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Being more active and getting fitter: starting from scratch

For someone who has been inactive for a while – maybe even for years – adopting a more active lifestyle can seem like a challenging ambition. Setting attainable goals and making small, incremental changes makes becoming more active achievable.

The big goal is to meet the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology guidelines, which recommend that adults get 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity.

“That’s when you start to see the health benefits of exercise: 150 minutes per week,” says registered kinesiologist Faith Delos-Reyes, program coordinator and exercise specialist with the Women's Cardiovascular Health Initiative at Women's College Hospital. She explains that moderate to vigorous activity means working hard enough that your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes deeper and you might sweat, but you should still be able to talk without difficulty.

“For someone who is used to a sedentary lifestyle, it may be daunting to think about 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week,” she says. “But if you break it down, it’s about 30 minutes per day, five days per week. You can break it down further into 10-minute increments: 10 minutes, three times per day, sounds a lot more manageable.”

Delos-Reyes points out that most people are already doing some activity throughout the week that could count towards those 150 minutes: things like housework, shopping or gardening.

A simple start

Becoming more active doesn’t have to happen all at once.

“Think about moving again, and how that might look to you,” Delos-Reyes says.

A five-minute walk is a good starting point. It’s an achievable goal that requires no special equipment. Begin with five minutes, and start gradually adding to that by setting further goals that are attainable and realistic. For example, resolve to go for a 15-minute walk on your lunch hour three times per week. Work your way up to longer or more frequent walks. From there, you can start exploring local parks, provincial parks, or urban hiking.

It doesn’t have to be walking, of course.

“Think about what you like to do,” Delos-Reyes says. “Getting active doesn’t have to mean going to a gym or running a marathon or playing team sports. It can mean dancing or starting a garden or walking a dog.”

Another approach is to turn the goal around: instead of thinking of ways to add activity time into your week, try to think of ways to reduce sitting time.

“Try to not sit for more than one hour at a time,” Delos-Reyes says. “Take fit breaks for a couple of minutes every hour: stand up, stretch, march on the spot. Think about movement.”

Being more active can also be an opportunity to socialize if you take a fitness class, join a club or play a team sport. But your regular social activities can also be an opportunity to get active.

“Instead of sitting on a patio having a drink with friends, suggest going for a walk or going bowling,” Delos-Reyes says.

Overcoming obstacles

Almost everyone has an obstacle to overcome when trying to be more active, whether it’s lack of time, an injury, or just feeling unfit.

Delos-Reyes suggests thinking about the pros and cons of getting more exercise.

“Everyone knows being more active and getting fitter is good for you. Think about the positive outcomes: being more fit, feeling better, possibly losing weight,” she says.

“On the con side, you might think you don’t want to get tired and sweaty,” she says. “That may stem from a lack of knowledge about the intensity required for improving activity levels: moderate to brisk.”

If time is the issue, think about how activities can fit into your day.

“Even the best program won’t work if it doesn’t fit your life,” Delos-Reyes says. “Use things you already do as opportunities to add activity, such as your commute or the errands you do. Get off the bus earlier, ride your bike instead of driving, walk to do errands.”

Body image can be an issue for some people who may feel self-conscious in some setting, such as gyms.

“Find a place where you feel comfortable, and remind yourself that activity is an investment in yourself: it reduces your risk for health conditions and complications, and reduces your mortality risk,” Delos-Reyes suggests.

People with a chronic illness or an injury may have more significant barriers to activity. Talking to a healthcare professional about how to get more active, or doing some physical rehabilitation, can help people with illnesses or injuries prepare to add more activity to their lives.

Not knowing what activities to try can also keep people on the sofa. Delos-Reyes recommends thinking about what you like to do, and what you might like to try.

“Be open-minded about new sports,” she says. She notes that being a beginner shouldn’t stop you from trying something new, and feeling out-of-shape shouldn’t stop you from picking up an old hobby.

“You don’t have to get ‘good’ first. You don’t have to be an athlete to do an activity,” she says. “And there is no right or wrong way to be active; have fun and enjoy movement.”


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Aug. 5, 2015

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