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How to start exercising as an adult

If I noticed anything during the pandemic, it was that people have a need to get outside and be active. Exercise is a great excuse to do exactly that, but how do you proceed if you have never been the sporty type?

Choosing your Activity

The best activity for you, would depend on your personal situation. Aspects to consider would include the time you have, the money you are willing to spend on your new hobby, your long-term goals, your current health and, believe it or not, your personality.

Let’s start with your personality as it is the one aspect that is unlikely to change. Some people do great by themselves and others cannot stand being alone. So, a team sport such as action netball or fitness classes at the local gym will be untenable to the ultimate loner, but on the other hand, running hours on the road by yourself or swimming laps in your lane in a pool will feel like hell to a social butterfly. Another personality trait to consider is your propensity to get bored. If you are bored easily, then swimming laps in a pool will be hard. You could try open water swimming or add structure to your swimming by completing drills and switching styles. Road running can be switched up by changing routes and doing trail runs in the wilderness, or you could do different activities different days of the week.

Another aspect that can be hard to change is the time you have available to you. There are different strategies you could employ to stop a lack of time from limiting your progress. Try combining the activity with your weekly or daily chores like replacing your commute with a run or a bicycle ride a couple of days a week or using physical activity as family time by going for a day hike with the kids over the weekend or taking them to go mountain biking. You could also take classes with your kids if the structure of the classes permits it e.g., some self-defence classes.

Money is usually a limiting factor in the pursuit of a more active lifestyle. Some activities tend to cost more than others e.g., horse-related sports tend to have a high start-up cost while starting out with walking will only require comfortable clothes and shoes which you probably already have. Some classes will include the specialised equipment needed in their fees which could make them very cost efficient if you are still not sure you want to make the specific activity your chosen activity.

Your health will also affect the activities you can choose as an exercise. If you have any heart valve conditions, it is advised that you do not participate in weightlifting. High impact activities such as running may be advised to prevent osteoporosis, but if you already have severe osteoporosis, running could easily cause stress fractures. You should choose an activity that will allow you to stay within your personal limits if you hope to continue with the activity in the long term.

The last aspect to consider, would be your long-term goals. You can have standard goals such as improving your health, losing weight, or looking good, but other goals could be meeting new people or making your life more interesting. I have mentioned improving your health and losing weight as separate goals because they are. Being overweight may be correlated with adverse health conditions but being underweight or being within “healthy” weight ranges but with very little muscle mass are also correlated with adverse health conditions. On the other hand, if you have a high muscle mass it is easy, especially for men, to be classified as overweight on the body mass index (BMI) but have a low risk of developing health conditions that are traditionally correlated with being overweight. Nevertheless, whether your goal is to lose weight or gain weight you will need an element of both cardio training and strength training in your exercise regime.

If you want to gain weight, an activity such as bodybuilding or weightlifting would be ideal, the purpose of cardio training would be to keep your cardiovascular system healthy to support the extra muscle mass you will be growing. If you want to lose weight, cardio-based activities such as running and cycling would be great to get you burning more calories while the purpose of strength training would be to condition your stabilising muscles, such as your core, hip and, shoulder muscles, to reduce the chances of developing overuse injuries that could put you out of the game for weeks.

If you want to meet new people, choose an activity in which you participate as a group and that requires interacting. The second part is very important. If you join a spinning class, it is quite possible that everyone will be too out of breath or focused on the instructor to interact or connect anybody else in the class. On the other hand, you could participate in a dance or self-defence class where you must team up with someone to perform the activity. You will have no choice but to have conversations with your fellow participants.

If you want to add some adventure to your life, choose an activity that offers destination events. If you are living in South Africa, you are lucky because we are big on mass participation events in some very scenic locations. We have the biggest open water swim event, the Midmar Mile in the Kwa-Zulu/Natal Midlands. We also have the biggest cycle race in the world, the Cape Town Cycle Tour and the world’s largest and oldest ultra-marathon, the Comrades, which is run between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. As a bonus, the Comrades is broadcast on national TV until the cut-off so your family and friends might just catch a glimpse of you as you finish. If these events intimidate you, do not worry, we also have some of the best hiking routes in the world and some reserves such as the Kruger National Park offer guided hikes among the big five.

Starting your Activity

Now you have chosen an activity or have a shortlist of activities that fit into your lifestyle, where do you go from here? You first short-term goal should be to get to a place where you can comfortably fit the new activity into your life. You may find some benefit of your new exercise regime within a month, but the full benefits are only experienced in a few months, so the activity must fit into your life just like a lifestyle change for you to reap the full benefits.

One way to do this would be to find the right group for you. Even your typical loner activities, like running, have clubs which you can belong to. These clubs and groups can be a great source of information like where to get good gear at great prices, advice on how or where to train, or how to get over injuries. But it often takes only one person or one insensitive comment to taint your experience of the activity. If this happens, remember it is not you or the activity that changed. It is just like a thunder shower, it may have put you off, but it will pass, and the skies will be bright with sunshine again.

You may also find that as a novice you had misperceptions of the activity you chose. It may not be fully suited to you and it is okay to learn this. You are only exploring a new part of the world and are bound to learn new things. You can make a few adjustments or push through or find another activity which makes a shortlist more useful than isolating one activity. Many groups and classes are open for you to sit in for one day so you can see if it is a fit for you. Use these opportunities.

You should also be gentle with yourself. You are new to the activity you have chosen, and your body still needs to learn the moves and how to do them efficiently. You may also have to develop muscles that have been left undeveloped or inactivated by your previous lifestyle and that will take time. Take care not to overdo it, you may get an injury that puts you out of action for a few weeks just as you started to get into the new lifestyle.

What if you stop progressing?

After a few months of training and seeing some welcome results, you notice you have stopped seeing any results. This means your body has completely adapted to its new lifestyle and that it feels it need not adapt any further. It is called plateauing.

If you are happy with the point you have reached, you can just keep on doing what you do. If you change, your body will adapt to that change again. This means that if you stop training, and become a couch potato, your body will adopt couch potato changes. On the other hand, if you up the intensity of your training, the time spent on your training, or increase the weights you train with, your body will proceed to adapt to those change too and you will see improvements again.

In summary, you should find an exercise that suits you and your needs so that you can maintain it as a new lifestyle if you hope to achieve and maintain your long-term goals. Good luck with your new adventures!