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The Beginner’s Guide to Exercise

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If you’re just getting started on your fitness journey, you might be feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of information out there. But don’t over-think it!

As a beginner you want to keep things simple and stick to the fundamentals. Some of the most important fitness fundamentals are choosing activities you enjoy doing, actually doing it, and listening to your body.

Here you’ll find some great practical advice to help you get started on your quest for better fitness.

Types of exercise

Strength training or cardio? Which is better? Although it’s a common question, it’s a false choice. They are entirely different, and achieve totally different outcomes. Both are important and should form part of your weekly workout routine.

Cardio improves your cardiovascular fitness and is the main method of burning fat and losing weight. Cardiovascular activies include walking, running, cycling, rowing and swimming, as well as exercise classes and DVDs and the very popular cross-trainer (or elliptical machine), plus many more.

Learn more: Beginner Running Plan

Strength training builds and strengthens your muscles, to make your stronger and improve muscle definition. For strength you could lift weights, use resistance bands, do bodyweight exercises or try Pilates.

Learn more: Full Body Workout with Dumbbells

Choose activities you enjoy so your workouts never become a bore. If working out becomes a chore, you can bet that it’s only a matter of time before you fall off the fitness bandwagon and revert to your previous inactive and unhealthy lifestyle. The best form of exercise in the world won’t work unless you actually show up and do it!

Learn more: How to find an exercise you love

Where to work out

While some people like to exercise at a public gym, others would rather work out in the privacy of their own home – it’s a personal choice and there are pros and cons to both.

Going to a gym means you will have access to a wide variety of equipment and classes, there will be instructors to offer help and advice and there is usually a nice social aspect to going to a gym.

On the other hand, exercising at home is much more convenient as you don’t have to commute, and you can work out just about any time you like. However, you will either have to make do with comparatively little exercise equipment or buy your own which can be expensive. Though if you’re a beginner you don’t need a whole lot of exercise equipment. A set of dumbbells, resistance bands and a exercise mat might suffice. Choose the option that is best for you.

Exercise form

Whatever kind of exercise you do, you should do it properly. The way you perform an exercise is often called your form. Proper exercise form means you do your exercises as effectively and efficiently as possible while minimizing your risk of injury.

Using too much weight, doing too many reps, being tired or simply not knowing what you are doing can result in bad form. It’s better to do a few less reps if you’re strength training or shorten the length of your cardio workout, and do it with good form than risk injury with bad form.

Read on: How to practice proper exercise form

What to wear

While there is no need to dress to impress, you do need to wear exercise clothes that are comfortable and right for your workout. Ideally, your clothes should be unrestrictive but supportive and layered so you can vent as you heat up.

Footwear wise, it depends on the activity you are doing. But as a general rule of thumb, the more impact there is, the more supportive and shock-absorbing your shoes should be.

Read on: How to choose the right shoes for any workout

Pre-workout snacks

Most people find they can exercise better if the have a small meal or snack before their workout. If you have a pre-workout snack, make sure it is easily digestible, contains some fast-acting carbohydrates and is as healthy as possible. A banana is a great pre-exercise snack while a donut is not.

Read on: What to eat before, during, and after a workout

Staying hydrated

Exercise causes water loss – both through sweat and exhaled water vapor. This water needs to be replaced; preferably as it’s lost. This means you’ll need to drink water before, during and after your workout.

Ideally, you should be drinking around four pints of water a day plus and extra pint per 30 or so minutes of exercise. If it is especially warm or you are a heavy sweater, you may want to consume more than this.

Vary your routine

You are only as fit as your last workout so if you want to get fitter or stronger, you need to try and work a little bit harder from one week to the next. Varying your routine will also avoid exercise boredom.

An extra rep here, a little more weight there – it all goes to improving your fitness and health. If you do the same workout over and over, all that happens is your body gets used to the workout and your fitness improvements stall. If you only ever run a mile or lift 10-lbs, that’s all your body will be able to do.

Slowly but gradually increase the difficulty of your workouts and you’ll see your fitness levels improve. Changing up your workout schedule every six to eight weeks should prevent you from getting stuck in an exercise rut.

Read on: How to add variety to your walking workout

Key Fitness Terms Everyone Should Know

Exercise has a language all of its own and while you don’t need to know the names of the muscles that make up your back or be able to describe how your muscles work, it’s useful to know the most-used exercise terms and muscle names so you know what everyone else is talking about!

Some common exercise terms worth knowing include:

Repetitions. Reps for short. A rep is a single performance of an exercise e.g. lowering your chest to the floor and pushing back up in the aptly named push-up
Sets. A group of repetitions e.g. ten
Load. How much weight you are using, sometimes expressed as a percentage of your one-repetition maximum or 1-RM
Volume. The number of exercises and sets you performing your workout or week of workouts
Compound exercise. An exercise that uses multiple joints and muscle groups at the same time e.g. squats
Isolation exercise. An exercise that uses one joint and fewer muscles at the same time e.g. leg extensions
Training zone. How elevated your heart rate is during exercise and usually expressed as a percentage of your maximum heart rate e.g. 60 to 80-percent
Rating or perceived exertion. RPE for short. RPE is a scale of 6-20 or 1-10 used to describe how hard exercise feels
Aerobic. Exercising at a steady pace where oxygen supply meets oxygen demand
Anaerobic. Exercising at a fast pace where oxygen supply fails to meet oxygen demand and so exercise duration is limited to around two minutes before you need to take a rest
Cardiovascular. Cardio for short. Cardio is used to describe exercise that affects your heart and lungs

Major muscle groups

Some of the main muscle groups are:

Quadriceps. Quads for short. The muscles on the front of your thighs
Hamstrings. The muscles on the back of your thighs
Gastrocnemius and soleus. Your calf muscles
Adductors. The muscles on the inside of your thighs
Abductors. The muscles on the outside of your thighs
Gluteus maximus. Glutes for short. Your butt muscles
Erector spinae. The muscles that run up the sides of your spine
Rectus abdominus. Abs for short: The muscle on the front of your stomach
Core. The collective name for the muscles around your abdomen
Obliques. Your waist muscles
Latissimus dorsi. The muscles on the side of your back below your arm pits
Trapezius. Traps for short: The muscles up your upper back
Deltoids. Delts for short. Your shoulder muscles
Pectoralis major. Pecs for short. Your chest muscles
Biceps. The muscles of the front of your upper arm
Triceps. The muscles of the back of your upper arm

Lifestyle choices

Working out is only part of the fitness equation. You also need to eat well, get plenty of sleep, minimize stress, skip the cigarettes, watch your alcohol intake, and generally be good to yourself.

Exercise is life enhancing but is not a band-aid for an otherwise unhealthy or risky lifestyle. No matter how many miles you run, you can’t outrun a bad lifestyle.

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