Fitness 101: The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Exercise

How to get started with an exercise program - and stick with it.

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

You've decided it's time to start exercising. Congratulations! You've taken the first step on your way to a new and improved body and mind.

"Exercise is the magic pill," says Michael R. Bracko, EdD, FACSM, chairman of the American College of Sports Medicine's Consumer Information Committee. "Exercise can literally cure diseases like some forms of heart disease. Exercise has been implicated in helping people prevent or recover from some forms of cancer. Exercise helps people with arthritis. Exercise helps people prevent and reverse depression."

And there's no arguing that exercise can help most people lose weight, as well as look more toned and trim.

Of course, there's a catch. You need to get -- and keep -- moving if you want to cash in on the benefits. This doesn't necessarily mean following a strict, time-consuming regimen at the gym -- although that can certainly reap benefits. The truth is you can get rewards from many different types and levels of exercise.

"Any little increment of physical activity is going to be a great boost to weight loss and feeling better," says Rita Redberg, MSc, chairwoman of the American Heart Association's Scientific Advisory Board for the Choose to Move program.

Your exercise options are numerous, including walking, dancing, gardening, biking -- even doing household chores, says Redberg. The important thing is to choose activities you enjoy, she says. That will increase your chances of making it a habit.

And how much exercise should you do? For heart health, the AHA recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as walking, on most days of the week.

Yet "if you're getting less than that, you're still going to see benefits," says Redberg. "It's not like if you can't do 30 minutes, you shouldn't do anything, because you're definitely going to see benefits even at 5 or 10 minutes of moving around."

Ready to get started? Health and fitness experts helped WebMD compile this beginner's guide to exercise, including definitions of some common exercise terms, sample workouts, and recommendations on home exercise equipment.

A way to measure the intensity of your exercise is to check you heart rate or pulse during physical activity. These should be within a target range during different levels of intensity.

For example, according to the CDC, for moderate-intensity physical activity, a person's target heart rate should be 50% to 70% of his or her maximum heart rate.

Get Ready

The first step to any workout routine is to evaluate how fit you are for your chosen physical activity. Whenever you begin an exercise program, it's wise to consult a doctor. Anyone with major health risks, males aged 45 and older, and women aged 55 and older should get medical clearance, says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

But no matter what your medical condition, you can usually work out in some way.

"I can't think of any medical issue that would get worse from the right kind of exercise," says Stephanie Siegrist, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Rochester, N.Y.

After assessing your fitness, it helps to set workout goals. For example, do you want to prepare to run a 5K? Hit the gym five times a week? Or just walk around the block without getting winded?

"Make sure the goals are clear, realistic, and concise," says Sal Fichera, an exercise physiologist and owner of New York-based Forza Fitness.

Whatever your goals and medical condition, approach any new exercise regimen with caution.

"Start low and go slow," advises Bryant. Many beginners make the mistake of starting out too aggressively, only to give up when they end up tired, sore, or injured, he says. Some get discouraged because they think an aggressive workout will produce instant results.

"Generally speaking, when people go about it too aggressively early in the program, they tend not to stick with it over the long haul," says Bryant. "What you really want to do is to develop some new habits that you can stick with for a lifetime."

Fitness Definitions

Even long-term exercisers may have misconceptions about exactly what some fitness terms mean. Here are some definition of words and phrases you're likely to encounter:

  • Aerobic/cardiovascular activity. These are exercises that are strenuous enough to temporarily speed up your breathing and heart rate. Running, cycling, walking, swimming, and dancing fall in this category.
  • Maximum Heart Rate is based on the person's age. An estimate of a person's maximum age-related heart rate can be obtained by subtracting the person's age from 220.
  • Flexibility training or stretching. This type of workout enhances the range of motion of joints. Age and inactivity tend to cause muscles, tendons, and ligaments to shorten over time. Contrary to popular belief, however, stretching and warming up are not synonymous. In fact, stretching cold muscles and joints can make them prone to injury.
  • Strength, weight, or resistance training. This type of exercise is aimed at improving the strength and function of muscles. Specific exercises are done to strengthen each muscle group. Weight lifting and exercising with stretchy resistance bands are examples of resistance training activities, as are exercises like pushups in which you work against the weight of your own body.
  • Set. Usually used in discussing strength training exercises, this term refers to repeating the same exercise a certain number of times. For instance, a weight lifter may do 10 biceps curls, rest for a few moments, then perform another "set" of 10 more biceps curls.
  • Repetition or "rep." This refers to the number of times you perform an exercise during a set. For example, the weight lifter mentioned above performed 10 reps of the bicep curl exercise in each set.
  • Warm up. This is the act of preparing your body for the stress of exercise. The body can be warmed up with light intensity aerobic movements like walking slowly. These movements increase blood flow, which in turn heats up muscles and joints. "Think of it as a lube job for the body," Bryant explains. At the end of your warm-up, it's a good idea to do a little light stretching.
  • Cooldown. This is the less-strenuous exercise you do to cool your body down after the more intense part of your workout. For example, after a walk on a treadmill, you might walk at a reduced speed and incline for several minutes until your breathing and heart rate slow down. Stretching is often part of a cooldown.

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