Getting back in the saddle after a long reprieve from exercise can be a daunting task. Maybe it’s been a month since your last gym visit, or maybe it’s been a few years since you dropped the ball on your daily running habit. Perhaps you’ve just bounced back from an injury or an illness, or a streak of hectic life events has swept away all hopes of staying on track.
Whatever the reason, even the smallest break from your fitness routine can cause serious setbacks. Experts estimate the amount of time it takes to start losing muscle mass is only about two weeks after your last resistance training session, and even less time — about 10 days — to lose your hard-earned aerobic conditioning. If you add to the mix less will power around junk food or alcohol, your fitness status might be farther gone than just back to square one.
But there’s hope still. Our bodies are adaptation machines. Yes, starting over can be uncomfortable, even downright brutal, but with these eight helpful tips, you can limit the amount of physical pain and mental flabbiness to only the first few weeks.
1. Eat food for fuel
Let’s get real. The way you eat is almost entirely responsible for how well (or not) your workout goes. If you’ve eaten fatty, greasy, heavy meals preceding your cardio, you’re going to feel sluggish and you might not finish your minutes or mileage. Not eating enough before strength training can lead to light-headedness, which is never good when holding heavy dumbbells or trying to concentrate on correct form.
The best food-for-fuel strategy is to eat your heaviest meal in the morning, which can curb crazy hunger pangs that tend to hit mid-afternoon or when you get home after a long day’s work. Sprinkle in a small snack every two hours — a fruit leather, a granola bar, or a handful of cherries. Constantly rev your engine with smart calories. (Save the carb-loading for after an intense workout.) By taking this route, you will consistently feel energetic and your workouts will be doubly efficient.
When you spice up your return-to-fitness workouts with spurts of intensity, you gain endurance and your muscles adapt at faster rate. If you’re thinking of doing 45 minutes on the elliptical three times a week, try shedding your minutes down to 30. Alternate every five minutes between an easy pace and a difficult pace, and pepper in some 30-second bouts of sprinting at the fastest speed or highest resistance you can possibly do.
Another way to apply intervals to your workouts is with strength training and circuits. Alternate weight levels for your reps, or jog for five minutes between each one. Keep your body guessing – it’s the quickest way to jumpstart your fitness. The only way this can work to your advantage while not increasing your chances of injury is by following tip number three:
3. Rest and recover
To reap the benefits of your return to fitness, you’ve got to take at least two rest days a week. Over-training is a risk for even the best of athletes, but it’s especially dangerous when your fitness foundation is not where it used to be. Rest and recovery means no workouts that push you. If you’re feeling energetic, take your dog for a walk, play with your kids, or go dancing with your friends — but leave the gym or your running shoes alone.
Rest days aren’t entirely for your body, especially when you’re just starting an exercise routine. These off days can also rejuvenate your mental focus, allowing you a break from the pressures of changing your life too quickly. Burning out mentally from over-training is just as dangerous to your fitness as acquiring an injury.
4. Morning rituals
For many of us, the morning tends to set the tone for the rest of the day. If you’re running late, you’ll forget to pack a lunch, and then you’re more likely to splurge on a cheeseburger on your break. And while moderation is not something to ignore, a heavy, nutrient-lacking fast-food meal is not a good investment if you’re looking to get your fitness on that night or early the next morning.
Find the best schedule that works for you. Maybe it’s getting up an hour earlier and fitting your workout in before your busy day. Maybe it’s a leisurely book-read while sipping your morning coffee that invigorates you to bench press during your lunch hour. Maybe you’d rather pack your lunch the night before and capitalize on an extra half-hour of snoozing. The more prepared you are and the smoother your morning is, the more productive you can be throughout your day.
5. Find strength in numbers
A lot of people harp on this one, and for good reason. Finding a workout buddy or a group to hold you accountable can make a huge difference when you’re trying to get back on the fitness horse. If none of your friends or family is interested in sweating alongside you, sign up for a weekly kickboxing class or a local running group. It’s intimidating at first, but once you go a few times, you’ll find a lot more fun, like-minded people to motivate you in your goals. Knowing a group is expecting you to show up for your workout will inspire you to jump back into regular exercise with ease — and you’re also flexing your social muscle. Two birds with one stone.
6. Set reasonable goals
You can’t run a marathon overnight, and you can’t go from 0 to 10 in one fell swoop. If you’ve been on your couch every evening for the past year, you’re not going to just show up to the gym ready and able to go against the big dogs. You’ve got to ease into it.
Start by giving yourself a reasonable goal. Thirty minutes of some type of exercise, every day, or every other day — for just 30 days. Remind yourself of your goal by posting it in your calendar, keeping track of your progress, or telling your loved ones and coworkers. This way, you have aligned to an affordable goal and are more likely to achieve it.
7. Keep it in the foreground
In between workouts, a lot of life happens. You’re negotiating big deals at work; you’re juggling kids and rehearsals and appointments; you’re studying or constantly bombarded with important to-do lists. It’s easy to forget the fitness goals you wrote down just yesterday. It’s easy to say, “To heck with it all!”
If you read just one page in a book or one article related to your fitness goals each day, you are more likely to keep returning to the gym. Reading topics like how to stay motivated, how to fuel your body, how to achieve a 5k time under 30 minutes, etc., you can remind yourself why you’re trying to get back in shape and re-ignite the fitness fire, each day.
8. Positive reinforcement
We’re human, and switching up our ingrained habits requires some serious concentration and effort. Down the road, your regular fitness routine will become second-nature, but at the start, it’s like herding cats. So reward yourself. Get a pedicure, invest in new sneakers, or indulge in wine with friends on your off day.
Be easy with your words, too. Don’t let negative thoughts crowd out the compassionate voice inside you — the one that says, “I’m still acclimating; I can see my progress; It’s okay if I have cake at this birthday party.” Positive affirmation and encouragement will reduce the risk of early burnout and keep you visualizing where you want to be.
Bonus tip: Have fun!
If you take these eight points seriously, you can free yourself to have fun with the process. Remind yourself that doing anything is better than doing nothing, and find all the reasons you can to get up and active. Truly enjoy the journey of getting back into shape, and milk it for all its worth. In a few months, you will be ready to take on even bigger challenges: training for a race, entering a competition, or just fitting into a smaller size. The work is worth it, and the only way to get back in the water is to jump in!