I am definitely out of my element.
January 8, 2009 3:02 PM   Subscribe

This whole exercising thing, how does it work?

So I just turned 26, and I've decided that this is the year that I'm finally going to exercise on a regular basis.

The problem is that I'm pretty overweight and VERY out of shape, and I don't really know where to begin or what to do as the last time I exercised for real was in 10th grade gym class.

Right now I'm just walking on the treadmill at 2.5/mph with an incline of 2 for a half hour. Last night I pushed it up to an incline of 3 and it was not fun in the slightest.

The treadmill seems like a good option for me as a starter, but am I doing it enough? If I'm only walking, should I be working out everyday for an hour instead of the half hour? I hate seeing the number of calories I've burned at the end of 30 minutes because it just discourages me - I spent all that time and sweat for 200 calories? I've just started turning that aspect off and forgetting about it.

So is just walking for a half hour okay for now or should I be doing more?
posted by kerning to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You need to constantly challenge yourself by upping either the duration or intensity of your workouts on a regular (weekly is best, IMO) basis. IANAD, so this isn't health advice, but when your exercise routine becomes easy to complete, you're not getting anything out of it. Similarly, if you can't get out of bed the next morning, you went too far. The best advice is to work with a licensed trainer, who can tailor a program to specifically meet your goals. They'll also be able to help you counter boredom with your program by mixing up what you're doing. Good luck!
posted by jasondbarr at 3:10 PM on January 8, 2009

There's no meaningful answer to your question. If you're very out of shape, any increase in (safe) physical activity is good.

But if your goal is to lose weight (vs, say, adding muscle), then I'd focus on the food side of the equation. As you suggest in your question, not eating a donut is a lot easier than burning it off.
posted by mpls2 at 3:14 PM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're really tired after 30 minutes of walking, that's enough, don't push it. But you might be better off breaking it up into several shorter periods during the day. Can you do 15 minutes three times a day? Then after you're used to that, 2-3 times 20 minutes, 2-3 times 30 minutes, etc.

However, walking an hour a day isn't really that much, assuming you live an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. I was in a similar situation in my early 20's and had gotten myself out of the shape to the point where I couldn't really do any sports or anything but low-intensity activity. Do the slow work-up to long-distance walking, and then when you're comfortable with that, you need to start adding in actual exercise, like jogging, swimming, basketball, hiking, whatever you can handle. In limited amounts at first, but work your way up. Try to mix things up, pick things that might become hobbies for you. Otherwise, it's very hard to keep up the habit.
posted by bluejayk at 3:16 PM on January 8, 2009

I started exercising in the same way that you did, about 3 years ago. I was 75 pounds overweight and really very physically unfit. I felt like there was no way that what I was doing was actually helping me, particularly watching other people in the gym running on the treadmills at a far faster MPH and not even breaking a sweat.

I started asking myself the same questions you did, and eventually centered on the following:

1.) I found lots of information on the net that said that you're best getting 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day. 5 minutes to warm up, 20 minutes at your target heart rate, and then 5 minutes to cool down.

2.) Once I determined my target heart rate, I went out and bought myself a heart rate monitor. They interface directly with most treadmills at any gym and will let you know if you are going at the right pace. Some folks might tell you walking isn't enough, when you feel like you are doing too much, but the heart rate monitor does not lie.

If you keep doing this, you will notice that you will need to up the incline, MPH or change to another workout (like the elliptical or stair machine) in order to keep your target heart rate up. This means success, and you will feel awesome about it.

I'm now at my goal weight, and exercise regularly, doing far more physically difficult workouts than I ever would have dreamed possible. Slow and steady wins the race.
posted by pazazygeek at 3:25 PM on January 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Rather than upping your incline to 3 and trying to do that for a half an hour, a good idea would be to do your usual 2.5 for five minutes, go up to 3 for a minute, and then go back to 2.5 for five minutes. Keep doing that until your half hour is over, and then cool down for five minutes at an incline of 1. Next week, increase the level 3 interval to a minute and a half and decrease the 2.5 interval to 4 and a half minutes. Keep increasing the incline of 3 interval and decreasing the incline of 2.5 interval until you can do an entire half hour at 3 comfortably. You can do the same thing with your speed: add a short interval at which you jog or walk faster than you're walking now, and then extend that interval as you get more comfortable. Aim to increase something (your speed, the length of your workout, or your incline) every week.

If your goal is to get in shape, I would ignore the calories. If you can switch your machine to show some other thing, do that. The calorie number the machine gives you probably isn't even right, and it'll probably be more helpful to you to focus on how much stronger you're getting, rather than the calories. And you should get stronger and increase your endurance relatively quickly, which hopefully will be motivating for you.

Good luck! You can do this!
posted by craichead at 3:35 PM on January 8, 2009

Get a personal trainer, at least for a few sessions. They can teach you a lot, and really improve the efficacy of your exercise.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:36 PM on January 8, 2009

Last April, I made the same decision to start exercising (which I despised. Really, a lot) because I was finally fed up with being overweight (a size 24) and I got winded so easily. I joined the YMCA, which worked for me because I was too intimidated by the fancy gym in my neighborhood for the beautiful people. The Y was a great choice for me, and I encourage you to try it - the fitness coaches are kind, knowledgable, and I learned how to start slow (5 minutes on the elliptical was desperately difficult and I lifted very, very light weights). I am now down 3 or 4 sizes and have discovered for the first time I love certain exercises.
I hate running, so I don't do the treadmill. But I do other cardio machines and I love lifting and swimming. I think it's important to find something you enjoy; it is so easy to get discouraged when you're doing something you hate.

You might also think differently about the calorie counting. Instead of thinking "a measly 200 calories" , maybe think about how today you did an exercise for 1 or 2 minutes longer than yesterday.

Good luck!
posted by pointystick at 3:38 PM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

90% of success in exercise is just showing up. Slowly increase the duration and intensity of your exercise over the coming months.

I'm guessing that you are following a New Year's resolution. January 8th is way too early to think about doing more when you are working out at your current limit. Your biggest enemy is lack of motivation, so avoid everything that is "not fun in the slightest."

If you slowly increase duration and intensity (I'm talking about increasing by a minute or three, for example, once a week), you will be amazed by your progress over the course of the year.

Best of luck to you. Remember that regardless of how fit you are right now, you are elite because you are making a real effort.

(A Note To All Others Who Are Starting To Exercise: Please don't intimidate yourself out of the gym. Most of those people who are running or swimming faster than you or lifting more weight than you are very happy to see you take control of your life. Really. The gym rats are rooting for you.)
posted by ferdydurke at 3:38 PM on January 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Congratulations for starting to exercise! I think walking for half an hour is just great.

You want to start a new habit--exercising regularly. Establishing the habit itself is way more important at this point than the number of calories you're burning, so you want to make sure you do everything you can to help yourself stick with the regular exercise. If you push yourself too much, you'll start avoiding it, or letting other things push it out of your schedule. It sounds like the level of intensity you're at for now is a good level to start at, since it leaves you tired and sweaty. Aerobic capacity grows pretty quickly, and if you stick with it, you'll find that your current routine is a piece of cake in no time. As you start to get more in shape, you can start concentrating on specific goals like burning more calories if you want to.

And if, three weeks in, you hit a drought of motivation, just remind yourself that SOME exercise, even if it's just 20 minutes of something mild, is way better than no exercise. What you're really building right now is the discipline to stick with your goal of exercising regularly, and that's super important (and super awesome). I'd also suggest making some effort to track the effects of exercising, so you'll have reminders of why it's good. Right now, write down your observations about how you sleep, what your energy level is like, what your health's like, whatever. Just make a note of how not-exercising-you feels (and looks; maybe take some photos). Then, after you've been exercising for while (a month, 3 months, 6 months), you'll have something to compare.

And what other kinds of exercise you might enjoy--any sports? dancing? hiking? tree climbing? just taking a walk in your neighborhood? Do you prefer exercising alone, or with a buddy? The more you can make exercise and being active something you actually *like* to do, the better. Anyway, congrats and stick with it!
posted by aka burlap at 3:39 PM on January 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Heart rate monitors do not lie when it comes to your bpm. However, that number will fluctuate due to variables such as heat of the room, altitude, your general health, among others. Also, the most well known formula (220 minus your age) for determining one's target heart rate is notoriously inaccurate.

Congrats for starting regular workouts. Your body will thank you.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 3:44 PM on January 8, 2009

What I've learned from bicycling is that it takes 30min of exercise in order to start burning fat. Up until then, you're just burning the energy stored in your muscles (sugar). It's when you get past that point that the exercise really starts (weight-wise), but it's OK if you have to work up to it.
posted by rhizome at 3:45 PM on January 8, 2009

I find treadmills pretty terrible, myself. I far prefer to walk somewhere than to walk nowhere. If you're at a gym, they have a track you can walk, or you could walk around the pool an look at the pretty people swimming. If you're treadmilling at home, you could go around the block. Or walk to a different metro stop after work --- that's probably about a mile, the same as your sweaty half-hour. Or put your car at the far end of the lot when you go to the grocery.

Exercising moderately but regularly for a year will leave you fitter and more pleased than will exercising vigorously and painfully for two weeks and spending fifty weeks on your butt. You aren't in a contest with the aerobics instructor on the next treadmill, and you aren't in a contest with your 10th grade self.

Don't believe the calorie counter. It's calibrated for aerobics instructors. Actually, your body has a pretty sophisticated calorie counter of its own: the hunger reflex. After exerting yourself (perhaps the day after, or two days after), you'll be hungrier than usual. Eat some food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And hold off on the painful treadmill setting until you think it might be just slightly fun.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 3:52 PM on January 8, 2009

No real advice, but I want to say that I'm in the same boat - except I hate treadmills! Good luck to you.
posted by firei at 4:06 PM on January 8, 2009

Google Body for Life. It's a very effective routine that takes 25 and 45 minutes every other day. It's tricky enough that the timing and counting will keep you from getting bored. Find a friend to do it with, that really helps. And by effective, I mean you see results almost instantly, which is quite encouraging.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:35 PM on January 8, 2009

For what it's worth, the Wii Fit is surprisingly compelling, although I think you have to work pretty hard at actually getting cardio workouts. (on the other hand, I've had mine for not quite two weeks. But I---who never exercises either---have actually been using it every day.)
posted by leahwrenn at 4:59 PM on January 8, 2009

In addition to all of the above - consider a YMCA membership, where the services of a trainer can be sought for a reasonable price.
posted by megatherium at 6:00 PM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Good advice here. Note: if your goal is to lose weight, then, as one of my attendings told me, "It is a myth that you can lose weight by exercise alone." It takes X hours to burn off 200 calories, depending on the activity, but a couple seconds to put them on by eating something.

Also: 3500 calories = 1 pound. 500 calories a day = 1 pound a week. Good luck!
posted by gramcracker at 6:01 PM on January 8, 2009

I keep linking to Stumptuous, but that's because I think it's a very good resource.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:46 PM on January 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I vote for not being discouraged by the calorie # shown because your goal doesn't need to be just burning calories: if you're building more muscle, your body will just naturally start to burn more calories for you all the time. So aim for that.
posted by BaxterG4 at 7:06 PM on January 8, 2009

Can you clarify "pretty overweight" and "VERY out of shape" ?
posted by phrakture at 7:14 PM on January 8, 2009

Walking is much harder work for fat people than thin people give it credit for. Just get good walking shoes so you don't smash your ankles about, and start with that.

You might also want to look into exercise specifically designed to build muscle mass (resistance training of some sort) because more muscle = higher basal metabolic rate = more energy burned per hour even while you're not on the treadmill. In fact, most of the extra energy you will burn as a result of adopting a regular exercise program is down to increased BMR rather than directly to the exercise itself which, as you've noticed, doesn't consume anywhere near as much fuel as it feels like it should.

Best muscle-mass-building bang for your exercise buck comes from building your arse and thigh muscles, since they're by nature the biggest ones in your body. Walking - especially slowish walking up steep slopes - will do this to some extent. Walking and cycling (real cycling up real hills, not that gymnasium nonsense) will do it better.

Congratulations for getting started on this. I can assure you that you will get much faster results at 26 than I am presently having at 46 :-)
posted by flabdablet at 7:21 PM on January 8, 2009

There's some good advice in this thread, especially the advice to consult a personal trainer and to do intervals. Weight training might help you vary your routine too. That said, there are some good rules of thumb that haven't been mentioned.

First, while walking is a low-impact exercise, if you're not used to exercising daily you should take a couple of rest days every week. That gives your body time to recover. If you shift to higher-impact exercises like running, swimming (vigorously), cycling, etc., the recovery time is even more important, though cross-training with sports that use different muscles (such as swimming one day, running the next) can reduce the need for a break. Once you're jogging for 45 minutes, you can do a half-hour walk on your rest days!

Second, you shouldn't increase your weekly exercise by more than 5-10% over the previous week (5% if you're exercising intensely, 10% if your exercise is fairly low impact); otherwise you risk overtraining. You want to build up slowly, not burn out. If your half-hour a day leaves you feeling drained, then don't add anything--instead, take a day or two off.

Third, don't focus too much at first on the calorie count; what's important is to get a solid base of aerobic fitness. As you build muscle you'll also increase your basal metabolism slightly. And don't starve yourself: if you're counting calories, make sure you eat enough that your body doesn't go into starvation mode. It's OK to build up your aerobic fitness now without concentrating on caloric intake, and then, after you've been exercising regularly for six months, rethink your diet.

Fourth, invent rewards for exercising that you really like but that don't involve food!

You may also want to sign up with Sparkpeople if you'd like some online tracking and motivational resources.

Good luck!
posted by brianogilvie at 7:24 PM on January 8, 2009

"but am I doing it enough?"

"If I'm only walking, should I be working out everyday for an hour instead of the half hour?"
-If you're only walking, you'll need much more than 1/2 hour. Maybe 90 minutes a day.

"So is just walking for a half hour okay for now or should I be doing more?"
-More. But don't waste your time walking - get a barbell and start building some muscle mass. Buy Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
posted by tiburon at 8:34 PM on January 8, 2009

I second the Body for Life suggestion. I'm just finishing my first three-month program and I'm very happy with my progress. I've lost a great deal of body fat and have begun seeing tone in places that were never muscular before. More importantly I now actually enjoy exercise, rather than despise it. It's not a difficult program; you set your own limits and gradually increase them. They also publish a journal book that has been very helpful in keeping my workouts regular and establishing goals along the program. I recommend the program strongly.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:29 PM on January 8, 2009

Yikes, there is a lot of information in this thread!

I do live a pretty sedentary lifestyle, though I do get a bunch of walking during the day - walking to and from various metro stops (total about 1.5 miles) and I do occasionally hike it up the escalators when I'm feeling particularly rambunctious.

I actually eat pretty healthfully - whole grains, no red meat, no processed foods, decent amount of veggies. My biggest downfall is that I bake a lot (I have a banana bread cooling on my counter right now, baking is a big de-stresser for me) but I always bring my treats into work so I don't end up eating it all. I'm not too concerned with losing weight so much as I am being healthy. If I do end up losing weight, that's great - I'm sure that in the long run, I will.

As for clarification, I am a definite fattie, and I am definitely out of shape. I'm out of shape enough that when I have to run for the train, even if it's only 50 feet or so, I'm out of breath when I get there. I'm late a lot, and I have to run for the train a lot, so I would like to stop being so out of breath.

For the record, I just came back from the gym (which is part of my apartment complex - I think I would like a trainer but I am much too poor to afford one and I doubt any trainer would be willing to coach me in exchange for baked goods and "Who do you think the last Cylon is?" discussions). I walked much faster but with less of an incline (I'm kind of paranoid of dropping dead of a heart attack or brain aneurysm) and I did actually get my heart up to cardio range and now my legs are a bit shaky.

As for the WiiFit, I'm afraid I would break the board, so I haven't crossed into that territory yet. Also I heard that the person goes "Ooooomph" when you step on the board and that would hurt my fragile ego :)

I've learned a great deal from this thread and will definitely take it to heart. Thanks to everyone for answering.
posted by kerning at 9:35 PM on January 8, 2009

I really recommend a personal trainer. After two pregnancies and whiplash from a car accident, I started working with a trainer. In the past year, I've gained back a huge amount of muscle and improved my health in a ton of ways. My trainer comes up with interesting, varied workouts that only take 30-40 minutes. (I do cardio at other times during the week, but nothing drastic.) She has me doing multiple exercises at once and I'm also improving posture, balance and flexibility, not just increasing muscle or losing weight. It's the best money I've ever spent.
posted by acoutu at 9:37 PM on January 8, 2009

Sorry, I forgot to hit preview. I should note that my trainer actually does accept barter. That's how we got started. You might have to look around, but it's possible that someone might do barter for you. My trainer costs a fair amount, but, in smaller cities and for someone less highly specialized, you might see a trainer for $35/hr or something like that. So perhaps they'd train you for $15/hr plus two loaves of brown bread, a loaf of banana bread and a dozen muffins or something like that. My trainer has been known to accept knitting.
posted by acoutu at 9:40 PM on January 8, 2009

I struggled with getting any regular exercise for about the last five years, ever since I left university. I hate gyms, I hate treadmills, and while an early-morning run can be quite a lovely experience, I had serious problems with doing it regularly.

I bought a bike about, oh, three months ago now, and cycle the 12 miles round trip to work every day. I've never felt better, I save over £100 a month in travel costs and there is a basic level of exercise (basically an hour of hard cycling) built into my day now, with no gyms required, and very little in the way of motivation (seeing the packed trains and buses and hearing my wife bitch about another 25 minute delay on the trains is all the motivation I need).

I'd heartily recommend it, as a basis to work from fitness-wise, because it takes very little to get started and is relatively easy to keep going with, since it's just 'transport' and not 'working out'.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:06 AM on January 9, 2009

Learn how to swing dance.
posted by kldickson at 4:27 AM on January 9, 2009

Use your ipod. Listen to whatever you want while excersizing and you will be shocked at how fast the time passes. Honestly, to me, it's the top tool for keeping motivated. There are so many podcasts on itunes, covering just about every subject imaginable. Spending an hour on the treadmill is dead-boring, but NPR's "This American Life" runs for about that and makes the time fly by. I also use Podrunner for the intervals, and it's just great. Playlists of your favorite songs make the time fly.

Music and podcasts turn something I hate into something I enjoy. It's magic.
posted by raisingsand at 7:12 AM on January 9, 2009

Finding something you like is definitely going to help. Cycling, long walks in the park, or a sport. You may need some time to build up cardio strength before you will enjoy sports. I dislike sports, but I think it's because running was not comfortable for a long period in my life.

I'm encouraged that your goal is to feel better. My goal when I was working out at the gym (sadly in my past) was to be strong. My body is a tool and it can do all kinds of great things. I want to be able to enjoy activities like hiking and cycling and be capable of shovelling the sidewalk and helping people move.

Important in trying to achieve these goals is strength training. It doesn't have to be weights. If you are interested in that, I would consider saving up for an hour or two of help from a trainer. It could be as simple as sit ups and push ups, and squats; even a skinny person can build strength this way. I also recommend yoga and pilates, because they give you practical strength that is balanced and give you muscles you need for good posture.
posted by Gor-ella at 8:20 AM on January 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Keep a journal that allows you to plan your workout before you get to the gym- this way you will save time once you are there and allows you to accurately track your workouts as you increase the difficulty gradually. Personally, I find that an exercise journal is one of the most important things for success in fitness.

Speaking of increasing the difficulty- make sure to keep challenging yourself with your workouts- try to slightly raise the challenge of each exercise every time you work out. You can and should keep them small- increasing the incline by a tenth of a degree or the speed by a tenth of a mile or the duration by 30 seconds would be great ways to do this.

If you feel self-consious about lifting weights in a gym, try simple strength exercises that you can do at home. Push-ups are a great exercise. Doing squats with no weight (air squats) is also very effective. Doing something like rounds of 5 push-ups and 10 squats won't take too much time and can be quite effective, especially if you haven't lifted weights before.

Good luck!
posted by Caius Marcius at 9:34 AM on January 9, 2009

Before anything else I'm going to second ferdydurke's motion that you should never feel awkward around gym rats/fitness buffs. People who are into being healthy and getting in shape are -surrounded- by obese people every day. Usually obese people doing really unhealthy things. Seeing someone who is overweight actually doing something to get healthier is awesome and 99 percent of the gym rats I know would encourage and support that person.

Next on the list: ignore the calorie monitors exercise machines. Sure if you like seeing the numbers it's fine to pay attention to them... but they aren't really all that accurate. Do keep in mind that while they aren't that accurate, they are still based on some scientific measure. A bic mac meal is over 1,200 calories. Even running your ass off on that treadmill you aren't going to burn that much in an hour. Healthy and long term weight loss is much more about food than it is about exercise will benefit you greatly... you'll feel better, your body will be healthier, etc. etc. but if you want to actually consistently lose weight you'll need to modify your diet too. Need evidence of that? Look at the guys in power lifting competitions. Sure they are big and muscled, but they are fairly chubby by most athletic standards. Most of them focus on gaining raw strength and power over getting cut and having a low body fat. Underneath the fat of course they are friggin ripped, but their goal isn't to win a body building competition =)

Do whatever cardio and weight lifting you actually enjoy. 2 hours a weekend spent walking nature trails is better than 30 minutes barely completed in a gym watching CNN on the little TV, right?

Oh and don't buy into fad anything... fad diets, fat exercise plans, etc. Eat moderate portions and eat healthy... but don't make food prep complicated and unwieldy.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 10:40 AM on January 9, 2009

90% of success in exercise is just showing up.

This. So if you're currently happy with the treadmill, stick with it and find a way to continually make it harder. One way that might help with the calorie counter thing is, rather than ignore it, to make *it* the goal. So instead of doing 1/2 hour and being disappointed in only 200 calories, set the program to finish when you've reached 200 calories. You'll push yourself to get them done as fast as possible (at least I do (on the elliptical)), and you've got push yourself to get results. When your ready bump up to 230, 250, etc.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 11:17 AM on January 9, 2009

I am doing this also. You know alot of gyms will offer free services for people just beginning a fitness regimen. I have just started doing YPF (which stands for Y Personal Fitness) at my local YMCA. They can help you create realistic routines and help you plan exercise into your schedule ('cause if you don't plan it you won't do it).
posted by mynameismandab at 12:11 AM on January 10, 2009

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