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Just Starting Out? Not So Fast

Don't be embarrassed to start with very short durations, such as five minutes of walking per day, said William Roberts, president of the American College of Sports Medicine and associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Minnesota. Add one minute per day and you'll be up to 20 minutes in two weeks, 40 minutes per day in a month. Walk every other day at first, or daily if you can.

Minor aches or soreness are to be expected for those unaccustomed to regular exercise. But don't increase your time if you experience acute pain, Roberts advised. Beginning exercisers who push too hard can experience painful muscle strains and pulls that put them back on the couch, said Suzanne Sysko, medical director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

(Scott Menchin - For the Washington Post)

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Fitness News and Resources

Once you're walking regularly and extending your time, pay attention to the intensity of your movement. Bryant recommends the "talk test." "If you can speak conversationally while exercising, then you're probably in a safe zone. If you're having trouble [talking as you walk], then you're probably being too intense." But if your breathing isn't challenged at all, you're going too slow.

If you reach that 40-minute-per-day walking goal, congratulations: You have surpassed the minimum recommendations of the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines and will get most of the health benefits of regular exercise, putting you at lower risk for a variety of diseases, including high blood pressure, some cancers, heart disease and diabetes.

But don't get frustrated if you fail to lose weight or see new muscle tone right away. New exercisers are more likely to "feel the results before they see the results," said Eddie Carrington, spokesman for Bally Total Fitness, a chain of gyms with locations throughout the United States and Canada. Those feelings will likely include more energy, more flexibility and reduced stress.

For those who haven't yet made time for a dedicated walk, a pedometer can be useful, Roberts said. The small, inexpensive step counters, which are worn on the belt, tally the amount of activity you accumulate during your day. Start wearing it, note your daily total and try to increase by 100 daily steps each week, he said.

Unless a lot of those steps happen during brisk walks, you'll miss some of the cardiovascular benefits and calorie burn of more structured outings. But if you reach 10,000 steps a day, the amount recommended by many experts, you'll reap at least some of the health benefits of a more active life.

The Next Steps

If you are easily bored or want to add variety, several other activities are considered good for novices.

Stationary bikes provide cardiovascular exercise while taking pressure off the knees, said Steven Ehasz, a trainer who specializes in working with beginning exercisers at his Baltimore company, Ahead of the Curve Fitness and Wellness. Recumbent bikes, which provide back support and place your legs out in front of you, are particularly kind to unfit bodies and bad knees. Elliptical machines, devices that mimic striding with ski poles, provide full-body aerobic exercise yet protect the joints from impact.

As with walking, don't be afraid to start with very brief workouts at first. But as you increase your time and your goals turn to weight loss and greater fitness, it's important to add intensity and variety to your workouts, Ehasz said. At some point you'll want to add some strength training to your regimen, either using the machines found in gyms or your own body weight, as with push-ups and sit-ups.

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