How to Start Exercising Again When It’s Been a While

Once you do start to incorporate external load, focus more on lighter weights with higher rep counts (think: 12 to 15 reps) over lifting heavy, Scantlebury says. This will help build up your muscular endurance before you shift your focus to increasing your muscle size or strength (which require lower reps and heavier weight). Continue to work on your cardio too, by including endurance activities like walking, biking, and rowing into your routine. Building up your cardiovascular endurance can help you tire less quickly in workouts—thus reducing the risk of injuries caused by fatigue-induced form errors, Scantlebury says. 

Quick note here: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts can be an awesome goal to work toward, but they’re not something to start with right away. The high-effort, low-rest programming is very demanding on your body, Savage says. Instead focus first on performing exercises at a slower, controlled pace with longer rest periods (say,  60 to 90 seconds to start). Over time, you can gradually build up from low and moderate intensity workouts to higher-intensity styles of training, if that’s what you enjoy.

4. Schedule rest just as you do your workouts.

If you’re eager to rebuild your fitness as quickly as possible, you may be tempted to work out a lot to get there. But exercising too much without proper rest can actually put you on the fast track to burnout, overuse injuries, and decreased performance, as SELF previously reported. 

So when you’re beginning a fitness routine again, remind yourself that “rest and recovery is just as important as the work you do in the gym,” Savage says. To start, plan for at least one rest day in between workout days—you don’t want to train the same muscle group on back-to-back days, Savage says. These breaks are especially important when you’re strength training, Pierson adds, since that creates microscopic tears in your muscles. In order to get stronger, you need to allow your muscles enough downtime to repair those tears. 

Rest days can look a bunch of different ways: They could center on extremely chill activities (like watching Netflix in bed), or more active recovery, like stretching, foam rolling, yoga, walking, or easy biking. In fact, if you’re feeling soreness after your workouts—also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)—incorporating those kinds of gentle movement can actually help, by boosting blood flow to reduce the pain.

5. Think about sleep.

As you ramp up your fitness routine, make sure you’re taking care of your body in other ways, too. 

“It’s a balanced approach,” Pierson says. “It’s not just physical fitness.” In addition to nutrition, hydration, recovery, and stress management, one other big factor worth prioritizing is sleep. 

Don’t forget that “working out is ‘work,’”physical therapist Karena Wu, DPT, MS, CSCS, tells SELF. It takes a lot of time and energy, so you may feel more fatigued initially when you start exercising again, since your body is trying to adapt to the increased stresses of it. “If I’m so exhausted that I’m walking around like a zombie, I might opt for some more sleep on a particular day,” she adds. In other words, don’t be surprised if you feel like you need any earlier bedtime than usual—more sleep will ultimately help your body adapt to the new training you’re putting it through. 

6. Prepare your body for what it’s about to do.

Make sure that every routine includes a dedicated warm-up and cool-down. “A lot of times, we’re so excited about getting back into our journey that we just want to hop straight into the workout,”Savage says. But neglecting a proper warm-up can increase your injury risk and also just make your workout less effective, as SELF previously reported. And a cool-down helps your breathing ease and your heart rate return to baseline, so you don’t want to skip that step, either. 

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