fitness

How to ease yourself back into exercise when you've seriously dropped the ball.

Image: iStock.

If I had to pick one word to describe my fitness regimen, it would be “inconsistent”.

To be perfectly honest, walking is the only exercise I do regularly. I squeeze in a few good walks a week, and mostly spend my weekends traipsing around on foot, but that’s basically it.

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The thing is, I used to be fairly fit — at one point I was playing basketball and netball and taking gym classes a few times a week. But then uni and full-time work started eating my time, and I well and truly dropped the ball.

Since then, exercise has been an on-off kind of thing for me — a trampoline class here, a red-hot go at Barre Body there, and then there’s my ongoing turbulent relationship with zero to  five kilometre running apps.

I wasn't too worried about all this until last year when I started playing netball again. Despite not having stepped foot on a court for seven years, I figured I could just pick up the ol' Goal Attack bib where I left off.

Well, nope. Halfway through my first game I was dizzy, had this weird 'rushing' sensation in my ears, and started seeing double. This had never happened before, so I was a little freaked and sat the second half out.

Something similar happened about a month ago, when I participated in a boxing-style class before work one morning. By the end of the (fairly intensive) 7:30am session, everyone else in the class was looking sweaty and a little red in the face, while I was whiter than a bed-sheet and hugging the toilet bowl.

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Now, I'm no fitness expert, as you've probably figured out, but it's patently clear I went a little too hard too fast. Greg Stark, owner and founder of Better Being Personal Training, says this is quite common, and that when you're getting back on the fitness wagon it's best to take the fabled "slow and steady" approach.

"I see guys who come in and remember how hard they could push 10 years ago at the peak of their fitness, and they expect to walk in and continue at that level even though they haven't trained before," Stark, who's also an ambassador for lululemon Ivy, says.

"It's natural human behaviour that we want the results yesterday, and we figure we have to push as hard as we can but it doesn't always happen that way ... The key to success is acknowledging the fact that by moving and exercising you're creating benefits." (Post continues after gallery.)

It can be daunting to throw yourself back into exercise when you've all but abandoned it, but Stark says simply addressing this one aspect of your health can have a positive domino effect — you'll sleep better, you'll make better decisions about what you eat, and your long-term health will benefit.

For fitness rookies, simply adding what Stark calls a 'Regenerate activity' to your day can be enough to start this chain reaction.

"They're low intensity activities that you need to be doing every day for at least half an hour every day, like walking. Walking is one of the easiest, most affordable ways to exercise," Stark explains.

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If you're already doing that basic level of physical activity, you need to take things up a notch with a workout that gets you huffing and puffing — at Better Being, they call this the 'Reactivate' stage. But don't start panicking; Stark says a minimum of 15 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week has been shown to have major benefits for your body and quality of life.

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"You can improve your fitness and metabolism by doing that high intensity stuff, which gets you to 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate... For beginners, jogging and running will probably get your heart rate close to that, then as you get fitter you can challenge it in more ways," he explains.

Incorporating some fun, more social forms of physical activity into your week can also help to coax you back into being a regular exerciser. Stark recommends doing 'play' activities once or twice a week — for instance, playing netball or touch with your colleagues or mates.

"All exercise should be enjoyable, but if we're 'playing' as such we're more likely to engage with it in a positive sense, and it's a good way to connect and socialise," Stark says. Exercising with friends will also create accountability — you're less likely to slack off if your team is counting on you. (Post continues after gallery.)

One thing that's really important to remember when you're getting back into exercise is that going too hard straight up can put you at risk of injury, burnout, or short-term symptoms like nausea, light-headedness, or a sneaky vom in the gym toilets (trust me on that last one). Stark says you need to be kind to yourself and be honest about what you can really achieve.

"People have to go easier on themselves — they can't come in and expect to set a new PB each time they exercise. Some days that might mean a really hard and fast approach, other times it's about holding back and getting moving again and keeping it at a lower intensity," he says.

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You can figure this part out on your own. According to Stark, there are three key areas you need to consider before embarking on a workout — lifestyle (diet, sleep habits); physical (muscle soreness, injuries, stiffness, how your body feels); and emotional (mood, stress levels).

If you've got high stress in all three areas on a particular day, turn the intensity down; otherwise, challenge yourself.

"When we go 100 per cent all the time that's when people experience burnout. For example, if you've had a really stressful day at work and barely any sleep, the worst thing is to go into the gym and kill yourself," Stark says.

"But not doing anything at all is worse. The important thing is to do something, and not use it as an excuse to not exercise."

What's your favourite way to exercise?