With the start of 2005, millions of Americans will embark on a new exercise regimen that most will abandon within just weeks.
"In January, nearly every health club is bulging at the seams and by mid-February, they're half empty," notes John M. Jakicic, chair of the Department of Health and Physical Activity and director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
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That's because expectations about exercise and reality often don't match. Those who have resolved to get fit in the New Year frequently underestimate the time it takes to get in shape and the effort involved. They also overlook the real -- and perceived -- barriers to exercise in a world that increasingly engineers physical activity out of daily life.
Plus, there's also the misguided assumption that workouts increase weight loss. "People think that they will lose all this weight with exercise," Jakicic notes. "But in the short run, activity will have very little effect on weight. Six to eight weeks later, they're feeling frustrated, and think, 'I've been working my tail off, but I'm not really working my tail off. When they don't get the results they expected, they quit."
It doesn't have to be this way.
Jakicic and other exercise physiologists have found plenty of simple ways to help you start -- and stick with -- a fitness routine for 2005. Here's what they recommend: Find an activity you love. You might think you should jog, but if you really hate running, you won't stick with it for long. "The best activity," notes Jakicic, "is the one you do, not the one you think you will do."
Go slow. Too much too soon is one of the most common mistakes made. That's a recipe for sore muscles and injury that are likely to undermine your efforts. "Everybody wants to start up with everything, so the body is overwhelmed," says William J. Kraemer, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. "You have to crawl before you can walk and build the exercise habit."
How slow should you go? Figure on just 20 minutes a day of activity the first two weeks, especially for those who are 30 and older. "Once you hit 30 to 40 years of age, you can't get in shape in two weeks any more," says Kraemer, who recommends starting "with different workouts, some that are very easy to do so that you can feel very accomplished."
Wait for the weights. Starting everything at once -- cardiovascular, weight training, cutting back on calories -- is a program for failure, Kraemer says. Begin weight training about four weeks into your new routine. "Start lifting twice a week for about two to three weeks," he says.
Get some equipment for home. Sure, there's always a risk that your stationary bike could become an expensive clothes rack. But Jakicic and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh find that people who have home exercise equipment are more likely to stay active. In one study, participants who were given treadmills for their homes were more apt to be working out 18 months later than those without exercise equipment. But there are also gender differences. Men seem to do best with sports-related equipment: rackets, balls, mitts and the like. Women appear to fare well with bikes and treadmills.
Proximity counts. So by all means, join a gym, sign up for a Pilates class or get a personal trainer. Just be sure whatever you do is very close to your home, office or school. And take advantage of the free stuff nearby. Studies suggest that people who live near parks and recreation centers stay more active than those who don't.
Develop a plan. It's not enough to say you want to get fit. You need a regular routine that makes a workout as much of a habit as brushing your teeth. Research suggests that setting aside the same time daily for one specific activity leads to the greatest success. "Don't fly by the seat of your pants, or say, 'One day I'll do this, one day I'll do that,' " Jakicic says. "Have a very specific plan."
Partner pressure. People who enlist support for their workout efforts do better for the long haul. Jakicic has found that men stick longer with exercise when they have a supportive wife to watch the kids. Women go the distance with workouts when they enlist support for their efforts from a non-family member, be it an exercise buddy or a babysitter.
Get your gear and clothes in shape too. Scrambling to find your workout gear in the morning before you head out the door won't make your life easier. So pack your bag the night before.
Expect it to take time to get fit. "The television infomercials are completely misleading," Kraemer says. "If it was that easy, there wouldn't be anyone around us who looked fat."