How to Safely Resume or Initiate a Physical Activity Regimen

By Ryan Darling, RMT, R.Kin, CSEP-CEP, B.Sc, M.Sc. Kinesiology (Owner/Operator, RD Athletics – Therapy & Training)

Let’s be completely honest here. Whether you were physically active as a kid, used to train in the gym, or have never participated in any type of structured physical activity, it can be a very difficult process to begin or re-initiate an exercise regimen.

Perhaps this sounds familiar: You take a one week “break” from the gym. One week turns into two. Then a month later, you find yourself saying, “I might as well just wait until the New Year.” And when the new year rolls around, the gym is too busy with all the “resolutioners,” so waiting until February is probably the best option.

That scenario may be familiar, but I’m guessing, so too is the frequent guilty-feeling about your lack of physical activity. This often results in the decision to jump head-first into the latest program marketing fast results. The major problem with many of these programs is that they are often based on a set template that does not take into consideration an individual’s current fitness level and starting point. So, clients may see results quickly, but usually in a relatively non-sustainable way. Often the training or dietary demands of these 8 or 12 week programs cannot be maintained long-term.

A more successful (albeit less sexy) way to approach our re-initiation to an exercise regimen, is to start very slowly and allow time for our bodies to adapt to the new demands we are placing on them.

As a trainer, this is extremely important to consider. If an individual client has not done any form of physical activity at all, beginning a 5 km running program or a work-out program that requires training 5 days a week may be a recipe for failure. When the behaviours that the new program demand are so vastly different from our current activity levels, it makes them feel that much more difficult and cumbersome.

The key to long-term changes in our physical activity is a more gradual approach. For the above individual, their month one goal may simply be 10-15 minutes of walking, 3 to 5 days a week. As this behaviour becomes more habitual, it will then be easier to build upon.

It is also important for us to remember that an increase in our physical activity means we will need more fuel and energy to support this increase. Funny enough, we almost always tend to do the opposite by cutting calories in an attempt to assist in weight loss goals. The problem here, again, is that we are often throwing too much change at the body too quickly, which will make the new behaviours more difficult to maintain.

For the above individual, worrying about dietary goals at the same time as physical activity goals may create expectations that they are unable to meet leading to disappointment and perceived failure. In reality, we just need to make the changes more incrementally. If the first month’s goal is 10-15 minutes of walking, 3 to 5 days a week, leave it at that. There is no need to create further stress for the client with an additional dietary guideline as well. Once the physical activity behaviour is more habitual in nature - perhaps by month two - introduction of dietary changes would be more appropriate.

This isn’t to say that every client is the same, and that every clients needs this slower approach. But, like with most things in life, patience is key. It takes time to create long-term, sustainable changes in body composition, metabolism, and physical activity behaviours. If we approach it with this mindset, it sets up reasonable expectations, results in success and is a much more enjoyable process.

Convincing clients to join 12-week programs that don’t provide a sustainable lifestyle change, may lead to yo-yo weight loss and is, in my opinion, unethical. We owe it to our clients to assist them in making sustainable changes and creating expectations that they have a good chance of meeting.

Once the momentum is built, and a variety of new physical activity and healthy lifestyle behaviours are occurring naturally, it is much easier to make further changes. But worrying about the nitty-gritty details (like tempos in exercises and macronutrient composition) when bigger blocks are still present (such as lack of consistent daily caloric intake and awareness of basic exercise technique), is putting the carriage before the horse.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and our clients. In the end, it will lead to better plans and better compliance. This results in a higher likelihood that we will keep our clients long enough to help them obtain and, more importantly, maintain the changes they sought in the first place.

Joanna Whitney