Exercise: New Year's Resolution, Get Fit (cont.)

Some activities can even double as weight-bearing exercise, the other component of an ideal fitness program. This type of exercise involves anything that uses body weight against gravity. Examples include walking, jogging, playing basketball, yoga, martial arts, push-ups, weight training, and free weights.

To get maximum benefits, focus on working out the larger muscle groups. Most of the muscle mass in the body lies in the trunk, thighs, chest, back, and abdomen. Targeting these areas will give "you the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak, for your workout time," says Ross. He suggests starting out with one set of eight to 15 repetitions of one exercise two days a week.

If you are unsure about how to perform certain exercises properly, seek expert help. You may hire a personal trainer for one or two sessions to get started. "Many people try to (start a fitness program) on their own, and they try things that really aren't meant to get the long-term result," says Ross. "It's extremely beneficial to get education if you feel like you need it."

Consulting a dietitian for nutrition advice may help as well. Healthy eating is an essential part of a good fitness program. A person who works out a lot but does not nourish the body properly could be sabotaging or hiding the fruits of his labor.

Dee Sandquist, MSRD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, advises having a general plan, and investing some time in advance to make it happen. "Taking five minutes on the weekend to plan your food for the week can pay huge dividends," she says. "Look at your schedule for the upcoming week, and find out how many meals you'll be eating in and how many meals you'll be eating out. Make a list, and then go to the grocery store."

Planning works regardless of your dietary goal. Some people may prefer to work on reducing fat in their diet, adding fruits and vegetables, watching portions, eating at a slower pace, or curbing junk food.

Whatever your aim, avoid getting too hungry. At that point, people tend to overeat and ignore their best intentions. Also, figure out what triggers you to overeat or disregard your nutrition plan. Determine how to avoid problems or how to tackle them.

Many a New Year's resolution has been thwarted by injury. Some people are so gung-ho about getting fit that they are too aggressive at the beginning of their fitness program. As a result, they may become injured, feel a lot of soreness, or think of exercise as an unpleasant experience.

"Start low and then gradually progress," advises Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "The thing most people forget is that they didn't become deconditioned and out of shape overnight. You shouldn't expect to become well-conditioned overnight."

To figure out whether you are exercising at the right level, try the talk test. The goal is to carry on a basic level of conversation without being out of breath. If you find that you are too chatty, however, chances are you are not working hard enough.

You can also assess your energy level after a workout, says Bryant. If you are still tired one hour after exercise, you probably overdid it. He says the average person should be reasonably recovered in that time.

Lee Igel, NSCA, a sports psychology consultant and faculty member at New York University, simply shakes his head at some of the less-than-bright things people do at the beginning of a fitness program.

"It's easy to walk into a gym, and see somebody with a body that you want, and say, 'I'm going to do everything that I can to get that,'" says Igel. He says some people assume they know how to achieve the perfect body, jump into a workout routine without educating themselves on proper form and use of the equipment, and then get hurt.

To ward off injury, he suggests consulting a trained professional or reading books, magazines, or reputable web sites for advice.

If you do get hurt, don't work through it. Don't think your whole fitness routine is out the door either. An injured shoulder does not prevent you from working out your lower body, and a sprained ankle does not mean you can't exercise your upper body.

"A sprained ankle doesn't mean your whole body is shut down, and it doesn't mean you can eat pizza and ice cream," says Ross. "Try to use the rest of your body as much as you can, and still maintain exercise, and still maintain a good nutrition program. "

Indeed, it is possible to begin a fitness program and stick with it. If you do, perhaps you can scratch off that resolution next year and have the satisfaction of knowing you have accomplished something very important.

Originally published Dec. 20, 2004.
Medically updated Dec. 20, 2005

SOURCES: John C. Norcross, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jonathan Ross, ACE, NSCA, personal trainer, Bowie, Md. Marilyn Tanner, RD, co-creator , Head to Toe program, St. Louis Children's Hospital; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Pauline Wallin, PhD, clinical psychologist; life coach, Camp Hill, Pa. Dee Sandquist, MSRD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise. Lee Igel, NSCA, sports psychology consultant, faculty member, New York University.

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Last Editorial Review: 12/28/2004 11:40:13 PM