Ramping Up Your Exercise Routine Safely

If you’re taking advantage of extra free time during the Coronavirus pandemic to get more exercise, good on you. It’s no secret that most Americans fall behind on meeting the Centers for Disease Control recommendations for physical activity, and now’s a good a time as any to change your habits. Just be mindful of a few simple strategies to reinforce your good intentions.

Are you ready to go? For many, there’s no medical reason not to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity like walking, swimming, or biking each week. * At a minimum, that translates to 5 30-minute walks a week.

If you’ve been sedentary and have concerns about your health or have a medical condition, talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program. To learn more about determining your readiness to start, see the questionnaire at the end of this article.

Start small, increase gradually. When you’re eager to make progress it’s easy to overdo it before your body is ready – especially on a sunny, warm spring day. This goes for both pace and distance.

You might start with this: Walk easy for 5 to 10 minutes. Pick up your pace to one you can hold for another 5 to 10 minutes. Then walk easy for 5 minutes to cool down. Gradually build on this.  Add 10% more time each week to your total time from the previous week, until you’re exercising for 30 to 60 on most days.

Keep a journal. It’s easier to know how much distance or time you can add safely when you have last week’s numbers on paper. Over time, reading back over your log can motivate you to stick with it by showing you how far you’ve come.

Spread out your minutes. It’s better for your body (and mind) to get activity on more days, so plan ahead to avoid getting to Friday and needing to cram your 150 minutes into two days.You can even break up one day’s activity into chunks – like 2 15-minute or 3 10-minute walks instead of 1 30-minute walk – if you find that more convenient or more appealing.

Build in variety. Some people are perfectly happy to only run or only walk. But many quickly get bored with one type of exercise – and boredom leads to drop out. To prevent this, mix in different activities – swimming, yoga, kickboxing, biking, etc. – once or twice a week. The variety also helps you avoid overusing the same muscles or joints. If you’re happy simply running or walking, add variety by taking different routes and getting on trails once or more a week.

Check in with yourself. You won’t get fitter without a bit of a challenge, but rest is important, too. Pay attention to how your body is feeling, during and after exercise. During exercise, stop if you feel pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and nausea, and check in with your doctor. Recording how you feel in your activity journal each day can help you make sure you’re approaching progress gradually and continuing to feel good as you go.  

Give yourself a gauge. Progress is a great motivator. But how do you know you’re getting fitter? Do one of these simple fitness tests, record your results, then remeasure six weeks later:

  • 1-mile test: Walk or run 1 mile. Pick a pace you can maintain comfortably. The idea is to get a baseline, not record a personal best.
    • Push-up test: See how many traditional or modified (knees down) push-ups you can do. Again, it’s not competition, you’re looking for a starting place to build from.

*Note: The CDC also endorses an alternate approach of 75 to 150 minutes/week of vigorous aerobic activity, and recommends adults also include muscle-strengthening twice a week.


Are you ready to exercise?

This questionnaire from the American College of Sport Medicine can help you get the right answer.

  • Has your doctor ever said you have a heart condition or you should participate in physical activity only as recommended by a doctor?
  • Do you feel pain in your chest during physical activity?
  • In the past month, have you had chest pain when you were not doing physical activity?
  • Do you lose your balance from dizziness? Do you ever lose consciousness?
  • Do you have a bone or joint problem that could be made worse by a change in your physical activity?
  • Is your doctor currently prescribing you drugs for blood pressure or a heart condition?
  • Do you know of any reason you should not participate in physical activity?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, if you are over 40 years of age and have been inactive, or if you are concerned about your health, consult a physician before taking a fitness test or substantially increasing your physical activity. If you answered no to each question, then it’s likely that you can safely begin exercising.