How To Start Working Out: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re not in the habit of working out, it can be tough to get started. For me, this happened when I was in my second year of college. I was already playing for a football team, but decided that I wanted to get stronger and fitter by also working out. I knew that staying fit would become increasingly important as I got older, so I wanted to start early and make it a regular habit. Even though I had this motivation, it was difficult figuring out where to begin. There is a lot of information on fitness out there, which can quickly become overwhelming. Over the years I’ve kept note of the most useful advice I’ve found, which eventually became this beginners’ guide on how to start working out.

Quick Navigation

  • Why Should I Workout?
    • Stronger Muscles and Bones
    • Maintain a Healthy Weight
    • Mental Health Benefits
    • Improve Brain Function
    • Better Quality Sleep
    • Reduce Risk of Health Issues
    • Healthier Skin
    • Increase Energy Levels
    • Healthier Sex Life
  • What Are My Options for Exercise?
    • Cardio
    • Strength Training
    • Flexibility
    • Balance
  • Making a Workout Plan (in 7 Steps)
    1. Decide On Your Aims
    2. Assess Your Current Fitness Level
    3. Decide How Often To Workout
    4. Get Advice
    5. Start Simple
    6. Build Up Slowly
    7. Write It Down: Sample Workout Plans
  • Tips for Your First Workout
    • Warm Up
    • Focus on Technique
    • Stay Hydrated
    • Listen to Your Body
    • Cool Down
    • Think About Nutrition
    • Get Enough Sleep
  • How to Stay Motivated
    • Make it a Habit
    • Set Short Term Goals
    • Track Your Progress
    • Be Prepared
    • Be Patient
    • Make a Public Commitment
    • Expect Things to Go Wrong
    • Make it Fun
  • Summary

Why Should I Workout?

If you’re reading this article, then you’ve probably already decided that working out is a good idea. However, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the benefits of exercise, to help keep motivation levels high. Considering each of these benefits can also be helpful when setting your workout goals.

Gym sign

Stronger Muscles and Bones

Building and maintaining muscle mass is one of the most common reasons people start working out. This helps you to feel stronger while doing other sports and activities, allowing you to have a more active lifestyle. Regular exercise also strengthens your bones, and helps to reduce loss of bone density, which is especially important as we get older.

Bones with ligaments

Maintain a Healthy Weight

No surprise here, regular physical exercise can help you to maintain a healthy weight. Doing exercise burns calories, and combining this with a healthy diet can result in weight loss.

However, it’s important not to obsess over the scales, and remember that less isn’t always better. As long as you’re doing some form of exercise, your health will reap the rewards.

Mental Health Benefits

Working out isn’t just about improving your physical health. Exercise causes endorphins in your brain to be released, which give you that positive post-workout feeling. Other chemical changes occur in the brain too, which help to reduce anxiety, stress and depression. Personally, I find that regular exercise does a lot to cultivate a sense of general well-being and happiness. Regardless of your age, or the type of exercise you’re doing, it can have an enormous positive impact on your mental health.

Woman walking
Exercise can help to cultivate a sense of well-being

Improve Brain Function

It’s not just doing a Sudoku that can help keep your brain active. Studies have shown that hitting the gym, even for short periods, can stimulate brain function and growth. This is a benefit that is often overlooked, but shouldn’t be underestimated. This video shows a quick overview of how exercise can affect your brain:

Better Quality Sleep

Ever been for a long run or swim, and then drifted off the instant your head hit the pillow that evening? Whilst the reasons aren’t completely clear, evidence shows that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of deep sleep you get. A note of caution, be careful of timing. For some people, exercising too late in the day can actually keep you awake. If done right, however, you’ll be snoozing like Sleeping Beauty in no time.

Woman sleeping

Reduce Risk of Health Issues

There is a huge amount of evidence and research on the effect of exercise on health and longevity. It can drastically reduce the risk of major health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. If we told you there was a pill that could do this, you wouldn’t believe us. But exercise is the wonder cure we’ve been looking for, and it’s free! It can even “lower your risk of early death by up to 30%”, according to the UK’s NHS.

Healthier Skin

I must admit, when I started working out, healthier skin wasn’t exactly top of my aims. But every benefit’s a bonus right? Exercise increases blood flow, which actually causes your skin’s mitochondria to act younger. So whether you like it or not, getting active will strengthen your skin and help it glow.

Increase Energy Levels

If you’re feeling fatigued and tired, exercise may be the answer. Research has shown that regular exercise, for as little as 20 minutes, can cause a significant increase in energy levels. Working out is probably the last thing you want to do if you’re feeling lethargic, but often it’s exactly what you need.

Man jogging

Healthier Sex Life

Research is still growing in this area, and a lot is still unknown. However, studies have shown improved sexual function and satisfaction, in both men and women, after exercise. Being more physically fit, and the confidence that comes with it, can also only be a good thing.

What Are My Options for Exercise?

There’s lots of options available when it comes to exercise, and there’s something for everyone. It’s a good idea to include some variety, and a little from each of the four main types. Let’s have a look at some examples.

Cardio

Aerobic exercise, often known as cardio, increases your heart rate, stamina and endurance. This is probably the most common form of exercise, and is one of the easiest to get started with. Doing cardio will reduce blood pressure, help with weight loss, increase circulation and improve cardiovascular health. If you’re looking to workout from home, treadmills, exercise bikes and punching bags are good options.

Woman swimming

Cardio activities to consider:

  • Running & Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Hiking & Walking
  • Sports (Football, Basketball, Tennis etc.)
  • Rowing
  • Dancing
  • High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
  • Boxing

Strength Training

The name of the game here is to build muscle mass and strength. Picking up those dumbbells doesn’t just make you stronger, however. It also stimulates bone growth, and improves both balance and posture. If you’re a beginner, start with bodyweight exercises and gradually build things up. For home workouts, consider getting a barbell, some dumbbells and a power tower to get things started.

Muscle pose

Strength training activities to consider:

  • Weightlifting
  • Bodyweight training (pull-ups, push-ups, squats etc.)
  • Kettlebell exercises
  • Resistance bands

The video below also gives a great overview of the differences between these first two types of exercise.

Flexibility

Regular stretching can do wonders for your flexibility. If neglected, our muscles can shorten and become tight. Stretching helps to remedy this, reducing the risk of of injury and joint pain. This is particularly important if you spend a lot of the day stationary, for example in an office job. Stretching can be the focus of a workout, for example in Yoga, or it can be incorporated at the beginning or the end of a cardio or weightlifting session.

Yoga stretch

Flexibility and stretching activities to consider:

  • Stretching pre- and post-workout
  • Yoga
  • Pilates

Balance

Maintaining good balance is important for all forms of exercise, and helps to keep you steady on your feet. Tai chi and Yoga are particularly good for training in this area, and there are simple exercises you can do at home to help too. Both of these exercises also have mental health benefits, as they cultivate a sense of calm and develop mindfulness.

Tai Chi Sunset

Activities to consider for improving balance:

  • Tai chi
  • Yoga
  • Exercise ball workouts
  • Tightrope exercises

Making a Workout Plan (in 7 Steps)

Once you’ve chosen which types of exercise you’re going to do, the next stage is making a plan of action. To help with this, we’ve put together these 7 steps to creating a workout plan.

1. Decide on Your Aims

Why are you working out? This is a key question that you should answer before getting started. Your aims may include losing weight, gaining muscle, training for a sport, getting fit for a particular event, or just generally having fun. Everyone’s reasons will be different, and mine have evolved and included all of these things over the years.

As I’m writing this, I’m getting fit for a big trekking trip to Patagonia. This has required me to focus on certain areas (such as cardio, legs and core strength). In the past, mental health and mindfulness were higher in my motivations. This lead me to take up yoga, go swimming and play more football. When I first started working out however, gaining muscle was a particular goal of mine. This meant most of my time was spent lifting free weights. As you can see, your aims have a huge affect on the types of exercise you do, so take your time to consider what you want.

Goal setting

If you’re struggling, start by looking at the benefits of working out, and decide which of these are most important to you. Then try to write down a couple of initial targets that you can aim for. You can use SMART goal setting to help with this, which is outlined in the video below.

2. Assess Your Current Fitness Level

Knowing your current fitness level will ensure you start with the right workout plan. A lot of this comes down to common sense. If you’ve not been for a run in five years, you’re not going to attempt 10km on the first day. If you want to be really thorough, there are exercise-specific tests that you can do, like testing your maximum pushups or bench press. Doing this will also help with setting realistic goals (this could arguably be swapped with step 1).

3. Decide How Often to Workout

This depends largely on the steps above, so will be different for everybody. Your needs will likely be completely different to those of your friends, family and colleagues. If you’re already exercising twice a week, then you can start building up to three or four. If you’re starting from scratch, then starting with once or twice a week will be enough to feel some benefit. Consider your current schedule and other life commitments, and decide what’s realistic. Include rest days, and make sure you have a balance of different workouts. Remember, this is just to get started, so it can always change. If things feel easy, add in an extra day. If you’re body is complaining, or you’re regularly missing workouts, take one out. The most important thing here is having a plan. This gives you something to aim for, and you’re much more likely to stick to it if you’ve written it down.

Calendar schedule
Having a plan is key

4. Get Advice

Talking to people who are already active is a great way to get some tips. Think about the people around you who are regularly doing exercise, and ask for help when you need it. Even if their routine isn’t exactly aligned with yours, their experience can be a great support if things become confusing. If you don’t know anyone personally, try speaking to somebody at your local gym or sports center. They tend to be very happy to help, even if you’re not a member. Of course, if you’re worried about any personal health issues that could affect your exercise, make sure you speak to a medical professional.

5. Start Simple

There are so many different workout plans out there, and a million and one exercises to try. This can make it confusing when choosing where to start. Don’t overcomplicate things. In most areas, there are a small number of core exercises that, if mastered, can give exceptional results. Fill your workout plan with these basics, and ensure you learn to do them with the correct form and technique. Once you’re more experienced, you can try experimenting with other alternatives. This can be particularly useful if your progress starts to plateau, but when starting out, think simple.

6. Build Up Slowly

The previous step was about building your routine around the basics. This step is all about doing that routine at the correct level of intensity. It’s easy to get overexcited when starting a new workout plan, but be careful not to overdo it. You don’t want to get injured in your first session, or burnout so quickly you end up giving up. As the weeks go by, you’ll get more used to your body, and start to sense how far you can push it without hurting yourself.

7. Write it Down: Sample Workout Plans

Last but not least, once you have a plan, write it down! This reduces the amount of thinking you have to do when it comes to workout day. It also allows you to keep track of what you’re doing. To help, we’ve found these great beginner workout programs. You can either follow these to get started, or use them as inspiration to write you own:

Tips for Your First Workout

With your trainers on and a workout program sorted, you’re feeling motivated and ready to go. Now what? If it’s been a while since you worked out, here are a few tips to help you on your way. 

Warm-Up

We all remember this from physical education at school. Warming up is an important step, which should already be part of your workout plan. It reduces the risk of injury and helps prepare your body for what’s in store. This video is a great example of a quick and simple warm-up you can do without any equipment:

Focus on Technique

Learn the basics well. Bad habits (including technique and form) can be difficult to break, so make sure you start right. It’s tempting to jump ahead and skip this part, but good technique is vital in any exercise. Not only will this help you maximize performance, it will also minimize the risk of injuring yourself.

Stay Hydrated

I always drink lots of water before, during and after any workout. Studies have shown that dehydration can lead to a significant drop in concentration, energy and performance levels. How much you need will depend on lots of things. For example, your age, the type of exercise you’re doing, and the environment you’re doing it in. Either way, always make sure you have a bottle of water nearby.

Sports water bottles

Listen to Your Body

There’s nothing worse than getting injured and being sidelined for weeks or months. It can be incredibly frustrating, particularly if you’re well motivated to reach your goals. To avoid this happening, listen to your body. A lot of injuries are preventable, so if something doesn’t feel right, stop. There’s no shame in doing a few less reps, if it means you don’t injure yourself.

Cool-Down

This is a step that is often overlooked, but doing a cool-down is as important as warming up. It gives your breathing and heart rate a chance to return to a normal rate. For myself, I also use it to reflect on how my workout’s gone. I usually spend 4-5 minutes on this part of any workout.

Runner warming up

Think About Nutrition

Whilst this guide isn’t focused on nutrition, it’s too important to ignore. Doing exercise is vitally important for your health, but you won’t get the results you want without eating the right things too. In fact, some think that food is even more important than exercise: “You cannot exercise your way out of a bad diet, but you can always eat your way to a fitter and healthier body” (source). This doesn’t mean don’t exercise, but highlights the need for healthy nutrition as a complement.

Healthy nutrition

“You cannot exercise your way out of a bad diet, but you can always eat your way to a fitter and healthier body”

Get Enough Sleep

When exercising regularly, your body requires sleep in the same way it requires nutrition. I try to aim for a minimum of 7 hours a night. This helps your body to recover properly, and will reduce the amount of muscle soreness you get (also known as DOMS).

How to Stay Motivated

Motivation isn’t usually an issue in the first few weeks of a new routine. Once the initial excitement dies down, however, it be difficult to keep going. These are some of the things I’ve used to keep my enthusiasm high.

Make it a Habit

Try to make exercise part of your weekly routine by planning ahead. At the start of each week, decide exactly when and where you’re going to be working out. If possible, keep this the same week-to-week. As a side note, if you’re generally interested in forming new habits, check out Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. Although not specific to fitness, it’s a really interesting read with some useful advice.

Set Short Term Goals

Along with the long term aims you settled on, you also need to have some short term goals you can measure. Put them in your calendar, and set new ones as you tick them off. Needless to say, it’s important they’re realistic and achievable.

Track Your Progress

Once you have some short term goals, you need to make sure you track them. If you’re working on your appearance, taking before & after selfies is one option. I’ve never found this a huge motivator, but it works well for a lot of people. In terms of performance, try to track each workout.

There are lots of apps you can use to do this, so I’ve listed some of my favorites below:

Tracking progress graph
Luckily we have apps for tracking nowadays

Be Prepared

Pack your bag the night before. Prepare a pre-workout snack. Plan how you’re getting there. Decide what you’re going to eat for recovery. Simply, do as much as you can in advance to make it easy for yourself. The more you do, the less excuses you’ll have to skip it.

Be Patient

Getting fit doesn’t happen over night. It doesn’t even happen in a couple of weeks. It takes continuous effort over a period of time to notice a real difference. As Ross Perot said, “Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success”. Stick with it and results will happen.

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success”

Make a Public Commitment

Sharing your plans with people you know is a great way to make sure you follow through with them. It makes you accountable, which is a strong motivator. There are even accountability apps, which you can use to put money on it. If you fail, your money either goes to charity or a friend.

Expect Things to Go Wrong

When starting out, it’s good to think positive, but there’s always the possibility of something going wrong. Getting injured, working late and becoming ill are just some of the things that can postpone our plans. Have a plan B in your back pocket, and be prepared to adapt your workout program and targets when this happens. Having a home gym setup is a great backup for this, and can make it easier to keep going in the long run.

Make it Fun

Not everyone will agree, but I think exercise can always be fun. If you’re working out solo, listen to your favorite music or podcasts. Try including team sports in your routine, or other activities where you can socialize with friends or meet new people. If you know someone with similar goals, have them as your workout buddy and start training together. All of these things can make working out more enjoyable and something you look forward to each week.

Soccer team celebrating
Team sports help to make exercise more sociable and fun

Summary

We’ve covered a lot of topics here, which I hope will give you the boost you need to get started. The beginning of any fitness journey is often the hardest part, so it’s important to do it right. If you have clear goals, a solid workout plan, and a way to stay motivated, then you’ll be where you want in no time. Have fun working out!

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