January 2, 2020

Setting realistic goals when returning to exercise

Madison, Wis. — If you're looking to get back to a fitness routine, or looking to start one up for the first time, you may start by seeing what the Internet has to offer.

And you may be dismayed with what you find, because it's all so…professional.

Here's a sample from the reputed online experts:

  • "Make sure your workouts include three key components. When you're getting back into fitness, your exercise plan should include components of cardiovascular endurance, resistance training, and flexibility."

  • "Keep a workout log to track progress."

  • "Designate a week to get back on your program and create a detailed list of all the things you have to do."

  • "Take progress pictures every three months or so. Use mirrors when working out."

Use mirrors when working out?

If expert advice does little more than overwhelm you, UW Health Fitness Center senior clinical exercise physiologist Jude Sullivan sympathizes, and offers a simpler, more attainable alternative: Find some form of movement that you like, and do it as often as you can.

The Best Exercise

"The 'best' exercise is the one that you will do on a regular basis," Sullivan says, adding that the more formal guidelines offered by some trainers and other such experts are often ineffective counsel.

"They'll tell you to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week, and tell you all of the benefits and why it's important," Sullivan says. "But that message might not reach you on an emotional level. There's no real connection."

That connection is vital to motivation, and it might not exist when contemplating the virtues of bench presses or five-mile runs. Sullivan, in fact, advocates an "inside-out" approach to fitness that stands in stark contrast to the "outside-in" tact of some voice of wisdom telling you how much exercise you need and when you should do it.

Getting Started

So where should you start? Sullivan says let your personal preferences be your guide.

"When we work with people at the Fitness Center, we want to know what they like and what they don't like," he says. "If they tried something and it was awful, the last thing we want to do is tell them to do it again. I want to know what speaks to them."

Have you always wondered what Zumba is? Take a class. Do you have fond childhood memories of ice skating? Dig out those skates and find a lake that has frozen over. The first steps toward fitness could literally be a few extra steps.

"Are you willing to walk up one extra flight of stairs or park a little further from your office and walk the extra distance? These are simple things that you can do right now," Sullivan says.

The key is to introduce movement to your life, and it doesn't have to resemble turbo-charged, crop-topped advertisements hawking the latest fitness trend. Sullivan believes in the effectiveness of what he calls "informal" movement.

"Create any opportunity you can to move throughout the day," he says. "Adopt a mindset of being regular with movement, and realize that exercise" – formal movement – "is but a single part of your integrated movement lifestyle."

Find Movement That Fits Your Life

This kind of open, flexible conception of exercise will help you with another important element of a movement-based life – realism. Most people lead very busy lives, and trying to shoehorn an extra five or six hours of weekly exercise into an already hectic schedule may prove impossible. So don't.

"I challenge people to be as realistic as possible," Sullivan says. "If you can do something for 30 minutes per day, four days a week, I'm going to affirm that. We want to allow them to create their own success, because when you feel like you're doing something worthwhile, you'll protect it."

And a realistic approach can encourage a healthy perspective when assessing results.

"You may be tempted to say, 'It's been six weeks and nothing's happened,'" Sullivan says. "But you can also say, 'Six weeks ago I wasn't doing any type of movement, and now I'm exercising four days a week.' These little successes translate over time into huge shifts."

Suggestions You Might Like

Below are a few ideas to incorporate activity into your integrated movement lifestyle.

  1. Climb the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, or the Burj Khalifa – see how many flights of stairs you take daily and then translate that into how many days, weeks or months you would need to get to the top of any of these structures.  Maybe make a game of it with some friends.

  2. If you're a TV watcher, make a list of activities you can do on the living room floor during commercial breaks.

  3. Having a stationary piece of equipment at home that you can use while watching your favorite movie or a sporting event.

  4. Be a minimalist with regard to automation, especially as it relates to regular chores you do in/out of your home. For instance, shovel your snow as much as possible instead of blowing it.