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How to Start Exercising When You’re Out of Shape, According to Fitness Experts

By Tami Smith, CPT, Nutritionist

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When you’re out of shape, the thought of getting back into shape is overwhelming, particularly for women. We don’t know where to start, how to start, or whether or not we have what it takes to actually achieve our goals.

As women, so many of us suffer from a lack of confidence, poor body image, the fear of being judged by others, and a lack of support from our family and friends. We’re also busy, making it difficult to find the time and the motivation to work out after we’ve already exhausted so much time and effort on being a parent, employee, business owner, household manager, etc., etc.

But here’s the deal, exercise is so much more than changing and shaping the way we look. It’s about our mental and physical health and well-being. Movement is medicine, and it’s often just the prescription we need to improve our self-esteem, attitude, mood, and physical aspects of our health.

If you’re out of shape, however, you define that, this article will provide you with some actionable steps you can start taking today to get moving toward the direction of your goals.

We spoke with three women’s health and wellness experts to get their insights on the top of getting started with exercise when you’re out of shape, and we can’t wait to share their thoughts and advice with you.

How Do You Start Working Out When You're Unfit?

“Slowly and consistently,” according to Kate Cherichello, NYC Certified Fitness Professional, Founder of Be. By Kate. Personal Training & Coaching.

“If we push too much too quickly, we can injure ourselves or get overwhelmed and burnt out. Additionally, consistency is key to not just developing muscle, stamina, and so on, but also to develop the habit of working out. Making movement a habit is a key to long-lasting success.”

We see this all the time. A person who has not been in the habit of working out decides that they’re ready to make a change and they do so with so much ferocity (usually fueled by a negative self-image) that they end up going too hard, too fast. While we can all agree that when you’re ready to make a change, you’re ready - you want the changes to come instantaneously. But the truth is that fitness and health take time. A lot more time than we think, so we need to physically and mentally prepare to be in it for the long haul.

Nicola, Personal Trainer, and Confidence Coach explains that “The key to anyone starting to work out as a complete beginner is to take small steps to gradually build a habit of movement and exercise. I advocate that when you want to make a lifestyle change like getting fitter, to get clear on why you want to make this change and the impact it will have on your life and how you feel.”

Nicola also adds, “When you know this, it drives your motivation to get started and continue going until you make working out a part of your daily routine and lifestyle. This is why many people fail at the first hurdle or throw the towel in after only a couple of weeks into their fitness journey - because they aren’t attached to the outcome they’re trying to create for themselves.”

When we begin a fitness regime out of self-hate of the current body we’re in, we’ll quickly burn out and give up. Instead, we need to go deep and discover the real “why” behind our desire to change. And that “why” needs to come from a place of self-love and a desire to change our health for the better.

After you’ve determined your “why”, Nicola then recommends that you start by setting small, achievable goals like “going for a 10-minute walk, checking out the gyms or class-type workouts in your local area, or looking for a personal trainer who might work in a way you’d match with. The key is to do something that you’re going to enjoy and get satisfaction from so you stick with it and build a new habit around it.”

Choosing your exercise method is just as important as determining your “why” for beginning in the first place. If you choose a workout that you hate, you’re not going to stick with it and make it a habit. You need to determine what kinds of exercise feel the best for you, and then start taking small steps towards incorporating that into your daily or weekly routine.

How Long Does It Take an Unfit Person to Get Fit?

This is an interesting question, and quite frankly, one that’s very difficult to answer without knowing specifically what each individual person considers to be “fit.” Speaking with Nicola and Kate, they agree.

“How long it takes someone to 'get fit' truly ranges, and it also depends on one's definition of 'unfit' vs 'fit', says Kate. “Is 'fit' showing up for yourself for a certain amount of months in a row? Is it running a mile without stopping? Is it running a marathon? Is it being able to lift a grandchild without getting hurt? Any of these goals could be a measure of 'fitness', but it is up to each person to decide exactly what it means to them.”

Nicola adds that “being ‘fit’ is different for each individual and to set yourself your own definition of what fit means for you. “Don’t compare yourself to others on your fitness journey! Get clear about what you want to achieve and make a plan to get there. If you’re starting from scratch on your fitness journey with a very little exercise in your life right now, it’s normal to see improvements after only 2-3 weeks. This would be based on doing some movement every day and hitting a recommended 75 minutes a week of moderate-type exercise.

She adds that “It would usually take 6-8 weeks to see a significant change in your overall physical fitness.”

How Should An Obese Person Start Exercising?

obese person exercising

First and foremost, we all agree that “An obese person should begin with checking in with their doctor. Before anything else, talk with your doctor about what is safe for you right now,” says Kate.

Don’t make the mistake of jumping into a fitness program or trend if you’re out of shape, unfit, overweight, or obese. Your safety is paramount, so please consult with your doctor for advice regarding your situation specifically before proceeding.

“Next, hire a professional:, not someone with all the followers online, or the person who is setting trends, but someone who has the certifications and experience, as well as a personality that feels right to you, to bring you the safest, most efficient, and motivating workouts you can find.”

While hiring a professional to show you the ropes safely is certainly a worthwhile investment, we also understand that it’s not an option for everyone. “If money is an obstacle, seek out a gym that is welcoming and offers beginner classes, which would be a less expensive alternative to a trainer,” says Kate.

There are also a ton of fitness apps you can download for free or for a very nominal monthly fee that allows you to get a great workout in from anywhere, anytime. My favorites include the Obe Fitness App, Madeline Moves, Fitbod, and Beachbody On Demand.

Of course, you don’t need to follow any kind of fitness program or regime when you’re first starting out. If that feels too intimidating, Nicola recommends simply starting out by finding more ways to move in your current daily routine. No drastic changes are required!

“The best way to begin, and build up from that to doing actual workouts. This can include things like taking the stairs more, having a 5-minute movement break every hour during your working day and simply walking around your office or home if you’re home-based, and standing whilst taking phone calls or being in meetings. Look for opportunities in everything you do to move your body, for example, park further away from the shops or school so you have extra steps to do. All of these small things will gradually help your body to get used to moving and make sure you’re not putting too much stress onto your joints, bones, and cardiovascular system.”

What Are The Best Exercises to Start With? Any to Avoid?

tired after workout

The best exercise to start with is the one that you enjoy the most and can see yourself doing for the long term. It’s also a form of exercise that’s safe and gentle for your body.

If you’re out of shape, the best way to start exercising is to add in something as simple as walking to start. In the beginning, it’s best to avoid anything that’s too intense or jarring on our bodies as it can cause injury and set us back instead of moving us forward.

Once you’ve developed the habit of incorporating more walking and gentle movement into your routine, you can start to make some slow progress.

“If someone is pretty healthy with no joint, back, or pain issues, it’s really beneficial to start with a combination of cardio and strength-type exercises,” says Nicole. “Cardio exercises might include power walking, cycling, swimming, rowing, or even jogging. Look for exercises that increase your heart rate and also use the full body. There are some great moves you can do at home and create your own little interval or circuit-type session with - squats, lunges, press-ups, knee raises, and star jumps which can be kept low impact by simply alternating one leg at a time rather than jumping.”

“These types of exercises can be done using bodyweight only which will help to build strength when you’re first starting out and can be progressed to including weights such as dumbbells or a kettlebell to add resistance.”

She adds that “you should avoid jumping and high impact movement if you have any joint or pain problems, and when you’re a complete beginner until you’ve improved your fitness a little and feel ready to push yourself further without any risk to your health.”

Should You Do Cardio, Weights, Or a Combination Of Both?

We see this question all the time, both from those who are out of shape and those who are accustomed to exercise but are feeling lost and confused as to what they “should” be doing. With so much information (conflicting at that) circulating around the internet and on social media, it can feel overwhelming to know what types of exercises are best for reaching our goals. 

Personally, I believe in a combination of both cardio and weights is the best move for most women, with strength training being paramount as the benefits of strength training for women are undeniable.

Nicola agrees to state that she “most definitely aims to include both types of exercise in your weekly workout plan.” “It’s so important for everyone to include resistance/strength training in some form as we begin to lose muscle mass from as early as our thirties. For women, this is especially important to protect us from the many risks associated with menopause and aging. This doesn’t have to mean using weights, you can make it as effective with bodyweight-only exercises but it does have a better effect if you add resistance through equipment like dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, fixed-weight machines, and sandbags.”

“There are lots of options to choose from and to find something that you can do either at home or in a gym. As well as supporting good muscle and bone health, strength training has been proven to be as if not more effective than cardio training for fat loss. We’re definitely entering a new era for exercise, and I want to encourage people to know that whatever goal they have for working out, they really can find something that works for them and that they enjoy.”

Wrapping Up: 5 Tips For Starting Exercise When You’re Out of Shape

To wrap up the topic of how to start exercising when you’re out of shape, I asked Penny Weston, director of award-winning Moddershall Oaks Country Spa Retreat and founder of MADE wellness center for her top 5 tips that you can implement today to get the ball rolling on your fitness and health journey. Here’s what Penny shared:

1. Going To The Gym Isn't Always The Answer

“You don’t have to go to the gym,” says Penny. “Exercise should be about finding something you enjoy doing. A workout doesn't have to be running for hours or lifting huge weights at a gym.

2. Set Realistic Goals

“Set a realistic goal,” says Penny. “If you’ve taken a long break, don’t expect to be at the fitness levels you were before, and don’t try to be. You need to make your goal achievable. Don’t try and get back into the swing of things straight away as it will make it much harder.

3. Start Scheduling Your Workout

“Schedule your workout,” says Penny. “If you plan your workout and pop it in your diary, you’re more likely to make it happen. Often, we are subconsciously looking for an excuse not to do a workout and will find plenty of other things to do but if you know you’ve scheduled it, you can plan around it, even if it’s a quick 15-minute HIIT session or a quick walk outside.”

4. Rest and Recovery Is Key

“Make sure to include rest days,” says Penny. “Recovery is part of being active as when you take a day off, your body uses that time to repair itself after the workout you’ve been doing. Rest days are really key to long-term health and help avoid injury.

5. Start With The Basics

“Know the beginner exercises,” says Penny. “It’s always good to make sure you know the basics, such as squats, lunges, and planks as these are used in many workouts so learn these first to build a good foundation.

Remember, when in doubt, check with your doctor. And, don’t forget to enjoy the process, celebrate the small wins, and give yourself the time, grace, and patience required to reach your goals. 

About the author 

Tami Smith, CPT, Nutritionist

Tami Smith is a certified Nutritionist and an ACE certified fitness trainer, specializing in pre and post-natal fitness. She studied business and earned her bachelor's degree in Business Economics. Tami is a mom of two and women's health advocate. Her passion is to help people live a fit, healthy life through proper nutrition and exercise!

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