The pursuit of personal fitness has become increasingly popular in past several decades. Today, there are hundreds of magazines, websites, blogs, books and articles available on every possible fitness topic, from Pilates to paleo diets. Some believe the fitness craze is partially a result of society’s obsession with celebrities and pop culture icons, which has led to unrealistic beauty and body image expectations. Even as fitness industry revenues soar to record levels, obesity rates also soar in the United States. More people have become increasingly sedentary over the past century. Many of us simply spend too much time sitting and not enough time moving. Widely available, unhealthy and inexpensive processed food is another big issue. Poor diet and lack of exercise can be directly correlated to a substantial rise in health issues, from cardiovascular disease to diabetes.
Many companies claim to offer the ultimate fitness product, workout routine, diet plan, supplement or solution. The truth is: There is no silver bullet. Getting fit and staying fit takes work and dedication. Millions of people struggle with managing their weight. Many more are unsatisfied with their level of physical fitness. Fortunately, there are many ways to become more active, live a healthier lifestyle and feel more confident. Getting fit is possible for almost anyone with the right attitude and good information. First, it’s helpful to understand why being active is so important for overall health and wellness.
Let’s face it: For many people, staying active just isn’t easy, especially as we get older. Age is not kind to our bodies, but there are things we can do to combat the aging process. You’ve probably heard the expression “use it or lose it.” The older you get, the more this mantra becomes true. According to WebMD, age-related muscle loss can start to occur in people who are physically inactive around age 30, possibly even earlier. Sedentary people over the age of 30 can lose around 5% of their overall muscle mass every decade. As sedentary people get older, they often experience a metabolism slowdown, which often leads to steady, prolonged weight gain unless lifestyle changes are made. What’s the best way to turn the tide? The simple answer is doing physical activities that cause muscles to grow instead of atrophy, and the best way to do this is by working out. A healthy diet is also very important.
Working out can be intimidating to people who don’t have any experience with it, but it doesn’t have to be. When it comes to lifting weights, for example, many people get a mental image of large, muscular men grunting away on weight benches or lifting heavy dumbbells. However, strength training doesn’t actually require weights. Calisthenics is a type of strength training that only uses body weight to provide resistance. For anyone beginning a training routine for the first time, calisthenics are an excellent starting point. In fact, body weight training can produce impressive results when done regularly and effectively.
The human heart is another muscle that needs exercise to continue functioning at its peak. Without physical activity that increases the heart rate, this essential muscle can grow weaker over time. Cardiovascular exercises like walking, running, swimming and cycling are all excellent ways to maintain and even improve heart function.
So, what exactly does it mean to be “in shape” or “fit”? Well, that largely depends on who you ask. Fitness is an abstract concept. There is no universally accepted classification or set of criteria for what it means to be fit. There are many different ways fitness can be interpreted and approached. One individual might believe that a fit person should be able to run a mile without stopping. Yet another person might think that being fit is simply a matter of not being overweight.
In reality, fitness is more like a spectrum. A person who has just enough endurance to walk out to the mailbox is on the far left side of the spectrum. Professional and Olympic athletes are on the far right side. For most people, the goal is to be somewhere in between these two extremes. In order to set and achieve goals, you’ll have to gauge where on this spectrum you currently are and where you want to be.
There are multiple ways to assess physical fitness. Some of the most common criteria include cardiovascular endurance, stamina, mobility, agility, strength and balance. Other physical factors like body mass index (BMI) also come into play. However, BMI alone is not necessarily a good indicator of personal fitness. One person could have an average BMI, but also have poor cardiovascular health. Another person might have a higher than average BMI, but also be very strong and robust. With all this in mind, where should you even begin?
In order to set improvement goals, you’ll need to identify your current level of physical fitness. Fitness tests vary widely depending on the target demographic and who created the testing standards. For example, the fitness testing program used by your local middle school is probably much less rigorous compared to the US Army Basic Training Physical Fitness Test. To get a general idea of where you currently stand, you’ll need to choose your own benchmarks, which will depend on your current physical capability and health.
Always get a physical checkup and talk with your doctor before starting any type of fitness routine, even if you don’t think you have any health issues.
Basic Walking Fitness Test
Walking is a fundamental component of general fitness and mobility. In fact, walking speed can actually be correlated to life expectancy in older adults, according to Scientific American. In order to perform a basic walking fitness test, you should be able to walk at least one mile without significant strain or exertion. First, walk exactly one mile at a moderately brisk pace and log your time. Consider walking with a partner. In order to maintain an appropriate pace, you should be able to carry out a conversation with your walking partner without straining for air. If you can’t speak easily as you walk, reduce your pace.
According to The Walking Site, a moderately fit person should be able to walk one mile (on level terrain) in about 15 minutes. It’s also a good idea to track your heart rate. Check out The American Heart Association for guidelines on resting and maximum heart rates for your age. If you’re not able to break 15 minutes fairly easily, you may want to consider creating a regular walking routine to increase your pace and endurance over time. Even if your walking pace is already on target, taking regular walks is still a great way to maintain a healthy activity level.
Customized Fitness Test
If you can easily walk a mile in under 15 minutes, consider challenging yourself a little more. For example, try running one mile and logging your time. The “ideal” one-mile running time varies depending on age, gender and other factors. If you’re under the age of 40 and you can run a mile in less than ten minutes, you’re off to a pretty good start, although you probably have room for improvement. If you can’t run a mile in less than ten minutes, you may want to work on your cardiovascular fitness. If running isn’t your thing, don’t worry. There are other options. We’ll discuss additional cardio exercises later on in this guide.
Although setting a benchmark for cardiovascular fitness is a good idea, you may also want to consider adding additional benchmarks to evaluate your strength. Below are a few exercises you can use as strength benchmarks:
- Pushups: See how many pushups you can perform in one minute. Be sure to do your pushups with proper form. Pushups primarily work the triceps, shoulders and chest, but also utilize the core muscles. Doing pushups will help you evaluate your upper body strength.
- Planks: To evaluate your core strength, consider doing a plank. Try holding a plank for 30 seconds or one minute. For a little more challenge, do multiple planks with only a 30 second rest in between each set.
- Squats: The squat is by far one of the best exercises to work your upper legs and glutes. To set a benchmark using this exercise, see how many sets of 10 squats you can perform (without weight) in five minutes. Try to focus on using good squat form.
- Pullups: Compared to the other benchmark exercises on this list, pullups will be the most challenging for most people. To set this benchmark, see how many pullups you can do in one set until failure. Be sure to use proper form. If you’re unable to perform a pullup, check out this helpful video tutorial. As an alternative exercise, you can perform inverted rows instead.
Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of exercises you can use to set your personal fitness benchmarks. If you find them to be too difficult, or not difficult enough, there are many other alternatives.
Setting Fitness Goals
Once you’ve established a set of benchmarks to help gauge your current fitness level, the next step is setting goals for improvement. Obviously, fitness goals will vary from person to person. As an example, let’s say you’re currently unable to run a mile in less than ten minutes. Beating that time is a potential fitness goal. First, you’ll need to create a training plan. This may involve running a mile every other day. Give yourself time to hit your target, and track your progress along the way. If you hit your goal early, that’s great. If you don’t hit your goal on time, that’s okay, as long as you’re putting in the effort and seeing progress.
What’s your next goal? That’s totally up to you. Maybe you decide to start training for a 5K next. You could also add strength training goals to your fitness plan, such as being able to complete five sets of 10 squats in under five minutes, or doing 15 pushups. The fitness goals you choose are totally up to you, but setting goals gives you something tangible to work toward. It also feels great when you achieve them.
Always Remember: Don’t push yourself too hard. This can lead to overtraining and possibly injury, which can be a big setback. Give yourself rest days, or vary your workout routine to avoid training the same part of your body too frequently.
Ready to start putting together a plan? First, you’ll need to choose some fitness activities. In this section, we’ll cover some of the most popular activities and give you an idea of what to expect from each. The following activities are divided into three primary categories: 1) cardio, 2) strength and 3) mobility.
The Workout Plan: Choosing Priorities
For many people, cardio is the activity they do most often. Cardio workouts burn calories, increase endurance and promote a healthy cardiovascular system. However, there are also big benefits to adding strength training and mobility exercises to your plan as well. The ratio you choose will largely depend on your fitness goals. For example, if your primary goal is to lose weight, gain endurance and achieve a leaner physique, cardio will likely be your primary workout activity. If your main goal is to be stronger and gain muscle, strength training will likely be your primary workout activity. For a well-rounded workout plan, it’s a good idea to include elements from all three categories (cardio, strength and mobility).
As we mentioned earlier in this guide, walking is a fundamental exercise and something many people should consider doing more regularly. If you lead a sedentary life or spend a lot of time sitting during the day, walking for an hour every day (or taking several shorter walks) can burn extra calories, temporarily increase your metabolism and potentially improve your overall health in the long term. Walking is also a fairly low-impact activity. If you find walking around the neighborhood boring, consider hiking instead. Check out our Hiking Guide for tips and advice on getting started.
Of all the physical activities a person can do, few will burn calories faster and improve cardiovascular endurance like running. Running also requires minimal gear and you can do it almost anywhere. If you’re just starting out and find sustained running to be too challenging, you can always alternate between running and walking. Over time, you should be able to increase the amount of time spent running and decrease walking intervals. Just be aware that running does place impact on the body. Focusing on proper running form is essential for minimizing impact and avoiding potential injuries. Visit our Running Guide for more tips and advice.
Elliptical Trainer (Cardio)
Although running is a great exercise with many potential health benefits, it does place impact on the body. Even with proper form, some people may find that running puts too much strain on their feet and knees. Luckily, there is an alternative that provides similar benefits with much less impact: the elliptical trainer. If you’re looking for a great, low-impact cardiovascular workout, consider adding elliptical training to your fitness routine. Using an elliptical machine will take practice. Start slow and get used to the motion. Over time, you’ll be able to increase the cadence.
Riding bikes isn’t just fun; it’s also a great, low-impact cardio exercise. For those who don’t mind investing in equipment, cycling can be a very enjoyable activity. Whether you choose road cycling or mountain biking, both are excellent ways to burn extra calories, increase cardiovascular endurance and tone the body, especially the legs. Not sure what kind of bike to choose? Need some advice on buying cycling gear? Check out our helpful Cycling Guides for more info. Of course, you can also opt for a stationary bike or a recumbent exercise bike instead. Spinning classes are also a great choice for anyone who doesn’t want to buy a bike. Many fitness gyms offer spinning classes.
If you don’t mind spending some time in a chlorinated pool, swimming laps is a fantastic way to get a full-body cardiovascular workout and burn calories. Swimming also puts almost no impact on the body. The amount of calories you burn swimming will depend on your weight, pace and duration of your swimming session. According to Healthline, a 150-pound person can burn about 400 calories an hour by swimming at a moderate pace, or about 700 calories at a vigorous pace.
Similar to swimming, a rowing machine actually works the legs, arms, core and back for a challenging cardio workout. Rowing also puts minimal impact on the body. The amount of calories you burn on a rowing machine varies depending on your pace and how long you maintain it. At a swift rowing pace, most people should be able to burn about 100 calories or more every 10 minutes.
Aerobics is a fairly broad category of cardiovascular exercise that includes step aerobics, dance aerobics, shadowboxing routines and other variations. The benefit of any aerobics routine depends on the types of movements being performed, the variety of movements, intensity and duration. For a low-impact aerobic workout, many people enjoy water aerobics, which also incorporates a resistance element for additional muscle-strengthening benefits. Ultimately, if an aerobic workout gets you moving, sweating and having fun, chances are it’s going to be beneficial.
Resistance Training (Strength)
Although the previously mentioned exercises are all great for burning calories and increasing cardiovascular fitness, many don’t offer a significant impact on muscular strength. If becoming stronger and gaining muscle are priorities, adding resistance training to your workout routine has many benefits. The terms “resistance training” and “strength training” are often used interchangeably, and both generally refer to any type of workout that forces your body to overcome some form of resistance from a weighted barbell, dumbbell, weight machine, resistance band or your own body weight.
For anyone who is adding resistance training to their workout routine for the first time, calisthenics are an excellent starting point. Common calisthenic exercises include pushups, pull-ups, dips, squats, lunges, planks and sit-ups. Because your own bodyweight is providing the resistance, many calisthenics can be performed with no equipment, which makes this activity a great choice for home workout routines.
Weight Lifting (Strength)
With proper instruction and technique, weight lifting can provide major benefits to your overall strength and physique, especially when combined with cardio. Contrary to popular belief, lifting weights doesn’t have to make you look like a body builder. By customizing the types of exercises, the amount of weight, sets and repetitions, it’s possible to tone the body without adding significant muscle mass. Weight lifting also burns a lot of calories as it builds muscle. In fact, the body will often continue to burn calories for several hours after a rigorous weight training session. To get started and create a weight lifting routine, consider setting up an appointment with a certified personal trainer.
Plyometrics (Mobility + Cardio + Strength)
Have you ever been to the gym and seen someone repeatedly jumping onto a box or platform? If so, you’re already familiar with one plyometric exercise. Primarily designed to increase the “explosive” strength, mobility and performance of athletes, plyometric exercises can be beneficial for anyone. Sometimes called “jumping workouts,” most plyometrics involve some variation of jumping. Box jumps and jump squats are two common examples. Adding plyometrics to your workout routine will build additional muscular strength and burn calories.
If you’re interested in improving mobility, flexibility and balance, yoga may be a good choice to include as part of your overall fitness plan. The art of yoga is practiced all over the world and there are many different variations, from easygoing to intense. Aside from improving mobility, yoga can also help relieve stress. Some variations like Bikram and power yoga provide moderate calorie burn. Many people find yoga to be extremely therapeutic and energizing. For more information on the various types of yoga and what you’ll need to get started, check out our Yoga Guide.
Developed by a German trainer named Joseph Pilates, this fitness system is a multifaceted approach to increasing mobility, balance and core strength. Similar to yoga, primary principles of the Pilates system include poses, form, concentration, balance, muscle control and specialized breathing techniques.
Stretching and Foam Rolling (Mobility)
Although there is some debate in the athletic community regarding the benefits of stretching, many people believe that performing basic stretching exercises prior to working out is helpful for avoiding tight muscles, muscle cramps and possibly even certain injuries. “Rolling out” the muscles on a foam roller after a workout is another ritual that many people believe aids post-workout recovery. Whether you choose to stretch or use a foam roller is totally up to you. Consider talking with a personal trainer or doing your own research to determine what’s best for you.
Not sure if you should get a gym membership or work out at home? There are certainly pros and cons to both. For some people, exercising at home is easier and more comfortable. It’s your own private space, after all. Buying your own exercise equipment can be expensive, but if your workout routine doesn’t involve any equipment, this may be a non-issue. If you plan to keep working out for many years to come, investing in your own personal equipment may actually cost less than a gym membership in the long run.
On the other hand, going to a well-quipped gym gives you the opportunity to use equipment that you simply won’t have access to at home. Plus, when you go to a gym, you know it’s time to get down to business. You’ll be there for one purpose and one purpose only. At home, some people find it’s much easier to become complacent or get distracted. Gyms also offer classes and personal trainers to help you achieve your fitness goals more efficiently. Before joining a club, however, it’s important to understand that fitness clubs and gyms are businesses. The end goal of a gym is to increase membership sales and maintain those memberships. Some offer a great user experience. Others, not so much.
One common pitfall that causes people to give up on the gym is lack of motivation. Some people might think to themselves: “If I’m willing to pay my hard-earned money on a gym membership, I’ll be obligated to go and work out, right?” Not necessarily. Although gym memberships aren’t cheap, the money investment alone isn’t enough motivation. We’ll talk more about motivation later.
Another common pitfall is not having a solid plan. After joining a gym, many people have trouble creating a good workout plan. There are virtually unlimited potential routines out there, each involving a different combination of exercises. Without a good plan and goals, some people give up before they start seeing results. If you’re willing to spend time doing the research, you should be able to create your own workout plan. However, for some people, spending the money to hire a trainer is well worth it in the beginning. Ultimately, you’ll have to do what works within your own budget.
In order to jump-start your fitness routine and hopefully start accomplishing goals, we’ve put together a straightforward list of our top 10 fitness tips.
- Find Your Motivation: Although it’s become a fitness industry cliché, “staying motivated” is still one of the most important things you can do to ensure long-term success. Without motivation, no one can maintain a fitness routine for very long. Focusing on motivation is particularly important for anyone who is just starting out or getting back into a routine after a long hiatus. Fitness is hard work. It can be uncomfortable. Some people will find it downright unpleasant for the first few weeks or even the first few months. Making progress takes time. However, it’s crucial to keep your eye on the prize and remind yourself why you’re doing it, and why it’s worth continuing. Whether your primary motivation is to improve your health, get stronger, lose weight or improve your physique (or all four), keep those aspirations in mind every day. When you start seeing results, this is another great form of motivation to keep going. Achieving goals is also a great motivator, but you have to set those goals first.
- Set Goals: Although we already discussed goals earlier in this guide, it’s worth mentioning again here. Achieving goals is an important part of maintaining enthusiasm. When you achieve a goal, it feels great. After you complete a goal, set a new one. Better yet, set multiple smaller goals leading up to a long-term goal. As you achieve those smaller goals, you’ll know you’re making progress. Eventually your goal may simply be to maintain your current level of fitness, and that’s fine. Just be sure to stick with it.
- Track Your Progress: Any fitness goal worth having will take time to achieve. In the meantime, track your progress toward that goal. Keep a fitness journal so you can look back at what you’ve achieved and view your development. Some people even take photos of their progress as their physique changes. You don’t have to share them with anyone, but it can definitely help you see improvement more clearly over longer periods of time.
- Expect Setbacks: Everyone loses progress or hits a plateau at some point, for a variety of reasons. You may get sick, accidentally overtrain or simply allow your routine to slip for a period of time. After taking on a new fitness routine, you’ll inevitably experience setbacks. That’s okay. When you overcome a setback and reach a goal, the sense of accomplishment will be that much more satisfying.
- Give Yourself Adequate Recovery Time: Allow yourself enough time to recover after workouts to avoid overtraining. Muscles need time to repair and recover before working them again. This is particularly important for strength training. Varying your workout routine to target different areas of the body throughout the week is a good strategy.
- Get Sleep: According to WebMD, lack of sleep can potentially lead to health problems down the road, including weight gain, heart issues and a suppressed immune system. When you’re working out, sleep is even more crucial for recovery and avoiding injuries. Without adequate sleep, making progress toward your fitness goals will be much harder. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between 24 and 64 should get between six and eight hours of sleep a night.
- Eat Healthy and Stay Hydrated: Talk to any personal trainer and they will tell you that getting exercise is only part of the battle of being fit and healthy. Even if you don’t need to lose weight, eating well gives your body the nutritional foundation it needs to grow stronger. If you do need to shed excess body fat, creating a healthy, balanced eating plan is even more important. There is a lot of information out there, and creating a nutrition plan takes time and commitment, but it’s well worth it in the long-haul. Drinking enough water is also crucial to your overall health and post-workout recovery.
- Be Wary of Supplements: Don’t get too caught up with supplements. There is no magic potion out there that will make a drastic impact in your fitness performance. Focus on proper diet and a solid workout routine, first. Later, if you decide to look into supplements, do thorough research and talk to your doctor, personal trainer or nutritionist.
- Adjust Your Routine: If you pick a routine and stick with it for too long without making changes, your progress will eventually plateau. In order to maintain progress over the long term, adjust your fitness routine by increasing the intensity or duration, or change things up with new and different exercises. Variety can also prevent boredom
- Reward Yourself: Achieving your fitness goals is a reward in itself, but that reward may eventually start to lose impact. Many people find that rewarding themselves in other ways boosts motivation. Choose a healthy reward ahead of time for completing a long-term goal. You can even start saving up for that goal ahead of time, if you want. For example, agree to treat yourself to an hour-long massage or a manicure/pedicure. Alternatively, you could go shopping for some new clothing. You could even take a trip. Treating yourself to something nice once you’ve earned it can help you stay the course.
In order to stay comfortable as you work out, choosing the right clothing is important. Most workout apparel is designed to be lightweight, breathable, moisture-wicking and quick-drying. It should also provide a snug fit without restricting movement. There are dozens of great brands to choose from. For more information on what to wear, take a look at our Fitness Clothing Guide. For info on running or yoga apparel specifically, check out our Running Guide and Yoga Guide.