Spring Into Fitness

Let the new season motivate you to make a fresh start

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

The road to weight loss is often strewn with fad diets, broken promises, and exercise equipment that gathers dust instead of logging miles. You do need to make sure you are getting regular physical activity.

And what better time than springtime to kick your fitness up a notch? Longer days and warmer weather provide the perfect motivation. And you don't have to start training for a marathon, either; as long as you're getting more activity than you used to, you're on the right track. Let springtime's rejuvenation inspire you to break down those barriers and finally make fitness a way of life.

The Power of Physical Activity

Regular physical activity improves your mood, enhances the quality of your life, helps you burn off stress -- and, most important, it strengthens your body while it burns calories. Physical activity helps your body work the way it is supposed to. Even simple walking is a good, weight-bearing exercise that helps keep muscles -- including your heart -- strong.

The next time you finish your workout, think about how good you feel. Many people have trouble getting started, but once they finish, they feel terrific, partly due to endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals.

But that's not all. Do your workout to music, and you may impress your friends with your improved verbal skills. A recent study published in the journal Heart and Lung found that cardiac rehabilitation patients felt better mentally and emotionally after working out on the treadmill. And when they added music to their workouts, they doubled their scores on verbal tests.

Evidence suggests that physical activity improves mental ability in people with heart disease, and that music enhances brainpower. And the combination of music and exercise was found to be more stimulating to the brain than exercise alone. So make sure you have your tunes before you start your workout!

'I Hate Exercise'

I can't tell you how many times I have heard that comment. If those words have crossed your lips, most likely what you hate is not the exercise itself, but the chore of having to do it. Let's face it, no one likes chores.

The key is to think of it differently. Instead of viewing exercise as a chore, replace the word exercise with physical activity. Now consider all the things that qualify as physical activity -- from walking and gardening to swimming, bike riding, tennis (my personal favorite), and throwing a football. This mindset will make it much easier to find activities that you enjoy, and exercise won't feel like a chore if you are enjoying yourself.

Speaking of enjoyment, spring fairly beckons us to come outside and enjoy nature's beauty. So treat yourself to a good pair of sneakers and a pedometer and hit the streets. Walking is one of the easiest forms of physical activity, and it can be done almost anywhere.

Wear the pedometer for one day to determine your typical daily step count. Once you know your average, strive to add at least 2,000 more steps to your day to help you maintain your weight. Adding a few thousand more daily steps will catapult you into weight-loss range.

If you have physical limitations, check with your doctor, and let our fitness guru, Richard Weil, give you some tips on his Exercise and Fitness message board. Keep in mind that activities done in water or on a stationary bicycle take pressure off your joints and may be a good way to get started.

Make a Commitment

One of the best strategies for making activity a habit is to commit to a program -- or to a friend. Knowing that your walking partner is on the corner waiting for you at 7 a.m. is a great motivator to get out of bed. Likewise, if you sign up for a class or buy a gym membership, you are making both a personal and financial commitment. When you know someone is counting on you, it's easier to stay motivated.

Most evenings after dinner, my husband and I take a 40-minute walk through our neighborhood. To me, it's quality time for just the two of us without distractions, and of course, we use this time to solve the problems of the world.

There are nights when I would much prefer to curl up with a good book, but I know how much my husband enjoys the physical activity, fresh air, and stress relief from his demanding job. I know he counts on me to be his walking partner. So the book waits until I get home, and afterward I am always glad I went for the walk.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Whether you are just getting off the couch more often, making it a habit to climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator, or are in training for athletic competition, your goal should be to steadily improve upon your fitness level. By adding a few extra minutes or slightly increasing the intensity of your routine, you'll continue to become fitter, get stronger, and avoid the dreaded weight-loss plateau.

Ideally, activities that get your heart rate up -- for example, walking as if you are trying to catch a bus -- should account for 30 minutes of your daily activity. Combine this heart rate-increasing activity with 30 minutes of less strenuous activities (maybe washing the car or vacuuming), and you're exactly where you need to be for effective weight loss.

If you're not there yet, don't worry; slowly work toward achieving one hour of total physical activity every day.

SOURCE: Heart and Lung, November-December 2003.

Originally published April 16, 2004
Medically updated April 14, 2005

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