How to avoid doing too much too soon when you start an exercise program

Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. For many people, this means walking on the treadmill for an hour, doing a circuit on the weight machines, or going through the same aerobics class again all in the name of losing weight and getting fit. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The current trend of high-intensity exercise workouts (CrossFit is one example) that emphasize shorter bouts of vigorous aerobic and strength exercise can hardly be described as boring and can produce even greater results than traditional exercise regimens. Some of these programs claim that you can “transform your body” or lose 10–20 pounds by participating in a three-week fitness challenge. Or maybe you are interested in trying high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to get the benefits of exercise in as little as 10 minutes per session.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. In order to get the fitness and weight loss benefits, the exercise must be done at a very high intensity, which may not be right for everyone. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Boot camp workout

To be sure, these types of fitness programs can be safe and effective for burning calories and improving fitness. But because they are intense means that you need to be fit to even get started, so they may not be a good choice for people who are not already in shape or who are new to exercise. There is a greater risk of injury and even heart attacks in people who are unfit and start exercising at a very high intensity. At the very least, muscle soreness is likely and may impact your ability—and motivation—to repeat that exercise the next day.

Ideally, an exercise program would begin with a health and fitness assessment by a certified exercise professional to determine potential health risks. These results would be used to create an exercise prescription. For participants who have risk factors like high blood pressure or diabetes, those variables would be monitored to make sure the exercise sessions were safe and effective.

In the real world, many people who have these conditions simply show up at a gym to begin an exercise program, often with little or no review of health history or assessment of fitness. In most cases this is safe, but without some form of monitoring participants who have high blood pressure or diabetes may have problems. This is especially concerning since many people don’t know they have these conditions, which is why seeing a physician is often recommended before undergoing fitness testing or starting an exercise program, especially if you are over 40 years of age or have other health problems.

A good personal trainer or exercise leader should ask about your health history and perform some type of assessment to gauge your current fitness and use this information to start you at an appropriate level. Even the most intense exercise programs, classes, or videos are scalable to all fitness levels, but you need to know where you are starting from. Additionally, a qualified personal trainer or group exercise leader can help you learn proper techniques to reduce the risk of injury and improve your progress.

Once you begin, resist the temptation to do too much, too soon by going at your own pace. This is especially important in group exercise programs where you may feel pressure to keep up with other, fitter participants. Listen to your body, too. Feeling some level of fatigue and soreness is normal, but severe shortness of breath, chest discomfort, or muscle and joint pain, especially if it comes on suddenly, is a good reason to slow down or stop. Make sure you communicate how you are doing to trainer or exercise leader, too.

Maybe you will find that the intensity and variety of these exercise programs keeps you motivated to meet your goals.  But don’t forget that even if you aren’t pushing yourself, any exercise you do will have significant health and fitness benefits.

Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
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