The Shape of Things to Come

It's a hopeful time and a dreaded time, but it's time to get committed to an exercise program. Whether you want to lose weight, get into shape, or just want to improve your health, starting a workout regimen can be a confusing prospect.

Should you join a gym? Take tennis lessons? Buy a bicycle? With so many choices, and so little guidance, it makes you just want to sit down and watch a soap opera.

Have no fear. We have a common sense approach to starting and maintaining an exercise program no matter what your fitness level is.

The most important rule when you are just starting out is to pick a physical activity that's easy to do anywhere, anytime.

Treadmills, weight machines, and stationary bikes are great, but they aren't transportable and can be a costly investment. Walking is the perfect choice. You don't need special equipment, just a good pair of walking or running shoes, comfortable clothes, and a safe place to walk.

The second thing to remember is to set realistic, incremental goals. What you want to do is design a schedule that will make a difference, but not be so demanding that you want to give up after the first week. Once you have reached that goal, set another goal that will increase your fitness but is still attainable given the other demands on your time.

Phase One: Exercise at least three days a week for 15-20 minutes of continuous movement at a low to moderate intensity. Then gradually increase the intensity of your exercise in five minute increments. Remember to gradually decrease your pace over the last five minutes. This is enough to derive benefit if you maintain a regular schedule. Make sure you exercise at least three days a week. You lose benefits if you go more than one or two days without exercising.

Phase Two: Start increasing your pace, but not to the degree that you become exhausted and want to quit. You'll want to add five minutes to the duration of exercise. Each additional day or longer period of exercise will increase the benefit.

Phase Three: Target the equivalent of walking 10-12 miles a week. If you walk at a moderate pace, you will go one mile in about 20 minutes. If you walk quite fast, you might do it in 15 minutes. If you figure a 20-minute mile, then 9-12 miles a week would work out to three to four hours of moderate exercise a week — between 30-45 minutes of exercise a day, five to seven days a week. If you prefer to bicycle, figure three miles of cycling equals one mile of walking or jogging.

Everyone — even those who exercise regularly — can get bored with their routine. Try to add new activities into your exercise routine.

Here are a few more ways to keep your interest level up:

Keep an exercise diary. A simple calendar works just fine. Make a note of the minutes your exercise each day. If you have a heart rate monitor, you can keep track of how much longer you are able to maintain your optimum heart rate. Logging these details will be a concrete reminder of your progress.

Exercise with a friend or your spouse. You'll find the time passes quicker, you'll have more fun, and you motivate each other to stick to it. However, remember to continue to exercise even if your workout partner is unable to join you during your exercise routine.

Make exercise a priority. If you wait until the end of the day you might find that there is no time left to exercise. Push through. You're likely to discover the best kept secret of regular exercise: It helps to clear the mind, lift your mood and give you more energy — not less — than if you skipped your workout.

Keep this thought in mind: Some form of exercise is better than none at all. Find ways to work small forms of movement into your daily routine. Park in the back of parking lot and walk the extra distance. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.