Restarting Exercise Habits After Years of a Sedentary Lifestyle

Woman jogging with white towel around back of neck

It happens to the best of us. We have great hopes and expectations for our exercise program, swearing that we will hit the gym daily but ultimately feeling dejected at what we consider a failure of motivation leading back to the couch. If this describes the past several years of your life, you are most certainly not alone. Starting an exercise program after months or even years of sitting on the sidelines can be daunting, mainly because it’s the most challenging right at the beginning when you must push yourself and feel a little pain to get the gain. This might be further complicated by any heart health issues, which may scare you into believing that exercise will cause your heart to overload or somehow shut down.

In truth, however, very little is better for the heart than an appropriate exercise program. Why? First, exercise is a stress reliever. Our lives are often overwhelmed with chronic stress, which can cause significant adverse effects on the heart. Constantly elevated heart rates and the secretion of certain hormones, such as cortisol, make it harder to lose weight and generally hold us back, leading to a vicious downward spiral. Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, keeps the heart strong by forcing it to pump harder, albeit temporarily. Much like growing muscles elsewhere in your body, the heart requires just enough but not too much stimulation to function appropriately and even repair some of the damage that may have been caused by cardiovascular disease. Exercise, particularly strength training (think lifting weights or bodyweight exercises), builds muscle elsewhere, improving caloric burn even at rest. By burning more calories, we may lose more weight, ultimately reducing the strain on the heart.

What Exercises Should I Be Performing?

The goal here is to start slow. You may have dozens or even hundreds of pounds to shed, but they won’t come off overnight, and expecting them to do so will only end in frustration and, ultimately, giving up. Starting slowly with exercises you enjoy can be a significant leg up in developing a more rigorous exercise regimen. It may be as simple as walking with your dog, spouse, or kids. Don’t be upset or embarrassed if you can’t make it too far. Work within the bounds of your physical abilities. Try to get a little further each day and maybe shake up the route by adding a slight incline. Afterward, hydrate so you don’t mistake thirst for hunger and eat extra calories.

Eventually, You’ll Get to the Point Where You Want to Visit the Gym.

Going somewhere to work out can be a great motivator, but you must layer that into a habit or activity you already do. For example, if you drive your kids or grandkids to school, you may want to find a gym nearby. Then make it a habit to go to the gym immediately after drop-off. Even if you sit and watch others work out for a few minutes each day, being in the gym is a good start. Before you know it, you’ll be on those machines as well, at which point it is vital that you take your time and, once again, work within your abilities. What you don’t want to do is overwork your body and injure yourself, sending you right back to square one.

Again, it’s critical that you start slowly. We mention the “machines” above. It may be tempting to go straight for the free weights and grab the heaviest you can lift, but you’re not doing yourself any favors. Instead, start with machines that force you to use good form and grab weights that will slowly get you acclimated to your new habit. There’s plenty of time to show everyone how strong you are.

Which Leads to Intimidation

One primary reason patients lose motivation before they even get started is intimidation at the gym. Comparing yourself to others in the gym is scary and sometimes embarrassing. But remember, while they may be in excellent shape today, they likely weren’t sometime in the past. They had to work diligently over the months and years to achieve the results they are now showing off. Instead of worrying about what they think, give yourself incremental goals to get there, too, eventually.

Can I Start Tomorrow?

This is an essential caveat to everything we mentioned above. No matter how good you feel or how motivated you may be, it’s vital that you do not start a new exercise regimen without consulting your cardiologist, especially if you have a history of heart disease. While there’s no doubt that exercise is good for your heart, we qualify that by saying that proper training is good for your heart. Further, your cardiologist will talk about activities that do not put undue strain on other parts of your body, like your joints. Once again, we look at the whole medical picture before recommending one exercise over another.

If you’re wondering whether it’s too late to start a new exercise program and that you’ve let yourself go too far, you’d be amazed at how quickly the body begins to repair itself, even with the slightest bit of movement and resistance. No matter what it takes to get you up and about, we hope you realize that while not every exercise session will yield incredible gains, every effort you put in now will be returned manyfold later in life. We look forward to seeing you at your next heart health appointment. We’d enjoy discussing your exercise habits and how to tailor them best to manage existing or prevent future cardiovascular concerns.

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