Exercise: a beginner’s guide
Doing more exercise is at the top of many people’s lists when it comes to things they should do to improve their health and wellbeing. However, many of us set fitness goals that are difficult – or even impossible – to achieve. And that’s why so many good intentions often fall by the wayside, leading us to revert to old, sedentary habits.
But active living doesn't have to be hard to achieve. For many people, it may just mean incorporating more activity into their daily routine. In other words, you don't have to slog it out at the gym four or five times a week or take up extreme marathon running.
The health benefits alone are worth the effort. Being more active in general can slash your risk of developing many health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease and cancer.
Exercising regularly can also help you to keep your weight down and cope better with stress. You'll sleep better, your bones will be stronger and you'll feel more confident too.
But how much exercise should you do? The official recommendation is currently at least 150 minutes a week – typically 30 minutes five times a week. You could be active for 30 minutes all together or break the time down into two 15-minute sessions or three 10-minute sessions. Even short bursts of activity can contribute to your weekly 150.
Experts also say you need to do moderate intensity aerobic activity to see a benefit to your health. But what exactly does moderate mean? On a sale of 0-10, where 0 equals no activity (such as when sitting, for example), and 10 equals maximum effort (that is, as fast and as vigorous as you can possibly make it), moderate is around the 5-6 mark, where your breathing and your heart rate are noticeably faster than when you're sitting.
How to be active every day
Building more physical activity into your daily routine is arguably the best way to start being more active. And what’s more, it can be incredibly simple. It could even save you money, especially if you walk or cycle as often as possible instead of using your car or taking public transport. There are also lots of small things you can do to be more active, including:
Taking the dog for a walk (or going for longer walks).
Always taking the stairs instead of using a lift or escalators.
Doing vigorous housework or gardening, or cleaning your car.
Playing with your children or grandchildren.
Getting off the bus one or two stops early and walking the rest of the way.
Having ‘walking’ meetings at work instead of sitting around a table in a meeting room.
Walking to a co-worker’s desk or office when you need to speak to them, instead of just picking up the phone.
Standing up whenever you’re on the phone (if you’re speaking on your smartphone or a cordless phone, you could also walk around while you talk).
All of these things can add up and count towards your 150 minutes of activity a week if you do them at a brisk enough pace.
Once you're generally more active on a daily basis, it's time to think of other ways to exercise. Now might be a good time to join a gym. But if you don’t like the idea, there are many other things you can do, especially if you like being outdoors – for instance, you could go for a bike ride in your local park, take part in an organised walk, take up archery or try horse riding.
At this stage you might also want to also consider other activities that will help to boost your flexibility, strength and co-ordination – examples include dancing, skating, stretching (including yoga and Pilates), t'ai chi, golf and doing push-ups.
One way of finding an activity – and where you can practise it in your area – is to visit the Change4Life website. This has details of numerous types of activities that you can join in with, including outdoor and adventure activities, team and general sports, non-sport activities and classes (which includes activities like yoga and massage), water sports, martial arts and classes and sports for disabled people. Just log on to Change4Life and click on ‘Activities' to find suggestions for all the family.
You may not want to start jogging at this stage, but once you’ve increased your general fitness you may feel ready for something more challenging, and jogging or running is ideal. Why? Because it's a great way of staying active without having to spend much money (all you really need is a good pair of running shoes).
Start jogging by walking briskly for 15 - 20 minutes. Then gradually pick up the pace until you’re ready to run. If you find you’re enjoying it, you could also join a running club or jogging group – here’s where you can find details of clubs and groups in your area, depending on where you live in the UK:
You may also want to get involved with team sports, which include everything from bowls or skittles to football or cricket. These are also a great way to exercise as they can also be lots of fun. Most local areas have plenty of sports clubs and organisations, so it's just a matter of finding out what's happening near where you live if you want to get involved.
You can also visit the BBC’s Get Inspired website, which features a guide to more than 70 activities across the UK. Many areas around the UK offer Active Living or Active for Life schemes – to find out what's happening where you live, go online and search 'Active Living' along with the name of your county, city or area.
Take the 10,000-step challenge
Many fitness and health professionals recommend walking 10,000 steps per day to boost overall health and wellbeing. You don’t have to do all 10,000 steps at once - not unless you want to walk five or so miles, that is (depending on the length of your stride). Instead, most people measure the number of steps they do overall in a day using a pedometer. This handy little device tells you how many steps you’ve taken – just put it on in the morning (different pedometers have different methods of attaching to your clothes, or can be worn on your wrist) and leave it on until you go to bed.
Here’s one way to get started:
Wear your pedometer for a week and make a note of how many steps you take on an average day. You may be surprised at how few steps you take normally – for example, in 2017 researchers from Stanford University in the US found the average American takes an average of just 4,774 steps every day, while the average person living in Hong Kong takes 6,880 (i).
Once you’ve worked out your average, your goal is to increase your average daily steps gradually until you’ve reached the magic 10,000 number. So, on the second week, aim to increase your average step count by 500 steps a day
On the third week try to get up to 7,000 a day by the end of the week.
On the fourth week your goal is to get your daily steps up to 10,000. However, you don’t have to stop there – as well as making sure taking 10,000 steps a day becomes a habit, you can also increase the number of steps you take above and beyond 10,000.
Natural supplements for active people
Having a healthy balanced diet that includes at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day is a great way to support an active body. There are also several nutritional supplements that may be helpful, including a high-quality multivitamin and mineral that will provide you with good levels of magnesium, iron and B vitamins for energy.
Found in high concentrations in heart muscle, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is also popular with people who are active, including athletes, as it helps convert glucose into energy that the body uses to contract muscles and fuel the cardiovascular system. As well as boosting muscles, strength and endurance, CoQ10 also plays an important part in every metabolic process in the body. There is also evidence it may take longer to get tired than usual while exercising after taking CoQ10 for just two weeks (ii).
A magnesium supplement may be useful too, since it is needed in the body to make a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is where your cells store energy from food. Omega 3 fatty acids – such as those found in fish oils – may also help improve your performance by increasing muscle strength and physical performance. In one study, for instance, eating oily fish helped increase grip strength in both men and women aged 59 to 73 (iii).
If you exercise intensely and your muscles ache afterwards, drinking sour cherry juice may prevent pain by helping your muscles to recover (iv). Eating some protein – such as a protein bar, for instance – after a training session may also be useful if you’ve had a heavy or long session, or if you want to maintain or increase your muscle mass.
Althoff. T, et al. Large-scale physical activity data reveal worldwide activity inequality. Nature 547, 336-339 . 20 July 2017. https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v547/n7663/full/nature23018.html
Cooke. M, et al. Effects of acute and 14-day coenzyme Q10 supplementation on exercise performance in both trained and untrained individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008;5: 8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2315638
Robinson. SM., et al. Diet and its relationship with grip strength in community-dwelling older men and women: the Hertfordshire cohort study. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2008.56(1): p. 84-90. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2493054/
Connolly. DA, McHugh. MP, Padilla-Zakour, et al. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med. 2006;40:679-83; discussion 683. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16790484