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What’s the Best Exercise Plan for Me?

Take the “Work” Out of Workouts with a Fitness Plan that “Fits” You

What's the best exercise program for me?

  • A program that fits your lifestyle, including activities you love, so you can stick with it for a long time.
  • A well-rounded program with aerobic, strength training, and balance exercises.
  • A program that starts with your current level of fitness and takes into account any previous injuries or current limitations.
  • A program that keeps your routines fresh and keeps you motivated.

Designing your fitness plan

If exercise is so good for us then why do we find it so hard to exercise regularly? It wasn't always that way. In grade school, you probably couldn't wait for recess. It was a time to walk, run, jump, and be outside. You were exercising and enjoying every minute of it. Now it's more of a chore. But it doesn't have to be that way if you focus on activities you enjoy and a routine that's tailored to your needs.

So how do you create such an exercise routine? Find a blend of activities you enjoy and a schedule you can stick with over the long haul. Start out gradually, set realistic goals, and reward yourself for accomplishments along the way. In short, your fitness plan should give you recess without the bell.

Plentiful and well-established science supports the benefits of aerobic and strength training, as well as balance training for older adults. Flexibility and relaxation exercises are also important components of an enjoyable and effective fitness plan.

Aerobic exercise

Often called cardio or endurance activities, aerobic activities are great for burning calories and paring down unwanted fat. They consist of activities that require large muscles to repeatedly contract and relax: think of walking, biking, running, and swimming, for example. This temporarily boosts your heart rate and breathing, allowing more oxygen to reach your muscles and tuning up cardiovascular endurance. These are activities that are associated with lower risk for many diseases and lengthening lifespan. Make aerobic exercise the centerpiece of your fitness program, since the bulk of research on disease-quelling benefits of exercise revolves around cardiovascular activity.

How much

Current guidelines for physical activity recommend accumulating a weekly total of at least two–and–a–half hours of moderate aerobic activity, or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. (Note: If you prefer a mix, 10 minutes of vigorous activity equals roughly 20 minutes of moderate activity.) Raising your weekly goal to five hours of moderate activity, or two–and–a–half hours of vigorous activity, nets additional health benefits. A single exercise session should last at least 10 minutes.

Get started

Walking is usually safe for any age or level of fitness, and can easily be adjusted to a comfortable speed. It doesn't jar joints or raise your heart rate to dangerous levels. Expanding a walking program is simple—add time, distance, or hills to improve endurance. If you prefer another aerobic activity, though, feel free to substitute it. Otherwise, follow these tips to get the best workout from your walks:

  • Find a safe place to walk.Quiet streets with sidewalks, park trails, athletic tracks at local schools, or shopping malls are often good choices.
  • Buy a good pair of shoes.Look for thick, flexible soles that cushion your feet and elevate your heel one-half to three-quarters of an inch above the sole. Choose shoes with “breathable” uppers, such as nylon mesh.
  • Dress for comfort and safety.Wear lighter clothes than you’d need if standing still. Dress in layers so you can peel off garments if you get hot. Light-colored clothes and a reflective vest help drivers notice you.
  • Do a five-minute warm-up and cool-down.Start off at a slower pace for your warm-up. During your cool-down, you could incorporate stretching, thus accomplishing two goals at once.
  • Practice good technique:
    • Walk at a brisk, steady pace. Slow down if you’re too breathless to carry on a conversation.
    • Keep your back straight.
    • Hold your head up. Lift your chest and shoulders.
    • Point your toes straight ahead.
    • Let your arms swing loosely at your sides. If you want to boost your speed, bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle and swing your hands from waist to chest height.
    • Land on your heel, then roll forward onto the ball of your foot, pushing off from your toes.
    • Take long, easy strides, but don’t strain. To go faster, take quicker steps instead of longer ones.
    • Lean forward slightly when walking faster or going up hills.

Strength training

Strength or resistance training, which typically employs equipment such as weight machines, free weights, and resistance bands or tubing, protects against bone loss and builds muscle. It also improves your body’s ratio of lean muscle mass to fat. It, too, deserves an important place in your exercise routine.

Technically, strength or resistance training takes place any time your muscles face a stronger-than-usual counterforce, such as pushing against a wall or lifting a dumbbell. Using progressively heavier weights or increasing resistance makes muscles stronger. Aside from toning you, strength training provides the functional strength you need to do everyday activities—lifting groceries, climbing stairs, rising from a chair, rushing for the bus—with ease.

How much

Current guidelines recommend strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms) twice or more weekly. One set per session is effective, though two to three sets may be better. Repeat each exercise eight to 12 times. Your body needs at least 48 hours for recovery and repairs between strength training sessions.

Get started

These tips for safe strength training will help you get the most from your workouts:

  • Plan to warm up and cool down for five to 10 minutes.Walking is a fine way to warm up; stretching is an excellent way to cool down.
  • Focus on form, not weight.Align your body correctly and move smoothly through each exercise. Poor form can prompt injuries and slow gains. Many experts suggest starting with no weight, or very light weight, when learning a strength training routine. Concentrate on slow, smooth lifts and equally controlled descents while isolating a muscle group. You isolate muscles by holding your body in a specific position while consciously contracting and releasing certain muscles.
  • Tempo, tempo.Tempo helps you stay in control rather than undercut strength gains through momentum. For example, count to three while lowering a dumbbell, hold, then count to three while raising it to the starting position.
  • Breathe.Blood pressure rises even more if you hold your breath while performing strength exercises. Exhale as you work against resistance by lifting, pushing, or pulling; inhale as you release.
  • Keep challenging muscles.The right weight differs depending on the exercise. Choose a weight that tires the targeted muscle or muscles by the last two repetitions (reps) while still allowing you to maintain good form. If you can’t do the last two reps, choose a lighter weight. When it feels too easy to complete all the reps, challenge your muscles again by adding weight (roughly 1 to 2 pounds for arms, 2 to 5 pounds for legs), or by adding another set of reps to your workout (up to three sets), or by working out additional days per week. If you add weight, remember that you should be able to do all the reps with good form and the targeted muscles should feel tired by the last two reps.
  • Practice regularly.Working all the major muscles of your body two to three times a week is ideal. You can choose to do one full-body strength workout two or three times a week, or you may opt to break your strength workout into upper- and lower-body components. In this case, be sure that you perform each of these components two or three times a week.
  • Give muscles time off.Strenuous exercise like strength training causes tiny tears in muscle tissue. These tears aren’t harmful, but they are important: muscles grow stronger as the tears knit up. Always allow at least 48 hours between sessions for muscles to recover. So, if you do a full-body strength workout on Monday, wait until at least Wednesday to repeat it. In this case, it may be easier to do aerobic exercise on the days between your strength training. If you’re doing a partial-body strength session, however, you might do upper-body exercises on Monday, lower-body exercises on Tuesday, upper-body exercises on Wednesday, lower-body exercises on Thursday, etc., and do aerobic exercise on as many days as possible.

Balance exercises

Our sense of balance typically worsens as we age. It can be further compromised by medical conditions like neuropathy (a complication of diabetes) and certain chemotherapy drugs and other medications; uncorrected vision problems; or lack of flexibility. Poor balance often leads to falls, which can cause head injuries and temporarily or permanently disabling injuries to the bones and nervous system. Hip fractures, particularly, can lead to serious health complications and can impair independence.

Evidence suggests that older adults at risk for falls benefit from a combination of walking, strength training, and balance-enhancing activities such as tai chi, yoga, and Pilates. Even walking on uneven surfaces, like cobblestones or hiking trails, helps improve balance over time.

How much

Older adults at risk for falls should get 30 minutes of balance training and muscle strengthening exercises three times a week, plus at least 30 minutes of walking activities twice or more weekly. Consider adding the heel-to-toe walk and single-leg stance to your warm-ups or cool-downs(see Better Balance Report below), and including other balance-promoting exercises in your strength-training program.

Get started

Try working these exercises into your strength training routine—three times a week or even daily—to enhance balance:

  • Heel-to-toe walk.Position your heel right in front of the toes of the opposite foot each time you take a step. Heel and toes should touch as you walk forward for eight to 12 steps. If necessary, steady yourself by putting one hand on a counter as you walk. Then work toward doing the exercise without support. Repeat two to four times.
  • Single-leg stance.Stand on one foot for up to 30 seconds. Put your foot down and steady yourself, then repeat on the opposite leg. Perform two to four times on each leg. If necessary, hold on to the back of a chair or counter. Then work toward doing the exercise without support.

Flexibility exercises

Flexibility exercises like stretching, yoga, and Pilates gently reverse the shortening and tightening of muscles that typically occur with disuse and age. Shorter, stiffer muscle fibers may make you vulnerable to injuries and contribute to back pain and balance problems.

Frequently performing exercises that isolate and stretch elastic fibers surrounding muscles and tendons helps counteract this. A well-stretched muscle more easily achieves its full range of motion. This improves athletic performance—imagine an easier, less restricted golf swing or tennis serve—and functional abilities, such as reaching, bending, or stooping during daily tasks.

At one time, experts prescribed stretching before exercise to help avoid injuries, but newer research suggests this does little good. (Instead, experts recommend starting off your exercise with a warm-up, such as a light jog or a sport-specific routine such as serving some tennis balls and practicing ground strokes before a match.) Stretch when muscles are warm and pliable—so, before stretching, walk for five to 10 minutes, dance to a few songs, or take a warm shower. Or, even better, do your flexibility exercises as your post-workout cool-down. Stretching between exercises may be fine, too, and possibly helps boost flexibility.

To achieve lasting effects, stretch daily or at least several times a week. This is easier than you might think. Activities such as yoga and Pilates combine stretching and relaxation and also improve balance, a wonderful combination.

How much

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that older adults do flexibility exercises on the same days as aerobic or strength activities, or at least twice a week.

Get started

Basic stretches will help you become more flexible. The more often you stretch, the more limber you will become. Follow these tips for safety.

  • Check with your doctor.If you have joint disease or arthritis, or if you’ve had a joint replacement, check with your doctor before starting stretching exercises.
  • Warm up first.Warm muscles are more flexible. Warm up for five to 10 minutes first, or save stretching for your cool-down routine after exercising.
  • Stretch all muscle groups.Just as with strength training, stretching should include all muscle groups.
  • No bouncing.Never bounce as you stretch. This triggers a contracting reflex that actually tightens the muscle you’re trying to loosen.
  • Feel mild tension only.Extend your muscle to the point where you feel mild tension and hold that position. You should never feel pain.
  • Breathe.Breathe easily through your nose while stretching.
  • Hold and repeat.The best results come from holding the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds and repeating each stretch four times.

Relaxation exercises

Relaxation exercises are not, strictly speaking, a component of most fitness programs. Yet reducing stress enhances quality of life and health. So consider carving out time for activities that promote calm and relaxation, such as mindfulness or meditation. Or simply relax into the rhythmic movements of aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, and swimming.

Stretching, too, releases muscles and promotes a sense of tranquility. And some disciplines like Pilates, yoga, and tai chi meld tension-melting movements with mental focus and meditation. While improving strength, flexibility, and balance, practitioners ease stress, relieve pain, and gain an overall sense of well-being.

How much

Relaxation exercises aren’t a necessary part of your fitness routine, and current guidelines don’t include them. But many people find them worthwhile. If you’re so inclined, aim for a daily dose.

Get started

A variety of activities can leave you feeling more relaxed and peaceful. Some popular options include yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Or try the mindfulness exercise described here to get yourself started.

Mindfulness is a relaxation technique that encourages you to slow a racing mind and embrace each moment as it unfolds. Blended with a simple, repetitive exercise like walking, running, or swimming, it eases stress wonderfully. By fully engaging all of your senses, mindfulness teaches you to focus attention on what is happening in the present and accept it without judgment. This enhances your appreciation of simple everyday experiences. To treat your body and mind to a mindful walk, try the following:

  • Focus on breathing.As you walk, first narrow your concentration by focusing on an aspect of your breathing: the sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, your belly rising as you inhale and falling as you exhale. Try counting from one to five as you inhale, then five to one as you exhale. Do this for a few minutes.
  • Soak in the sights, sounds, and smells around you.Then begin to widen your focus. While you continue breathing in and out in a measured way, open up your senses to become aware of sounds, scents, and sensations. Enjoy the rhythmic thump of each foot hitting the ground and the whisper of clothes rubbing lightly against each other. Feel the touch of a cool or warm breeze against your face, notice shadows cast as you move, or soak in the sun beaming down. Listen for natural sounds even when walking on city blocks: the chirp of crickets, bird songs, rustling leaves, wind blowing. As you tune in to your breathing, your body, and your surroundings, you will notice much beyond these examples.
  • Keep breathing deeply.Throughout your walk, continue to breathe slowly and deeply while remaining fully aware and staying in the moment.
  • Try not to rush.Proceed slowly and with deliberation, engaging your senses fully to savor every sensation. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again. Consider how you feel physically and psychologically before, during, and after your walk.

Designing your program

Now that you know the components of an exercise program, it’s time to put one together. The successful exercise program is one well suited to you. To give yourself the best odds of sticking with exercise, stack the deck in your favor by considering the following points before you start.

  • What’s your current level of fitness?If you’ve been sedentary for a while, it’s unrealistic, not to mention dangerous, to attempt a five-mile run your first time out. Weekend warriors all too often wind up with sore muscles, or worse. An injury is one of the quickest ways to sabotage any exercise program, which ramps up very slowly. Over time, work up to greater levels of intensity as you become more fit. Generally, moderate exercise is safe for all. If you’ve had previous injuries or suffer from a chronic disease, talk to your doctor about your physical limitations and get advice about a well-rounded exercise plan tailored to your needs.
  • What are your exercise goals?Your program should include aerobic and strength training exercises, but you may want to focus on a particular area, depending on your goals. If you want to lose weight, stress calorie-burning aerobic activities. If flexibility and balance are your main concerns, spend more time practicing tai chi or yoga.
  • What do you like to do?If you hate jogging, you won’t be able to maintain a jogging program no matter how good it is for you. On the other hand, if you love to swim or dance you may find it easier to sick with an exercise program that’s built around these activities. Don’t expect to change your likes and dislikes, especially when starting out.
  • What kind of setting works for you?Do you have easy access to a pool? If not, swimming probably isn’t a good choice. Likewise, if you live in a particularly hot or cold climate, certain outdoor activities may not be sustainable. On the other hand, if there’s a network of biking and jogging trails near your office, a routine of lunchtime exercise might be just the ticket. And if your town or city has sidewalks, try walking to do errands: shopping for groceries, mailing a letter, or picking up books at the library.
  • Do you like exercising alone or with others?Many people find the solitude of swimming or running ideal for contemplation. Others enjoy the motivation and support of a group aerobics class or the company of a walking companion.
  • How much money do you want to spend?Weigh expense against other factors, such as the ability to exercise indoors or participate in a particular activity. Many exercise options are available at a range of prices. You can get great workouts for virtually no money by walking, running, or hiking. Check bike shops and sports resale shops for bargains on used equipment. A set of inexpensive home barbells can produce the same results as a health club membership. However, some people feel that the money they spend for gym privileges is a motivating factor. Only you know what works best, though it may take some trial and error to figure it out.
  • When can you fit in exercise?You might like to start the day with exercise—it’s invigorating and you’ll have punched your ticket before embarking on work or projects. Or perhaps you’re just not a morning person. If it’s difficult to devote a large chunk of time to exercise, you could map out 10-minute time slots for aerobic exercise. Or you could work out a combination of long and short bouts that totals up to weekly goals.

Adapted with permission from these special health reports published by Harvard Health Publications: