Ask an Expert: Beginning an exercise program

Q: "Year after year, I make a New Year's resolution to start exercising. And I never keep it up past about March. What can I do differently this year to finally succeed?"

Answer provided by Jim Hrella, fitness specialist at Providence Portland Medical Center's Body Works: 

With the arrival of a fresh new year, many of us are setting out to achieve exercise-related goals. Unfortunately, like you, many people who start out with good intentions become sidetracked after a short period of time. Frequently, lack of planning for the unexpected can lead to a long-term lapse in activity.

The following is a list of suggestions that may help you stick to your exercise program:
  • Choose activities that are enjoyable for you. If you’re a person who thrives on companionship, choose group exercise or go to a public place where you can interact with others. If you don’t want to share your exercise time, choose activities that you can do at home. Don’t put yourself in an environment that is uncomfortable for you. Also, if you enjoy a particular activity, plan to do that as your exercise as often as you can. Make it fun!
  • If you enjoy working out with others, find a partner for your exercise program. A buddy system provides great motivation and companionship. But remember, the ultimate responsibility for your workouts lies with you.
  • Have a specific goal in mind. Do you want to lose weight, increase your endurance, tone up, build strength, reduce stress, feel less tired, train for a specific activity? Pick one goal to begin with. It’s important to define exactly what it is that you’re trying to do before you set out to do it. Then, make specific plans for how you will reach your goal. A fitness professional is a good resource at this stage. Set small, achievable goals and reward yourself when you reach each of them. As you make progress toward each goal, gradually add others.
  • Plan a specific exercise schedule. Determine how many days each week you will devote to your program, and when you will exercise on those days. Write down what type(s) of exercise you will do on each of those days, for how long, and where. Identify any potential obstacles to sticking with your schedule, and plan in advance how you will overcome those challenges.
  • Begin at a reasonable pace. Gradually easing into an exercise program allows you to make it a lifestyle change rather than an ominous chore. Start with two to three days a week for about half an hour. If you’re ready for more after a couple of weeks, add more time to your workouts or add another day.
No matter how devoted you are, you will miss an occasional workout due to unforeseen causes. Don’t let it bother you. Stay focused and continue with your next scheduled workout, or, make up the workout on a different day. Missing an occasional workout will not affect your ability to achieve your long-term goals.

Finally, as you begin your exercise program, keep in mind this advice from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right.”

January 2003