Many people think that there is only one right way to exercise. They assume that you must follow a complex set of instructions precisely or you won’t see results. But this just isn’t true. Yes, there are a few things that will help to make your fitness routine more effective, and you will learn what those are in this article. But one magic secret? That’s nonsense. There are many ways to slim down. I used to sign up for fitness classes—spinning, kick boxing, you name it. I wanted to sculpt my body into a sexy little shape. With every class, I’d start off with lots of motivation. But soon, my attendance waned. My excuses grew more and more lame—and finally, I would just be too embarrassed to show up after missing so many sessions. Eventually, however, I realized that the real problem was that I disliked being indoors. I never have to talk myself into exercising outdoors. In fact, sometimes I don’t even think of it as exercise! I love the sensation of the wind in my hair or cool air on my face when I go running. I love being alone with my thoughts. I even love the people I see along the way—the old guy who always waves, or the woman who comments about how my dog is taking me for a run rather than the other way around. Why should I force myself to exercise indoors so I can try the latest, hottest exercise class when I can much more easily motivate myself to go for a run? There’s no reason. None.
It’s the same for you. The best exercise is the exercise you will do. Period. In the end, the most important ingredient in your fitness routine is your willingness to participate. If you hate your routine, you’re either going to skip your workouts or you’re going to do them halfheartedly. That’s just not effective. You’ll find many routines and exercise suggestions. Some are intense. Others, not so much. Some you can do at home. Others you’ll have to do at the gym. I tried to include several options so you could find at least one that works for your lifestyle. If you’re really a newbie, I’ll also teach you the psychological know-how you need to get yourself to start an exercise plan and stick with it. But first, I want to explore several myths that might be standing between you and fitness success.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO EXERCISE TO SHED FAT. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS EAT LESS. THERE ARE SOME diet plans that don’t require any exercise. They say that you don’t need it. And to some extent, this is true. You can lose weight just by dieting. The problem with this is that dieting tends to cause your body to lose a combination of fat and muscle protein. Depending on the composition of your diet, you might lose a lot of muscle and only a little fat. A higher-protein food plan that is rich in vitamin D and a few other key nutrients (like this plan!) will help you preserve muscle mass so your body burns more fat and less muscle. That said, the best way to preserve muscle mass is to use it. Your muscles were designed to move, and when you move them more than usual they grow denser, firmer, and stronger. This is a good thing because muscle is calorie-hungry tissue. Every pound of it burns 35 to 50 calories a day, even at rest. Muscle tissue is an incredibly important part of your metabolism. Without it, everything slows down and the only way to keep losing weight is to keep eating less food.
Here are eight more compelling reasons to get moving.
YOU’LL FEEL LIKE FOLLOWING THE DIET. Many dieters cheat or quit because of stress eating. Regular exercise boosts production of the brain’s endorphins, feel-good chemicals that numb pain and boost mood. It also reduces stress, increases self-confidence, and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
YOU’LL GAIN CONTROL OVER EMOTIONAL EATING. Exercise lifts mood, keeps you busy, and can even provide a social outlet that makes you less lonely, too. All of this makes you a lot less likely to resort to a tub of popcorn, two chocolate bars, and movies on demand after a hard day at the office.
YOU’LL PREVENT THE WINTER BLUES. Research suggests that burning off 350 calories—the equivalent of roughly 3.5 miles of walking—three times a week can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants.
YOU’LL HAVE A LOT MORE ENERGY. Exercise helps to improve sleep, which, in turn, fuels you with the energy you need for the next day. Exercise also improves your muscle strength, boosts your endurance, and keeps your cardiovascular system working more efficiently. When your heart and lungs work more efficiently, you have even more energy to get through your busiest days.
YOU’LL BE MORE LIKELY TO KEEP OFF WHAT YOU LOSE. In one study done on 97 women, fewer than 1 percent of participants who exercised regained tummy fat during the year after a diet, compared to 25 percent of study participants who didn’t exercise.
YOU’LL FEEL BETTER ABOUT YOUR BODY. Studies suggest that simply seeing fitness improvements, like running a faster mile or lifting more weight than before, can improve your self-esteem and body image. And this is seriously important. Researchers have shown time and time again that people who lose weight for health reasons are a lot more likely to be successful than people who attempt to lose weight purely because of vanity. And people who feel more confident about their bodies at the beginning of a weight-loss program are much more likely to lose weight and keep it off than people who are ashamed of their bodies. I want you to stand proudly in front of the mirror and love what you see!
IT CAN REPLACE “EATING” AS A SOCIAL ACTIVITY. Various studies have shown that most of us are about as fat as the people we hang out with. That’s because eating can be induced by peer pressure. You know what I’m talking about. You are having just one drink with a girlfriend after work. Then she orders a cheese plate along with some nachos and won’t let up with the, “Oh come on. You’re not going to help me eat all of this? Really? You’re no fun anymore!” Instead of meeting for drinks, try connecting with friends during a group running session, on a hike, or on your way to yoga class.
YOU PRIME YOUR BODY FOR FAT BURNING. When you exercise regularly, levels of fat burning enzymes go up—and these enzymes become more effective, too. This allows your muscles to more easily harvest and burn fat for fuel.
YOU ARE ALLERGIC TO EXERCISE. THIS LINE’S STRAIGHT out of my good friend Andi’s mouth. About a year ago, she told me, “I am allergic to exercise. It doesn’t matter what you tell me to do. I’m going to hate it.” She said this right before the two of us took a long walk through town as we window-shopped and people-watched. We probably walked about 2 miles, but she didn’t think of it as exercise because she was having such a good time. (And I’m a good enough friend that I did not point out that fact!). Still, I get it. I understand where Andi and many other people are coming from when they say they are allergic to exercise. Starting and maintaining an exercise plan can be frustrating and difficult. Yet, it’s my firm belief that hating exercise is a lot like hating certain foods. Think of all the foods you once hated when you were younger. I had a long list, including tomatoes, beans, and spinach. Why did I hate them? Because, as a kid, I thought they looked and smelled funny, so I refused to try them. Then, periodically, over the course of my life, I tried those foods. I now love all of them. Tomatoes, in particular, are among my favorites—especially when they are in season. I even have a tomato garden in my yard. As a kid I hated them because they were new to me. The thought of not liking them was a lot worse than the actual experience of eating them.
Exercise is the same. Often, the dread of it is worse than the actual experience. If you continually tell yourself things like, “I have to exercise” and “let’s get this over with,” you will dread it even more. On the other hand, if you tell yourself, “I want to exercise today,” what do you think might happen? Try it. You might realize that it’s really not that bad after all. Here’s another suggestion: Give it 2 weeks. The first couple weeks of any exercise program are the hardest. That’s because your body just isn’t used to making those movements. Everything feels foreign and awkward. You might even feel embarrassed, as if other people might be looking at you and thinking that you are doing it wrong. And this is also the time period when many people feel delayed onset muscle soreness. After a couple weeks, however, things will change. Your muscles develop what’s known as muscle memory. That means that you no longer have to use your brain to tell your muscles to do the grapevine during a dance class. Your legs just do the movement without you thinking about it. This muscle memory will take longer to develop for some types of exercise than others, based on how complicated the exercise is and how often you practice, but it always develops. Once it does, exercise doesn’t feel so foreign and hard. Finally, exercise can actually be enjoyable if you don’t think of it as exercise. My friend Andi had so much fun strolling along she never considered the fact that she walked 2 miles that day. Think of it as movement. Do you enjoy walking your dog? Or riding a bike with your child? Or playing Just Dance on the Wii? These are all forms of movement that will get you in shape, and they all count—as exercise!
EXERCISE ERASES OVEREATING. THIS MYTH IS particularly problematic, and it can really stand in the way of your success. It’s true that each mile you walk or run burns 50 to 100 calories. Those burned calories speed weight loss and they do serve as a mild caloric buffer for those times when you go a little overboard. But they are no substitute for reasonable eating. Here’s why. The typical craving-induced binge can quickly set you back 1,000 calories or more. For instance, just one slice of pie at a typical restaurant will run you 400 calories. Add some ice cream and you’ve got 200 more. That’s 600 calories right there, and we’re only talking about dessert. To work that off, you’d need to run or walk 6 miles. That’s a lot, and few people ever do it. Exercise is important for all of the reasons I’ve stated. But don’t use it as a crutch to deal with overeating. If you do, you’ll end up disappointed in your progress.
EXERCISE MAKES YOU HUNGRY. MANY PEOPLE THINK that exercise makes you hungry, causing you to overeat and undo all of the calorie burning you accomplished during your session. Researchers in the United Kingdom recently proved this theory wrong. They studied 12 men and women, tracking their energy expenditure and food intake for 16 days. The researchers asked the participants to complete various types of workouts on different days, ranging from no exercise at all to very high intensity exercise. The participants were hungrier when they exercised, but that hunger did not cause them to undo their calorie burn. They only compensated for about 30 percent of the calorie deficit caused by exercise. In other words, 70 percent of the calories they burned during exercise stayed burned. Other research done in Australia found that 12 weeks of an exercise program (about 25 miles of walking or running a week) made study participants feel hungrier just before meals, but participants remarked that they also felt satisfied more quickly.
YOU MUST SPEND AN HOUR AT THE GYM AND SERIOUSLY EXHAUST YOURSELF TO GET RESULTS. I USED TO fall prey to this myth. I thought that I needed to hit the gym four or five times a week, do set after set of weights, and sweat like crazy to “feel the burn.” It wasn’t until I met New York fitness trainer Pete Cerqua, author of The 90-Second Fitness Solution, that I changed my mind. Pete challenged me to do something completely counterintuitive: exercise less. He said there was no reason for me to lift weights more than 1 day a week or do more than one set of any exercise. Yes, heavy weights were good, but I didn’t even need to fully fatigue any given muscle—thus inducing major muscle soreness the following day. He just wanted me to lift for about 90 seconds per exercise. At first I thought he was nuts. Then I tried it and I actually got stronger. Here’s why: Finally, I was lifting consistently. In trying to do the multiple sets and multiple weight lifting workouts per week, I was expecting too much of myself. I just couldn’t keep up such a regimen. I didn’t have the time or the inclination, so I would do it for a while and then I would stop and then I would start and then I would stop. As a result, I never really got into great shape. Once I switched to Pete’s less-is-more weight lifting model, I got in shape and I stayed there.
But you may be wondering about studies or articles you might have read about how more sets and days are better. You know what? All of those studies were done on body builders. If it’s your goal to grow the kind of serious muscle that makes you look like a female version of the Incredible Hulk, then sure—more sets and days at the gym are in order. If your goal is to firm up and melt fat, the one-day-a-week, one-set-and-you’re-done model is much more appropriate. Sound good?
Create the Perfect Plan for You
In this article, you’ll find six different exercise programs. Pick and choose from among them to assemble a surefire plan that you don’t mind doing and can maintain. You might do just one entire exercise prescription. You might decide to incorporate several. The choice is yours. Just remember: Keep it realistic. The more suited it is to your lifestyle, the more likely you’ll keep it up.
EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION #1:
THE MORNING WALK. MANY PEOPLE ATTEMPT to exercise in the afternoon and evening, after they’ve gotten their to-do lists completed. This is tough because most to-do lists have a way of expanding and oftentimes end up encroaching on exercise time. During the afternoon and evening, most people are quite tired, too. It’s really easy to find excuses not to move when you’re tired. Enter the morning: The perfect time of day to move. The morning is the time of day most under your control. It’s also a great way for you to get in a little fresh air and mood-boosting sunlight so the rest of your day goes a little easier. The morning walk is especially important during the winter months, when sunlight disappears after about 4 o’clock. Although it won’t provide your body with very much D (due to the angle of the sun), it will still give you a needed mood and energy boost. It will also help to improve sleep later on. Research done at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that women who took 1-hour morning walks were more likely to sleep better than women who didn’t walk. As a bonus, most people, myself included, find that they feel better all day long when they move in the morning. I have fewer cravings, less stress, and more focus at work. But perhaps most important is this: A morning walk sets the tone for the rest of the day. Once you get in a little activity in the morning, you’ll have more willpower to stick to your goals for the rest of the day. Indeed, a morning walk is one of the best things you can do for your overall mood and productivity.
IF YOU OPT FOR THE MORNING WALK PRESCRIPTION: MAKE THIS A NONNEGOTIABLE PART OF YOUR DAY. Nothing happens until you get that walk in. Once you are done with your walk, you can eat breakfast, check e-mail, or make a phone call. But the day doesn’t start until you move. WALK WITH A PURPOSE. If you can, tie your morning walk to something else you have to do anyway. That way, you’ll be more likely to do it every day. For instance, I walk my daughter to school. You can also walk to a coffee shop rather than drive or just walk your dog rather than let your dog out into the yard. Your dog will thank you and probably help to remind you to do it the following day! WALK OUTDOORS IF YOU CAN. You’ll get a bigger mood boost from walking in sunlight than you will from doing it indoors on a treadmill. GO WITHOUT SUNSCREEN ON YOUR ARMS AND LEGS IF YOUR WALK WILL LAST LESS THAN 15 MINUTES. Always wear sunscreen on your face, though. The vitamin D produced in your skin is powerful and effective—but exposure to both UVA and UVB rays can be deadly for your skin, so you don’t want to expose it for any longer than 15 minutes. If you are very light skinned and burn easily, wear sunscreen at all times.
EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION #2
CARDIO THREE TIMES A WEEK. CARDIO IS A great way to burn calories, boost mood, and improve your heart health. Intense cardio can also help you shed stress and might even reduce hunger and cravings. CHOOSE CARDIO YOU ENJOY. Don’t force yourself to do exercise routines that you don’t love. Only do exercise that you can embrace-forever. So if you once loved tennis, find a nearby court and a partner. If you once loved to swim, get in the pool. If you love being social, Zumba or another group dance class might be your thing. The point is to pick something that you can look forward to. That’s true even if you’ve picked a gym for its hot tub or steam room because it feels so good after your workout. PAIR EXERCISE WITH SOMETHING ELSE YOU LOVE. Let’s say that every time you exercise, you meet a good friend. This friend becomes your walking partner, running partner, or tennis partner. If you only see this friend when you exercise together, you will start to look forward to your exercise sessions because you can’t wait to talk to your friend. Similarly, if you love being outside, then be active outside. Or, if you love music, invest in an iPod Nano and upload your favorite tunes, then make sure it’s clipped to you every time you head to the gym. EASE INTO IT. As I’ve said, many people end up hating exercise because they’ve tried before to go from zero fitness to 100 percent fitness all in the same day. They get off the couch, put on some sneakers, and try to run up and down stadium steps for an hour. They are not used to getting their heart rate up that high, and their muscles are not used to working that hard. As a result, the entire experience is painful from start to finish. Worse, they feel sore the next day and dead tired afterward. When done correctly, exercise should not hurt. Unless you are training for the Olympics, you should not feel as if someone has just sucked all of the available oxygen out of your body. It should not leave you feeling sore or immobilized the next day, either. When running hurts, that’s when I know something is wrong—and it’s usually that my shoes need to be replaced. So, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while, ease into it. Be gentle with yourself. Exercise just 1 day a week at first. Then, when you are feeling fitter, progress to 2 days a week, and then 3. If you slowly ease into it like this, you’ll slowly build your fitness and you’ll be able to avoid most of the discomfort of getting in shape.
EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION #3
STRENGTH TRAIN AT HOME 1 TO 2 TIMES A WEEK. STRENGTH TRAINING BUILDS muscle, and muscle burns calories. Every pound of muscle in your body burns 35 calories a day just to maintain itself. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns—even during sleep. Your metabolism also kicks into high gear during the 24 hours after a workout, as your body repairs your muscles and restocks your fuel stores. You will find two different workout routines that can be done at home. Pick the routine that works best for you.
PUSHUP - Start on all fours with your palms on the floor under your shoulders and your legs extended. (Note: If you are not yet strong enough for a Big Girl-style pushup, rest your knees on the floor, lift your calves, and cross your ankles.). Lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat up to 90 seconds.
FLOOR Y RAISE - Lie facedown. Extend your arms overhead at a 30-degree angle to your body, with your palms facing in, forming the shape of a Y. (For variety, you can also do this exercise with your arms out to your sides in the shape of a T or directly overhead in the shape of an I. The different arm positions work slightly different areas of your upper back.) Lift your arms as high as you can. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat 90 seconds.
HIP RAISES - Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold for up to 90 seconds. (Note: To increase the intensity of this exercise, extend one leg, holding for 45 seconds on each side.)
INVERTED PRESS - Bring your body into a downward facing dog position with your hips in the air and your body weight evenly distributed between your hands and feet. Your body should form a triangle and your hands should be shoulder-width apart. Keep your body in this position as you bend your elbows and bring your head almost all the way to the floor. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat up to 90 seconds.
WALL SQUAT - Lean your back against a wall with your feet about shoulder-width apart and slightly forward from the wall. Keeping your back against the wall, bend your knees and slide down the wall a few inches. Hold for 10 seconds.
BIRD DOG - Get on all fours. Extend your right arm and left leg. Hold for 5 seconds. Lower and repeat with your left arm and right leg. Keep switching sides for a total of 9 reps on each side.
PLANK - Start in a modified pushup position with your elbows bent and your forearms against the floor. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Brace your core by tightening your abs. Hold for up to 90 seconds.
SIDE PLANK - Lie on your left side with your knees straight. Prop your upper body on your left elbow and forearm. Tighten your abs and raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders. Breathe deeply and hold for up to 45 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS - Lie on your back on a flat bench. If you do not own a weight lifting bench, you can use a piano stool or something similar. Extend your arms and hold the dumbbells over your chest so they are nearly touching. Lower the dumbbells to beside your chest. Pause and then push the weights back up to the starting position. Repeat up to 90 seconds.
DUMBBELL ROW - Grab a pair of dumbbells. From a standing position, bend at your knees and lean forward from your hips until your torso is almost parallel with the floor. Extend your arms toward the floor. Bend your arms and pull the dumbbells up to your sides. You should feel your shoulder blades pinching closer together as you do this. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat for 90 seconds.
SHOULDER PRESS - Stand with a pair of dumbbells at shoulder level, your elbows bent, and palms facing in. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and your knees should be slightly bent. Press the dumbbells directly overhead until your arms are completely extended. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat for up to 90 seconds.
DUMBBELL CURL - Stand with your arms extended by your sides, palms forward. Bend your elbows and curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders. Keep your upper arms close to your sides the whole time. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat for up to 90 seconds.
OVERHEAD TRICEPS EXTENSION - Stand with your arms extended overhead and your feet shoulder-width apart. Face your palms toward one another, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your upper arms in place, lower the dumbbells behind your head. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat for up to 90 seconds.
DUMBBELL SQUAT - Stand while holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Your palms should be facing in. Bend your knees and lower into a squat, pushing your hips back and bringing your thighs parallel with the floor. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat for up to 90 seconds.
DUMBBELL LUNGE - Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and dumbbells at your sides. Step forward with your right leg. Slowly lower your body until your front knee is bent 90 degrees. Pause and then push back to the starting position. Repeat for up to 90 seconds, alternating legs.
CRUNCH - Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Place your fingers behind your ears and rest your elbows out to the sides. Lift your head and shoulders as you crunch your rib cage toward your pelvis. Pause and then return to the starting position. Repeat for up to 90 seconds.
DUMBBELL SIDE BEND - Stand with a pair of dumbbells overhead, your arms extended and in line with your shoulders. Without twisting your upper body, bend directly to your left as far as you can. Pause and then return to the starting position. Then bend to the right. Repeat for up to 90 seconds.
EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION #4
IF YOU’D RATHER train at the gym, here are several options. Choose one of the following: Perform the dumbbell routine. It also works at the gym with dumbbells or barbells. Take a strength class such as Body pump or Power Yoga. Do the circuit, moving from machine to machine. Work through the circuit doing 8 to 12 lifts (as heavy as you can) on the chest press, chest fly, row, low back extension, biceps curl, triceps push, and shoulder press. For your legs, do a wall sit (back against a wall, knees bent at 90 degrees) for 90 seconds. For your abs, do a plank for 90 seconds plus 10 to 20 crunches on a fitness ball
EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION #5
GATHER MOVEMENT AS YOU GO. I CALL THIS the sneaky lifestyle movement because you reap the benefits of exercise while doing the kinds of things you must do anyway, such as straightening your house and doing yard work. But don’t feel as if you are cheating if you opt for this prescription. Sneaky exercise can really add up. Depending on how much of it you work into a given day, you can burn up to 750 additional calories every day! Use these pointers. DO: WEAR A PEDOMETER. Clip it to your waistband to count your steps for you. DO: ERRANDS ON FOOT. Or on a bike. Try to keep your car parked—or parked far away—as often as possible. You’ll be amazed how many things you can get done on foot or on a bicycle if you are creative about it. I use the basket on the front of my bike to carry everything from bank deposit slips to mail to items I purchase at the convenience store. DO: MORE BY HAND. Sweep grass or leaves off the street with a broom, rather than with a leaf blower. Use a nonmotorized vacuum for small cleaning jobs. Hang clothes on a line rather than using the drier. All of these things not only help you burn calories, they also will cut your electric bill and help you do your part to reduce your carbon footprint.
EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION #6
GATHER MOVEMENT YOGA OR STRETCHING BEFORE BED FEW PEOPLE TRULY relax before bed, which results in poor sleep (or lack of sleep). Poor sleeping habits can make it difficult to lose weight. The less sleep you get, the hungrier and grumpier you feel, which makes it tough to stick to a healthy eating plan. If you tend to toss and turn at night or wake repeatedly, I highly recommend you stretch, do gentle yoga, or practice some other form of relaxation before bed, such as meditation or deep breathing. If you opt for yoga, you’ll get an extra mindfulness boost that might carry over into your eating habits. One study, done at Deakin University in Australia, found that a 12-week yoga program that included postures, breathing, relaxation, and meditation helped women reduce binge eating and improve self-esteem and body image. They all lost weight, too. If you opt for yoga, you can take a class in the evening or do a series of poses on your own at home. Just make sure to do a gentle form of yoga. Something like Power Yoga is more of a strength and cardio workout and will rev you up rather than help you to unwind. In this article, you’ll find some gentle stretches to try in the evening before bed.
SLEEPER STRETCH - Lie on your left side with your left upper arm on the floor and your elbow bent at 90 degrees. Adjust your torso so that your right shoulder is slightly behind your left and your left forearm is pointing toward the ceiling. Gently push your left hand toward the floor until you feel a comfortable stretch in the back of your left shoulder. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds and then switch sides.
WALL PUSH - Stand about 2 feet in front of a wall with one leg in front of the other. Place your palms against the wall and lean forward. Press down through your back heel until you feel a stretch in your calf. Hold for 2 seconds, release, and repeat 10 times. Repeat on the other side.
TRICEPS STRETCH - Stand or sit. Reach overhead with your right arm, bending your elbow as if you were attempting to scratch your left shoulder blade. Grasp your right elbow with your left hand. Pull your right arm behind your head and to the left until you feel a stretch. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
STANDING HAMSTRING STRETCH - Place your right foot on a bench or chair. Extend your leg until it is completely straight. With your left leg slightly bent, lean forward until you feel a stretch. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds and then switch legs.
GLUTE STRETCH - Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross your left leg over your right so that your left ankle sits over your right thigh.