exercise as there are activities to choose from. And if you don’t consider yourself an “exercise person,” there’s a good chance you haven’t found your go-to workout just yet.
As you make your fitness plan, give some thought to how you really want to spend those 150 minutes each week. Research and experts both agree that people are more likely to stick to an exercise routine if they actually enjoy it, and your chosen workout often plays a role in the consistency of your habits.
Take your interests, strengths, and personality all into account. Are you most comfortable at a fast or slow pace? Inspired by nature? Enjoy a healthy dose of competition? More fond of team sports or solo challenges? You might be surprised by the amount of options.
When in doubt, think of activities you feel confident doing or skills you would like to continue to build. If certain types of exercise aren’t the right fit, there’s often an alternative to consider. For example, the rowing machine is a great alternative to swimming for anyone seeking a low-impact cardio workout.
Create a routine that sustains your goals.
Repetition and consistency will keep you going when motivation wanes, so build a routine that sustains your habits.
First and foremost, make sure there’s time in your schedule for exercise. Block off a half hour for a workout on your calendar, just as you would for a meeting or doctor’s appointment. Make sure to have a back-up plan, too — if your 7 am pilates class isn’t feasible one week, leave room for a midday walk or run around the neighborhood.
Life too busy? We have a couple of tips for those short on time:
High intensity interval training (HIIT), which alternates quick spurts of intense effort with brief rest, is a great way to fit aerobic exercise into a packed schedule.
Take a few shorter walks throughout the day instead of a 30-minute or hour-long stroll — you’ll still reap the benefits!
Goals are a key component of any exercise plan, but it’s important that they are achievable. Over-ambition is one of the biggest barriers to progress and consistency: if you aim too high right out of the gate, you may find yourself quickly discouraged and decide to throw in the towel altogether.
A few tips for setting goals:
Be specific: Rather than setting out to “exercise more,” commit to exercising for a certain number of days a week.
Be flexible: Aiming for a range of 3-5 days each week can help you still feel accomplished if you need to slightly scale down during busy times.
Focus on the process: Many behavioral science experts suggest structuring your goals around the process or activity — for instance, how long you exercise — rather than an outcome, which is less within your control. It takes time to form a new habit — 18 to 254 days, to be precise — so simply showing up is a worthwhile goal to work toward.
Gradually build on your goals: Once you have a foundation in place, keep yourself motivated by expanding your goals. If you’re a runner, you might try to gradually increase the length or distance of your regular workout. Make sure to check with a doctor or fitness expert about finding an appropriate level of fitness intensity.
Eliminate obstacles through small actions.
Look for opportunities that make it easier to follow through with your fitness intentions. Having to choose an outfit for your morning workout might not seem like much effort, but packing a gym bag in advance or folding your workout clothes by your bed the night before removes an extra step from the process.
If you’re starting to work out in a gym, plan a specific workout in advance so that you can maximize your time once you’re there.
Explore the buddy system.
For an extra boost of motivation, make your fitness routine more social. Research has found a link between the success of a workout program and social accountability. So dig through your personal network to find a gym or yoga buddy, or search for a local running club. Not only will you benefit from the extra accountability — you’ll be offering it in return.
Navigating exercise with a chronic health condition
There’s often a misconception that certain conditions, including diabetes and COPD, prevent exercise. In actuality, regular physical activity is part of managing many chronic conditions. However, there may be additional considerations to account for when creating an exercise routine.
Here are some general guidelines to be mindful of when exercising with diabetes, COPD, asthma, osteoporosis, or arthritis. Always speak with your provider to discuss what activities are appropriate for your personal health history.
Maintaining healthy blood sugar is a crucial part of diabetes management. Exercise is a factor in your glucose levels, and some people experience decreased blood sugar during or after exercise.
A variety of factors can affect your blood sugar response to exercise, including:
Your blood sugar levels prior to exercise
The intensity of your chosen activity
The duration of exercise
Your insulin doses
To exercise safely as a person with diabetes, check your blood sugar before, during, and after exercise, and be prepared to treat low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia.
In strengthening your respiratory muscles and making it easier to breathe, regular physical activity is key to maintaining an active life while living with COPD. However, it’s important to practice gentle exercises that don’t overexert your lungs. Your provider can help you determine appropriate activities.
You may also benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, an outpatient exercise and education program that helps those with COPD manage the condition.
As many as 90% of people with asthma experience respiratory symptoms during physical activity. For some, symptoms begin right at the start of exercising while others experience airflow obstruction after returning to a state of rest. In some cases, symptoms quickly resolve, but they may last up to 24 hours in others.
Rather than avoiding exercise to prevent an asthma flare-up, speak with your healthcare provider about your asthma treatment plan and look for forms of exercise with an appropriate level of intensity.
The weakening of the bones in osteoporosis increases the risk for fractures, so those with the condition should take precautions to avoid exercise-related injuries.
Here are some general guidelines for exercising with osteoporosis. Check with your provider about which activities are the best for you.
Unless otherwise informed by your doctor, avoid high-impact exercises and activities that involve frequent bending or twisting, as they may increase your risk of fractures.
Explore weight-bearing aerobic activities to strengthen bones in your legs, hips, and lower spine.
Try simple balancing exercises or movement-based stability exercises such as tai chi to maintain good stability and balance.
Opt for gentle activities like water exercises, tai chi, yoga, and stretching, all of which reduce joint pressure and expand your joints’ range of motion.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.