1. Learn what “build slowly” means
Be realistic about your abilities. Experts say to progress gradually, but most of us don’t know how to translate that into real-life terms–especially those who used to be active but have gotten out of the habit. “Formerly fit people are surprised and frustrated when they find themselves winded after a walk around the park,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
If you haven’t worked out in years, start with a manageable goal, like 20 minutes of walking or yoga twice a week for 2 weeks. When you’re ready to progress, either bump your number of workouts to 3 a week or increase their length to 25 or 30 minutes–but don’t try both at the same time. Taking on too much too soon can leave you achy and discouraged; that’s why experts recommend you change only one thing at a time–the frequency, duration, or intensity of your workouts.
If your new cardio workout still leaves you gasping for air, don’t be afraid to slow your pace–you should be slightly breathless but able to talk. You’ll be more likely to follow your program if you exercise at a comfortable level, according to White’s research. Strength-training will get easier, too. A new study from Ohio University found that muscles adapt to resistance exercises after a mere 2 weeks.
2. Keep an activity log
Hands down, lack of time is the number one reason we struggle to keep exercising. Yet studies find we may have more time than we think. Women ages 45 to 70 spend an average of 28 hours a week in sedentary activities outside of their jobs, such as reading and Web surfing, according to a University of Oklahoma study–ample time to find at least 2 1/2 hours a week for exercise. Keep a log of everything you do for 3 days, suggests Jennifer White, PhD, an assistant professor of fitness and wellness at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Then find ways to sneak in activity. Time in front of the TV can double as a stretching session, while a cell phone headset allows you to power walk while you’re on hold with the credit card company.
3. Prepare for post-workout hunger
Exercise can boost metabolism for a few hours, but burning more calories can increase your appetite. To avoid the munchies after exercising (and eating back the calories you just burned), try to schedule workouts so that you have a meal within an hour afterward. Or save part of an earlier meal to eat during that time, says Fernstrom. Snacks combining carbohydrates and protein–like a fig bar and fat-free milk, or cantaloupe and yogurt–are best to refuel muscles and keep you from feeling ravenous later on. If you still feel hungry, wait 10 to 15 minutes before eating more to make sure you’re physically, not just mentally, hungry. Distract yourself while you wait: Keep your hands occupied by cleaning out a drawer or giving yourself a manicure.
4. Be alert to prime drop-out time
About half of new exercisers quit in the first few months, research has found. But support, either one-on-one or in a group, can keep your momentum going. “Getting help specific to your particular issues is key,” says Fernstrom. If you struggle with exercise, try finding (or even forming) a walking group at work or at your local Y. If you’re goal-focused, signing up for an event, like walking a half or full marathon, can be the carrot you need to stay on track.
5. Take breaks
Missed a workout? Don’t worry: Your waistline won’t notice. Brown University scientists found that people on a 14-week weight loss program who took occasional breaks from working out lost an average of 7 pounds–about the same amount as those who never missed a day. “Just pick up again as soon as you can,” says Fernstrom. In the long run, it’s the habit, not the individual days that matter. For help, sign up for a weekly e-mail health newsletter: People who did exercised 14% more and ate better than those who didn’t get inbox reminders, reports a University of Alberta study. (To join our free Best of Prevention newsletter, which covers health, weight loss, and fitness three times a week, go to prevention.com/newsletters.)
6. Splurge–then get up and move
One date with a pint (or even two) of ice cream won’t doom your weight loss unless you let guilt keep you off track. In fact, French researchers discovered that obese exercisers who bicycled for 45 minutes 3 hours after a high-fat meal metabolized more stored belly fat than those who cycled on an empty stomach. Although bingeing on cookies before your next workout obviously won’t help you slim down, the study is a good reminder that not all is lost when you stray from your diet–in fact, your body may even kick it up a gear to help with damage control. Instead of giving up when a celebratory dinner with friends sends your calorie count through the roof, suggest a postmeal stroll or dancing. The party moves away from the table, and the evening can continue with a fun activity that helps you toward your weight loss goal.
7. Put the treadmill in a pretty room
If a workout bores you, don’t do it. “Research shows that if you enjoy an exercise, you’ll stay with it, so keep trying activities until you find something you like,” suggests White. Or jazz up a ho-hum workout with music or audiobooks. Just don’t try to exercise in some dark, dreary corner of the house. “So many women make the mistake of consigning the treadmill to the basement,” White says. You’ll be more likely to use exercise equipment if it’s in a pleasant space with good light and in easy reach of the radio and TV, like the family room. It’s worth investing in a home exercise space that’s both functional and attractive, whether by spending a little extra on a treadmill you won’t mind showing off or buying pretty baskets to store your workout DVDs and dumbbells.