How to Start Working Out If You’ve Never Exercised Before
If you want to make movement a regular part of your day, you have many exercise options. But you may be unsure about how to start working out if you’ve never really exercised regularly before.
Whether you’re looking to run, ride a bike, lift weights, or do yoga, just thinking about how to start working out can feel intimidating. After all, scrolling through all the fitness posts on social media—or even seeing runners easily power up the hills in your neighborhood—can make it seem like exercise comes so easily to those who are already in the thick of it.
Nope: Everyone starts somewhere. You can rest assured that the yoga teacher you follow on Instagram didn’t immediately pull off that handstand during her first class, or the CrossFitter didn’t bang out 10 pull-ups the first time they hung on the bar. And those runners you see going for hours? At one point, jogging nonstop for five minutes was probably a victory for them.
Besides, your exercise routine is about you—it’s about your individual goals, your preferences, and your interests. What works for the fitfluencer you follow on Instagram may be way off from what you’re looking to implement in your own life.
What matters instead is finding a fitness program that works for you. And the good news is, there is a lot out there to choose from. Here’s what you need to know about how to start working out—and how you can begin an enjoyable, challenging exercise program that’ll stick with you for the long haul.
1. Identify your “why.”
This is a huge part of staying motivated, consistent, and positive when you’re first starting to work out.
“Identify why you’re ready to incorporate a regular workout program into your life and reach your goals,” Lisa Tanker, certified personal trainer, tells SELF. This might take some digging, but it’s important you hone in on a reason that’s meaningful enough to you that it’ll push you forward. Maybe it’s being able to keep up with your kids, feeling strong in your own body, or just setting aside time to focus on your own well-being.
Fitness should be about your own goals and what feels right for you. “When you’re embarking on your fitness journey, it can be easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing,” Jen Comas, C.P.T., cofounder of Girls Gone Strong, tells SELF. “Remember that we all move at our own pace, and to focus on what is best and most enjoyable for you and your unique body.”
Then, before you get started, you should also check with your doctor to get the green light to continue with whatever routine you are considering.
2. Invest in some gear.
Exactly what kind of gear you need will depend on what kind of exercise program you want to try, but there are few staples that tend to be universal.
Finding a pair of comfortable, supportive athletic shoes is one of your first moves, Shauna Harrison, Ph.D., a group fitness instructor, tells SELF. The best way is to try on a bunch and see what feels most comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable going to a retail store now, many online retailers offer free returns, so you can send back what doesn’t work. Another option is to connect with your local running- or athletic-shoe store—their associates can often talk you through appropriate options by phone.
You’ll also want to find a snug, supportive sports bra and a couple of sweat-wicking tops and pants or shorts. “A few cute workout outfits that you feel comfortable in are a great investment because there is nothing like ‘feeling the part’ to get you motivated to get moving,” says Tanker.
You don’t have to go overboard, though: A workout tank is a workout tank. You don’t need to invest in a running tank, a yoga tank, or a lifting tank, for instance. Check your closet to see what you already have—especially pieces that you may have forgotten about!—and if you do need to buy some new pieces, shopping off-season (say, buying zip-ups for cold outdoor running in the summer) can help you save some cash.
3. Start by scheduling just two workouts a week—but make movement a daily thing.
“As you get started working out, think about long-term consistency. A great question to ask yourself is, How many days a week can you realistically fit into your life?” says Tanker. She recommends working your way up to three to four days a week, but that doesn’t mean you have to start there.
Begin by scheduling just two workouts a week, Tanker suggests. These can be as short as a 30-minute resistance training workout, Comas says. Setting a realistic goal is key to sticking with it, and since you’ll probably be sore after your first handful of workouts, this means you’ll have a few days to recover in between.
While you won’t be penciling in actual workouts every day, you still should try to do some kind of movement every day to help you build a habit, Sivan Fagan, C.P.T., founder of Strong with Sivan in Baltimore, tells SELF.
“Doing something small each day—even if it’s 15 minutes of walking—really builds the momentum and reinforces the habit,” she says.
4. Find a time that works for you.
There’s always been a lot of talk in the fitness world about when’s the best time to work out. The answer, however, is actually pretty simple.
“There is no set time that’s the best for working out,” says Fagan. “The best time is always the one that fits your lifestyle, your preferences, and your energy level.”
The way to find this out is to experiment with different times, seeing when you feel your best and when you’re most likely to do it, she says. You might find that becoming a morning workout person works for you, since you can get your workout out of the way before something comes along to sideline it. On the flip side, the thought of waking up extra early might completely turn you off, and you might benefit more from carving out some time after work to disengage from the workday. In that case, evening workouts might work best for you.
5. “Date” different types of workouts until you find the ones you truly like.
There really are endless types of workouts out there, and the truth is that the best workout for you is the one you’ll actually do and enjoy. The number one way to find the best fit for you is through trial and error, even though it may feel daunting at first.
“Try a bunch of different types of classes until you find what resonates with you. Something will!” says Harrison. (And yes, this can still apply in a home-workout world, since there are tons of virtual classes at your disposal, whether through fitness apps or streaming from your local gyms.) Start with one you’re initially drawn to, whether it’s barre, boxing, Pilates, dance cardio, yoga, a strength class, you name it, and keep trying new ones from there until you find what you enjoy.
Even if you find one that you love right away, there are still benefits to broadening your horizons and trying out other workout types, too, says Fagan. So, for example, if you discovered you love strength training classes, you might want to give yoga a try, since that kind of exercise can add relaxation, mindfulness, and mobility to your routine.
6. Nail down the basics to get a great foundation.
Once you find a type of workout that works for you, you don’t want to go all-in right away. Take the time first to learn the basics, which will allow you to safely progress with your exercise of choice, says Fagan.
Many fitness apps or virtual classes offer beginner lessons, where they’ll take you through foundational work. These tend to be less intense and slower-paced, and the instructors usually give more detailed instruction so you’re less likely to get lost.
“Your fitness class should feel challenging, but not so difficult that you feel defeated,” says Tanker.
If a beginner class isn’t an option, you can let the instructor know ahead of time that you’re new (and voice any concerns)—they may be able to give you some modifications for exercises during the class. Don’t be afraid to modify exercises on your own, too, and take breaks when you need them. “We tend to want to try to keep up with everyone else instead of meeting ourselves where we are,” says Harrison. Never feel ashamed for listening to your body and taking breathers when you need to.
7. Avoid the “too much” trap.
One major mistake Fagan often sees with beginner clients is trying to do too much, too soon. That can mean scheduling hour-long workouts, loading up moves with weight right off the bat, or trying HIIT classes before your body is acclimated to the exercises themselves. People tend to do this when they are just getting started because they’re super-eager to reach their goals, and they want to get right into the swing of things.
But this strategy is actually counterproductive to your goals, says Fagan. Whatever your version of too much, too soon may be, the outcome is often the same: It can burn you out, and you might find yourself dreading your workouts, or even skipping them. So take it gradually. Learn how to master the movements, and see how you feel when you make working out part of your regular life—it’s going to be more sustainable than making it your whole life.
8. Think about working with a personal trainer.
Another option, if you feel you do need more one-on-one guidance to feel comfortable with certain moves and you can afford it, is to hire a virtual personal trainer, says Fagan. They will help guide you through the basics and provide individualized help.
You may want to consider booking one or two sessions with a trainer to show you some exercises to get started, says Comas. They’ll be able to teach you ones that are right for your current skills and abilities, make sure your form is correct, and help ease you into your exercise.
Many gyms work with personal trainers, and should be able to connect you with one who is offering virtual appointments now, even if the gym is not open or taking clients in person.
9. Consider buying a few pieces of basic equipment.
Chances are pretty high that if you’re looking to start working out now, you’re probably going to be doing it at home—many gyms are still not open, and even if they are, you may not feel comfortable going back right away.
That means you’ll likely need to invest in some equipment, especially if you’re looking to strength train. While you can—and should—start with bodyweight moves, once you get your form down, you’ll be looking to add resistance, says Fagan.
Weights can be difficult to find available now (though it seems to be slightly easier than it was a couple months ago), but if you are able to find some, Fagan recommends three sets of dumbbells—a light, moderate, and heavy pair. A mini-band, looped resistance band, and sliders are also helpful (and, as an added bonus, tend to be more readily available than weights.)
Comas also recommends a jump rope, which requires very little room for storage but provides a ton of cardio possibilities. You probably want an exercise mat too, which can make exercises, especially ones where you’re lying on the ground, feel more comfortable, says Tanker.
10. Have a game plan to make things smoother.
Even if you’re super-dedicated to your new fitness goals, some days, motivation alone just doesn’t cut it (and that’s totally okay). That’s where an “insurance policy” comes in. If you need a little help staying on track, Comas suggests asking a friend who also works out to be a check-in partner. You can fill them in on your workout plans and let them know when you follow through, and when you need an extra nudge, they can be a great source of encouragement. Of course, you can provide all of that for them too.
Another strategy is to get your workout essentials together the night before, especially if you’ve decided to try morning workouts. If you’re groaning at your 6 A.M. alarm, it’s much easier to get up if you know you have your things put together, so all you have to do is slip into your clothes and walk out the door. Same applies to prepping a breakfast the night before, like overnight oats, so you’ll know you have easy fuel waiting for you when you’re done.
Just make sure that you’re listening to your body. If you’ve been going too hard, you may need a break, and that’s perfectly fine. Starting a workout routine shouldn’t add to your stress—it should be a helpful self-care measure that makes you feel better instead.