Be Your Own Trainer

By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D.
With research help from exercise scientist Michelle Kennedy, M.S.

What does your heart, immune system, body weight and your mood have in common? They all need exercise to stay in tip-top shape. Exercise plays a role in keeping your entire body healthy. And it’s never too late to begin—benefits start immediately!

To get in shape, you don’t need a personal trainer, or even a gym. But you do need commitment, a pair of good athletic shoes, and a safe place to work out. (For help with the motivation/commitment piece of this, read last month’s story) And, of course, before starting a new exercise program, you first need to consult your health care provider to determine a safe level of exercise for you.

A plan helps a lot, with built-in goals and challenges. Otherwise, it’s tempting to just stay at a comfortable exercise level—or do nothing at all! And while exercise shouldn’t be too tough, it definitely shouldn’t be “comfortable.” Comfortable means you’re not working out hard enough to get those all-important cardiac and strength benefits.

Pace Yourself

Ultimately, we should all be doing, at minimum, 150 minutes of cardio weekly (more for weight loss), as well as getting in some strength training.

If a ten-minute walk winds you, these goals might seem pie-in-the-sky. But you’re not giving your body enough credit; it was designed for exercise and it will respond quickly. Even frail men and women in their 90s found that after eight weeks of high-intensity strength training, they became, on average, 174 percent stronger, gained nine percent more thigh muscle and were able to walk 48 percent more quickly.1 If they can do it, so can you.

And you can do it at your own pace, with exercises you enjoy. (Or, at least, don’t hate!) That’s what you get with the plan below. It’s really just an outline: You fill in the type of exercise, when you’ll do it, and how much you’ll do. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

What if you’re out of shape and sedentary? You can do this! Just start at your own level, even it that’s just a five-minute walk. Think of it this way: the more out of shape you are, the more dramatic improvements in endurance, strength and energy you’ll see. That’s powerful; and can give you the inspiration you need to stick it out.

If you already have a comfortable exercise routine, you might wonder, “Why bother?” Well, increasing the intensity a notch can have significant weight loss and health payoffs as explained under “Get Intense”.

How Much is Enough?

It doesn’t matter if it takes you a few weeks or a year to reach the following fitness goals. At your own pace (but always challenging and pushing yourself a little out of your comfort zone), you should work up to the following levels:

Cardio: At least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity or 75 minutes a week of high intensity2 (see “Get Intense” for details).

If you need to lose weight, 150-250 minutes/week of moderate-intensity physical activity should lead to modest weight loss.3 To really melt off those pounds, go for 250 minutes per week or more. Once you lose the weight, you’ll need 150 minutes of cardio weekly, maybe more.

Strength: At least six different exercises that that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).2 Do 10 to 12 repetitions for each exercise, at least two sets each. Do this at least two days a week; three is even better.

Consult your health care provider to determine a safe level of exercise for you


1 Fiattarone, M.A., et al. High-Intensity Strength Training in Nonagenarians. Effects on Skeletal Muscle. JAMA. 1990 263; No 22, 3029-3034.
2 Garber, CE, et al. Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2011, Volume 43, Issue 7, pp 1334-1359
Donnelly, JE. Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight Regain for Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: February 2009, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 459-471.


Next: Challenge Yourself for Life

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