How to start working out again after it’s been a while

It’s never too late for a restart. Follow these 5 easy steps to help build — and maintain — a healthy new habit.

Elizabeth Millard
Mature woman doing abdominal exercises

Here’s a little secret many avid athletes, trainers, coaches and fitness instructors want everyone to know: It’s completely normal, if not common, for exercise routines to lapse. 

We’re all human, says Kate Ayoub, D.P.T., a doctor of physical therapy and health coach with Own Your Movement in Washington, D.C. Injuries happen, obligations shift, schedules change, motivation dips — you name it, says Ayoub. It can be easy for exercise to start inching down your to-do list until it’s in the “optional” category — and maybe even off your list altogether. 

If that’s been your experience, that’s OK. There are mind and body benefits to downshifting from time to time. But with all the advantages regular physical activity offers older adults, it may be time to bump workouts back up to priority status. These are just a few of the many pros of exercise, according to the American Heart Association (AHA): 

  • Happier mood 
  • Better strength and stamina 
  • Better overall mobility 
  • Lower risk of cardiovascular issues 
  • Better weight control 
  • Prevention of bone loss 

Ready to get started? Here are 5 tips to put into place for your first month back and beyond. Safety first: Check with your provider before beginning any new exercise routine. 

Lady lifting light weights and happy with life
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Step #1: Let go of the past 

Maybe you used to exercise 4 or 5 days a week, with group classes and strength training in the mix. Or maybe you took regular long runs, swims or bike rides. You may have even been a star outfielder or captain of the tennis team. 

Whatever your former “normal” was, it’s time to reset by letting it go, says Ayoub. While it’s certainly not impossible to get back to where you were before, it’s also not helpful to focus on what you can’t do now compared to before. 

“Starting a new fitness routine from a place of disappointment is common, but it also makes you more at risk of feeling too frustrated to continue,” she says. “See this as a fresh starting point instead.”

Try this: Brainstorm a handful of entirely new fitness activities you’d like to try. Maybe you’ve been curious about the cardio drumming class you saw listed at the community center. Or you have always wanted to see if the hype about rowing machines is deserved. Put these activities on your exercise bucket list and embrace your new “beginner” status.   

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A free local gym membership, access to thousands of Fitbit® Premium workout videos, an online brain health program from AARP® Staying Sharp® — Renew Active has something for everyone at every fitness level. Best of all, it’s included with most UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plans. Sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Renew Active to get started and access your confirmation code. Not a member? Learn more here.  

Step #2: Start with a walk 

Walking is the ideal activity to jump-start an exercise habit, says personal trainer Kourtney Thomas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. It’s the first activity she recommends to anyone who’s new to exercise or coming back after a long break.  

A regular walking routine helps people with high blood pressure and diabetes better manage their conditions, according to the AHA. In fact, older adults who increase the number of steps they take every day are at the same time decreasing their risk of heart attack and stroke.   

“Even if you begin with just 10 to 15 minutes per day, it can make a big difference in terms of getting you moving and in the habit of exercise,” says Thomas.

Try this: If possible, choose a route that’s less familiar. When there’s more novelty, you’re likely to walk for longer than you planned, explains Thomas. “Even better: Break up your day with two or three short walks.” 

To get the most out of your walks, take note of these tips that help prevent injuries here.

Step #3: Set the bar low 

One of the best ways to ramp up a workout habit is to set small goals. Take a super-quick 5-minute walk, for example. Or just do 1 yoga pose or 5 biceps curls holding a single can of beans. 

While these abbreviated bursts of exercise may feel silly at first, your brain registers each of them as a win. Here’s why: You’ve set a goal, met it and maybe even exceeded it. Because mindset is so important when you’re going back to working out, says Thomas, think of this as training your mind to celebrate your successes and set you up for more.   

This is a strategy Harvard University researcher and author Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., calls the “progress principle.” This means even extremely small steps forward are important because it keeps you heading in the right direction. In the same way that you’re conditioning your muscles to get stronger, you’ll be priming your brain to crave those wins. 

Try this: Choose a 10-minute online workout video instead of one that runs a full hour. Pick a day this week to press play and follow along. Mark that day in your calendar and pat yourself on the back when the 10 minutes is up. Motivated to try the workout again later in the week? Bonus points! But remember the real win was taking that small first step. 

Find a new favorite online workout  

Need a few fun workouts to try? Renew by UnitedHealthcare has dozens of options for all fitness levels — everything from chair workouts to routines that help build strength and improve balance. To find them, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Workout Videos in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here.  

Step #4: Progress wisely 

Once you’re in the habit of exercising, you can begin progressing to more challenging exercises. You can do this in a few ways: 

  • Add time — a 20-minute yoga session instead of 10 minutes 
  • Add distance — take 2 laps around the block instead of 1 
  • Add intensity — do 10 biceps curls with that can of beans instead of 5, or swap the can for a 2-pound dumbbell or a resistance band 

“You’ll know it’s time to up your game when something that felt moderately challenging before now seems easy,” says Ayoub. 

That said, it’s important to build in recovery time. This means listening to your body and factoring in time for rest. Muscle soreness is normal for 12 to 24 hours after a workout. But Dr. Ayoub says if you’re still sore 3 days later or if you’re sore to the point that it is limiting your ability to go about your day, it’s time to dial it back down. 

“It can be exciting when you’re ready to build intensity, but you don’t want to overdo it and set yourself up for an injury,” she says.  

Try this: While everyone is different, Ayoub says that a safe weekly workout schedule for older adults to follow might look something like this: 

  • Every other day, take a brisk walk, where the goal is to get your heart rate up while still being able to hold a conversation.  
  • On the “off” days, continue to lace up, but focus more on enjoying the scenery and fresh air. 
  • Twice a week, do a few strength-training exercises. You can find four good beginner-friendly moves here.
  • Every day, make time for balance training. Yoga and tai chi count. Or you can try one of the “9 Easy Exercises to Help You Avoid Falls” here.

“Consistency is crucial,” says Ayoub. “Setting a schedule makes your workouts automatic after a while, and that’s just what you want.” 

Step #5: Think long-term — and lots of fun 

Now that you’re in a groove, it’s time to make your new fitness habit stick. The way to do this, Ayoub says, is by setting both short-term and long-term goals. Take a moment to think about how you want to progress during the next 6 months.

Grab a notebook and a calendar. In the notebook, list your goals. Be both specific and granular: In 2 weeks I want to be able to walk the 6 blocks to Maria’s house in 25 minutes. In the calendar, write down a daily action step that will help you hit your target: Monday, time yourself walking one block. Tuesday, match that time for one block; keep walking for one more half block before turning around. And so on. 

That’s an example of a short-term goal. Ayoub says it’s also important to focus on the future. What more do you want to do with your newfound fitness habit? Maybe you want to set your sights on walking or running a virtual 5K in 6 months, for example. Or build up enough shoulder strength and mobility to push off in a kayak for a fun group outing in the fall.  

That mix of goals can help keep you motivated on days when you’re just not feeling it, Ayoub says. Plus, you don’t want to underestimate the power — and pleasure — in marking off every accomplishment with a big red check mark. 

Try this: Keep finding activities that are enjoyable and make you feel like moving more. Remember back to Step #1, these activities may be different than what you used to love. And that’s totally OK. In fact, Ayoub and Thomas both recommend branching out and trying new adventures. The playbook you used to follow is ready to be retired. 

Stay Motivated With Renew by UnitedHealthcare®  

When you want to kick-start a new exercise habit, put Renew’s health and wellness tools to work for you. Every day you can log in to try a fun fitness activity or get inspiration from hundreds of different articles and videos. Find it all in the Health & Wellness section of your plan website. Not a member? Learn more here.  

 

Participation in the Renew Active™ program is voluntary. Consult your doctor prior to beginning an exercise program or making changes to your lifestyle or health care routine. Renew Active includes standard fitness membership. Equipment, classes, personalized fitness plans, and events may vary by location. Certain services, classes and events are provided by affiliates of UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or other third parties not affiliated with UnitedHealthcare. Participation in AARP® Staying Sharp® and the Fitbit® Community for Renew Active is subject to your acceptance of their respective terms and policies. UnitedHealthcare is not responsible for the services or information provided through third parties. The information provided by these services is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a doctor. The Renew Active program varies by plan/area.