People who want to get fitter and healthier often ask me, “But Nancy, how do I get started? “ This is a great question, and an important one because the last thing you want to do is let an injury discourage you – or stop you dead in your tracks.
I understand, you’ve finally decided to start being more physically active and you’re all gung-ho. But whoa! Slow down—one of the most common causes of injury is to try to do too much too soon. Especially if you’re new to exercise, you might not be sensitive to the warning signs that are telling you to ease up. Don’t worry–as you gain in experience, you’ll learn how to “read” your body better. In the meantime, follow these tips.
One of the best ways to avoid overdoing it is to find a well-trained personal trainer to give you individual attention. Alternatively, find a class that is “beginner” level and then check with the instructor to make sure it really IS for beginners. I’ll never forget the time I started flamenco dance lessons and I signed up for a Beginner Series. Only after I took the first class did I discover that in this case “beginner” meant “studying flamenco for only five years”! I didn’t hurt myself, but I was embarrassed to the point of tears. I’ll never make that mistake again, and I hope you will never make it, period. Fortunately, some instructors are able to tailor their classes to many levels and will demonstrate variations of each exercise to suit different levels of ability. But as a precaution, ask them if this is their practice.
If you are starting out on your own, there are a few basic principles to follow to make sure you don’t injure yourself. For strengthening exercises using weights or your bodyweight, start with a gentle version of a movement and the lowest number of repetitions recommended. Usually this is 8 repetitions in three “sets” with a short rest in between sets. Then, you gradually add one repetition to each set to progress. Once you can do three sets of 12 repetitions each, find a more challenging version of that exercise (which could be higher weights, or a different position for bodyweight exercise) and repeat the process. I’ve included many examples of progressively more challenging bodyweight exercises in my book, “Nancercize: 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench.” For example, you could start with a Modified push-up (#44), then progress to a Pulsing push-up (#45) and then the Push off (#46). The grand finally would be the Handstand push-up (#58).
For stretches, the best way to avoid too much too soon is to choose the least extreme version of the stretch and gradually progress to a more challenging version; sometimes this happens automatically because the more challenging version is simply going more deeply into the stretch. Some great examples are the Table top stretch (#2), Crossover stretch (#6), or Hamstring stretch (#7) –also featured in my book. Avoid bouncing into a stretched position, whether you are doing dynamic stretches (done at the beginning of a workout) or static stretches (done at the end).
In my experience as a fitness instructor, it’s better to do too little than too much, especially when beginning a new way of life. Don’t worry that you’re doing too little—even a little is a step in the right direction!