Joining a gym hadn’t worked for Rie Poirier-Campbell, so when she found herself becoming more sedentary and gaining weight, she bought a $26 fitness tracker and started walking.
“The first thing I did was the wrong thing. I set my goal at 10,000 steps. That was a fail for the first couple of days,” says the executive director of Hartford Performs, an arts education collaborative. She reset her goal to 6,000 steps and made a point of parking farther from her Hartford office and walking around her building for five minutes when she used the restroom — outside, weather permitting.
“At first, I set a limit of walking 20 minutes in the morning. And then I really liked it and just wanted more of it,” she says. “Walking has become a reward for me. I’ve lost weight and I just feel better.” Every day for the past 16 months, she says, she has reached her step goal. Before work, she walks in a loop inside her house while reading the news on her phone. She now averages 14,000 steps daily.
No matter how motivated people are when making a New Year’s resolution to exercise, which leads to joining a gym, buying exercise equipment or taking a class, most give up by February. It doesn’t have to be that way, exercise experts say. No matter how sedentary people are, they can improve their health and feel better simply by setting small, manageable goals.
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Don’t be discouraged by the federal health department recommendations for 2½ hours of moderate activity per week, says Linda Pescatello, professor of kinesiology at UConn. Even some of her kinesiology students don’t exercise enough to meet the recommendations.
“The largest benefit goes from doing nothing to doing something,” says Melinda Irwin, associate dean of research and professor of epidemiology at Yale University.
People cite time as their major barrier to exercise, research shows. If driving to the gym poses too big an ordeal, Irwin says, put on a pair of sneakers and walk.
Whether we spread exercise out throughout the week or spend a single day exercising, we receive health benefits, Irwin says. “We’re kind of hard on ourselves. If we don’t think we can reach a minimum time, we just don’t do it at all. Something is better than nothing,” she says. “A 5 percent weight loss is clinically meaningful.”
Start with doable goals, Pescatello says, and don’t do too much too soon. If you can exercise with a friend or family member, the accountability gives you motivation and the companionship makes it more fun. Pick an exercise you enjoy — if you love being outside, bundle up and get the added benefit of vitamin D from the sun (but not too much); if you love to dance, head to a club or take a class.
Too tired to move? Walk for five minutes. Eventually, your energy level will rise.
“Convenience is very important in terms of how you choose to exercise,” Pescatello says. Signing up for a class locks exercise into your schedule, and the accountability increases adherence.
Plan a time when you’re not too tired to do it. To beat boredom, mix it up.
Poirier-Campbell views exercise differently. On weekends, a long walk outside gives her a chance to listen to a book or podcast. She adds, “A meeting a mile away became an excuse for an enjoyable walk rather than a parking hassle.”
Switch it up to boost fitness
If you’re already exercising regularly, you’ve heard the advice to vary your workouts. The body adapts to the demands placed on it.
To really challenge your body, change modes of exercise and locations, says Robert Huggins, Ph.D., president of athlete performance and safety at UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute.
“Don’t be afraid to switch it up,” he says. “Set a new goal. Try a new activity. Sign up for a new race. Take a different class.”
An aerobic athlete? Try something anaerobic. For those doing resistance training, he says, vary the number of repetitions, tempo, sets, intensity, overall volume, rest intervals, frequency, duration and selection of exercise.
One day of muscle soreness means you pushed yourself; two or more days means you did too much.
Huggins advises those doing moderate to high-intensity exercise seven days a week to take a day off. On rest days, it’s safe to stretch, do yoga, yardwork, walk or a take 20-minute bike ride.
Tips for starting and sticking with exercise
Do pick a time of day that works for you
Do choose an activity you’ll enjoy
Do start slow with small goals and build
Do find an exercise buddy and schedule exercise
Do set a 5-minute exercise goal if you’re lagging
Do write down triggers that prevent exercise and motivators to exercise
Do get up and move throughout the day
Do use a fitness tracker or phone health app
Do join a class
Do work with a trainer
Do stay hydrated before, during and after exercise
Don’t set high, unattainable goals
Don’t give up if you fall short of goals
Don’t do an exercise you find boring or frustrating
Don’t plan exercise when you’re most tired
Don’t focus on getting thin; a 5 percent weight loss benefits health
Don’t join a gym that is so far away that you don’t have time to get there
Sources: Melinda Irwin, associate dean of research and professor of epidemiology at Yale University; UConn kinesiology professor Linda Pescatello; Robert Huggins, president of athlete performance and safety, Korey Stringer Institute; and federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, Second Edition