A Guide to the (Re)Introduction of Exercise to Promote Health
Recently I wrote 2 posts about exercise and weight loss and the truth about the relationship between the two (parts 1 & 2). This post will be much more beneficial if you go back and read both of those before reading on. In another post, I also wrote about how some may need to consider exercising LESS to PROTECT their health. As I mentioned in the latter post, due to my winding health journey over the past 5 years, I have experienced exercise across the continuum of very little activity (sedentary) to over-training. When I was sickest in 2013, even just walking, light yoga, or more than one errand in a day even with 3 or more days rest in between made me feel worse. Just a couple months prior to this period of “forced” sedentary behavior, I had been over-training. It took me a few months to realize how much worse exercise was actually making my situation and how much I needed to back off on it to allow my body the rest and recovery it needed for healing. Had I listened to the signs my body was giving me prior to my health crash, I may have been able to avoid the most severe consequences I suffered. This is why I hope that I can help others by sharing how exercising less may be necessary to protect their health!
In the post I wrote about “My Story” (part 2), I shared that at this point in my healing journey, I often feel much more like myself in the spring and summer, while the fall and winter tend to be accompanied by more intensified symptoms. Over the past 5 years, my exercise has tended to ramp up in the spring and summer and be reduced over the fall and winter, as I intuitively follow the fluctuations of my body. So, I’ve had a fair amount of experience with both moderating my exercise intensity, duration and frequency, as well as increasing each of those areas. Other than my first foray back into exercise after being mostly sedentary, I often come at exercise with at least a minor level of fitness, as now during the fall and winter months, I don’t have to revert back to such extreme levels of rest or exercise reduction. Instead I’m able to maintain something more like I posted about here. Some form of exercise has been in my life for many years so I’m no stranger to it. And when I’m feeling good, I enjoy working out and living an active lifestyle!
So, in this post I want to share with you some ideas for how to SAFELY and GRADUALLY INCREASE your levels of exercise intensity, frequency, and duration to a place that MATCHES YOUR HEALTH STATUS.
As I shared in this post, our genes actually require movement for their healthiest expression. So one place I think is most important to start with is WALKING— no matter your current activity or fitness level!! The typical desired step count of 10,000 may have slightly vague evidence supporting that number, but I do think it’s a great goal nonetheless. I find it does take a little effort to ensure it’s reached, yet on more active days can easily be exceeded. I also encourage taking some of these steps outside. Time in nature has numerous health benefits that make this a win-win.
So, I’d suggest aiming to get around 10,000 or more steps daily and make that a solid routine! Once you’ve got that down, consider adding in something a little more. MOVEMENT BREAKS make for a great low-stress way to get in more activity. If you’ve been sitting for 20-30 minutes or more, consider getting up for a few air squats, push-ups, lunges, a plank, some banded movements, etc., all of which can be modified as needed. When using movement breaks, I often choose one exercise as my Movement of the Day (MOD). For example, one day may be air squats and each time I take a movement break, I do 10-20 reps (more or less based on your needs). If I’ve taken 10 breaks, by the end of the day I’ve done 100 reps with little to no stress signaling. YOGA is another great low-stress activity that could be added for building more strength and endurance. Yoga often has the additional benefit of helping you connect with your body, mind, and spirit as well. Either of these activities will provide a fairly gently form of resistance training.
After some time with these activities, you may start feeling like you’re ready for more. This would be a good time to add more strength training. Initially, perhaps just start with one compound exercise completed for a certain number of reps and sets in one session (maybe 3-5 sets of 6-15 reps), such as some form of squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, pull-ups, push-ups, etc., again all modified as needed. For example, you may modify a traditional, strict push-up by doing elevated push-ups against a wall or on a shelf or chair. Pull-ups could be substituted with body rows, bar hangs, or pull-up negatives (assisted with feet on the floor or a chair, or unassisted). It absolutely depends upon your current level of fitness and abilities. Only start with a weight or level of difficulty at which you feel completely comfortable and can maintain excellent form. Don’t focus on trying to lift your heaviest weights just yet. Ramp up slowly building your confidence with the movements, weight, and especially your form. Please, never sacrifice form for more reps or weight.
Ramping up a bit more-
Over time, this will begin to feel easier too and you’ll likely be craving more. At this point, you might consider starting to add more exercises to your strength training. I often progress to this step rather quickly from the last and when I do, I usually add another 1-2 exercises for a total of about 3. And since in these early stages I’m working to gradually recondition my muscles and prime my form again, I may choose 1-2 movements that require weights and 1-2 body weight movements. So perhaps I use some weight for squats, and then perform body weight (and maybe modified) push-ups and planks. Now my intensity and duration is rising a bit. At this point, I’m definitely still not lifting super heavy or going to failure on any of the exercises. I’m cautious to listen to my body regarding frequency. I may do these types of workouts 3-4 times per week with a day or so between each, though, as they aren’t super strenuous. I’m really using these stages as an opportunity to gauge how my health is responding to each increase in duration, intensity and frequency.
And a little more-
Again, as this starts to feel really great, I usually add another couple of exercises. There are lots of ideas about how you can structure workouts, but I tend to focus on a variety of compound exercises in each workout that over the course of a week provide some squatting, pushing, pulling, hinging, carrying, and cross body movements. At this point, you can also start experimenting with lifting heavier weights. Start to find that place where you feel a bit more challenged by the weight, and ramp up as you gain more confidence and you feel your health is allowing. Often this stage is exciting because you’re able to increase your weights pretty significantly each time you perform the same exercise. Again, ALWAYS make sure your form is remaining solid with each increase in weight.
There are a few particular compound movements that provide functional benefits that I like to primarily focus on in my workouts. These include exercises such as: squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups, planks, and overhead presses. There are often different methods that can be used for these exercises that will challenge your muscles in different ways and keep things interesting. Furthermore, there are variations of these exercises that are often similarly beneficial and functional. For instance, you can do air squats, back squats, front squats, sissy squats, goblet squats, etc. You can also do reverse lunges, walking lunges, one-legged squats, split squats, etc. These will all provide that squatting movement, but with somewhat varying benefits. Each of these is a compound option, however, that will work many muscles of your body.
At this stage, I personally usually prefer not to follow a specific workout plan. I do often like to begin my sessions by alternating squats in one workout and deadlifts in the next, followed by other compound exercises, as discussed, and occasional accessory work. The reason I prefer not to follow a set plan is that I feel it allows me to better listen to how my body feels about the workout. Additionally, without a set plan, if I’m not feeling up to a workout one day, I don’t feel like it’s throwing my whole schedule off if I decide it’s best to skip it. I just feel I’m more apt to listen to my body than feel “pressured” to complete any one movement or workout when I’m operating without a “prescription.”
There is certainly a time and place for plans, however, and I’m certain one day I will want to work through a more set plan (as I have at times in the past), but most of the time as I ease in and out of various types of training for my health, I prefer something a bit more flexible. I will say, however, that if you’re doing something different every single time you work out, you may not see the progress you desire. To make physical gains takes time and practice. There’s also both a certain level of consistency and periodization needed for forward momentum. If you don’t feel confident listening to your body to make these changes, a really knowledgeable trainer will likely be of great benefit to you.
Okay- so taking a step back and reviewing where we are coming from…
We are feeling well and wanting to add more activity and movement to our day. We have our diets, sleep, and stress management dialed-in well. We’ve added lots of slow movement to our day. We’ve progressed through various stages of movement breaks with resistance training and into a more definitive strength training workout routine. It’s all feeling great! Each time we complete a workout, we feel really good that day and the next! On our rest days we also feel great! Now may be the time where we can start adding some anaerobic activity. Personally, I NATURALLY start to feel a desire for this as some point after making these increases to my exercise. I never force it!
Anaerobic activity is best done in a natural pattern, when you really feel like it. If you watch kids play, they rarely ever do so at a steady pace. Sometimes they are going all-out, and other times they move much more slowly. They usually don’t force themselves to keep going when they’ve tired out. They are a great example for us. They push when they feel like it and rest when they need to.
So, likewise, when you are starting to feel that desire for something a little more intense, it’s naturally a great time to consider including some anaerobic training. As I mentioned here, there are many, many options for this type of training. You will find all sorts of ideas just by searching the internet. What I would suggest, however, is keeping this type of training to about 10 minutes or less. On the rare occasion perhaps a 12-15 minute session would be okay, but I’d suggest that be RARE. Why? Because this type of training is intense. We don’t want to keep stress levels high for an extended period of time, as that defeats the purpose of this type of training. Furthermore, the longer we do this type of activity we aren’t actually able to give it the same level of effort, also defeating the purpose.
When first adding anaerobic exercise, however, I suggest starting at just 2-6 minutes. You may start with something rather simple like 4 sets of quick air squats or even jump squats. Pick a number of reps that feels challenging to you. Give them your all-out effort. Rest when you’ve completed your first set of reps, until you recover enough to do it again. Repeat that for a total of four rounds. Sprints are a really simple option too. I briefly mentioned possibilities for these here. When starting out, I would only suggest doing this type of exercise every 7-10 days. If you feel good each time you add this type of activity on the day of and the days following, you can consider eventually doing it a bit more frequently. Again, see here for information on suggested frequency.
You can also get fancier with your anaerobic training by planning a circuit of a few exercises. Perhaps complete each exercise for 20-30 or more seconds (or for a certain number of reps), break for 10-30 seconds (or until recovered enough to continue), and move onto the next exercise. Set a timer for up to 10 minutes and stop wherever you’re at when it goes off. A few examples of movements for your circuit are: burpees, kettlebell swings, jumping jacks, etc. JUST REMEBER: even though you want to give your all-out effort, never sacrifice form for more speed or reps. Again, a quick internet search will give you many more ideas. Keep in mind, however, you may need to modify what you find if you want to follow the suggestions I’ve provided here for duration. Often you’ll see these types of workouts being prescribed for 20-30 or more minutes, which is outside of what I’d recommend, ESPECIALLY for someone easing back into exercise for OPTIMAL HEALTH!
Don’t forget, maintaining great dietary, sleep, and stress management habits remain critical! As you ramp up your exercise, I highly recommend continuing to prioritize lots of slow movements like walking and restorative activity like gentle yoga, stretching, and mobility work. LISTEN to your body! Never force anything! Use a journal to track the type of activities you’re performing and how you’re feeling. Tracking can allow us to more easily see patterns and associations between changes in our activity and health outcomes. And HAVE FUN!