The Moving Crew

Go Slowly Now . . . So You Don't Slump Later

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By Lennie Magida
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Even though I learned in my first journalism job to "never assume anything," the personal trainer in me makes me pretty confident in assuming -- this being early January -- that you've resolved to improve your fitness this year. Maybe you got some new gear; joined a gym or dusted off your old membership; set your sights on a race or some other goal. In any case, you're ready to start.

Or are you?

Before you suit up and hit the trail (or the gym or the pool), there are a few questions you'd do well to ask. Not the least of these: Have you chosen an activity you'll enjoy enough to stick with when New Year's is a distant memory?

If you are breaking a long habit (one year? ever since you were forced to take PE class in school?) of not exercising, be patient. Not only should you not expect to leap instantly from zero to 60 on the fit-o-meter, you shouldn't try to do so -- unless you want to court an injury. To establish a safe, long-term exercise habit, advises the American Council on Exercise, start slow and build up gradually. Miss a day on your finely honed new fitness schedule? Cut yourself some slack.

Before you even get to those inside-your-head steps, though, make sure you have all the information and green lights you need.

Even if you feel that your only problem is chronic slothfulness, check with your doctor. Make sure that he or she knows what you're looking for: "I want to start an exercise program. I want to stay healthy and uninjured while I do it. Are there any restrictions I have to follow?"

Then check out the Mayo Clinic's five-step list for starting a fitness program, at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fitness/HQ00171. If you're a beginning exerciser, the trainers advise you to -- in this order -- assess your fitness level, design your fitness program, assemble your equipment, get started and monitor your progress. I'll focus and elaborate on just a few of their excellent points.

First, on the assessment: The measurements that Mayo recommends -- checks of pulse rate, strength, flexibility, endurance, waist size and body mass -- are pretty standard. Even if you don't plan to work with a personal trainer on a regular basis, it's still a good idea to have a trainer do these assessments. He or she will know what to look for, watch your form and help you interpret the results.

Second, on designing your personal fitness program: Ask yourself what your goals are. Do you want to lose weight? Defy your family's history of heart disease? Maybe you simply want your upper arms to look good for your sister's wedding. All are worthy reasons. Just know what yours are.

Many different routes can lead you to your goals. So find something you enjoy! Truly, I can't give you a more pivotal piece of advice than that, because if you don't like what you're doing, there are killer odds that you'll quit.

Maybe you like the buzz of a gym and the communal energy of classes, or perhaps a personal trainer suits you better. In either case, make sure your trainer or instructors are qualified. Ask about their background and length of experience. If they push sports supplements, run the other way! And be sure they understand any exercise restrictions you may have. Speak up -- you're the paying customer!

In a class, be sure the instructor can pay adequate attention to you. Your gym's body-sculpting teacher may be cute and funny, but those qualities won't help you strengthen your core. Large classes can be invigorating, provided you remember this is exercise, not a competition. Go at your own pace. Follow the old cliche of listening to your body. Cliches exist for a reason, you know.

Maybe the whole gym scene turns you off, and a personal trainer isn't an option. All is not lost. On the nearest sidewalk, trail or treadmill is the most basic exercise known to living beings: walking.

Walk by yourself. Walk with a friend. Walk on a treadmill. Walk outside. Walk slowly at first, and for 10 minutes at a time. Then add some minutes and some 30-second bursts of faster pace. There are few guarantees in this life, but I can virtually guarantee you'll see results.

You can turn a walking routine into a full-body fitness program with a little creativity and no additional equipment. Do some lunges and squats. Practice push-ups on a park bench.

There are oh-so-many other options for getting fit. But remember, if you're going to stick with it, it has to be something you enjoy.

Lennie Magida has been certified as a personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise since 1999. She is a writer for Special Olympics.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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