Getting back into physical shape is a lot like taking a vintage car out of the garage: Before hitting the open road with a new exercise regimen, it’s best to check the oil, add some air to the tires, and drive it around the block a few times.
But people aren’t cars, and the human equivalent of a flat tire can be a very serious injury if not worse.
Being conscientious about your own health — and properly prepared to exert yourself for the first time in months or even years — can make the difference between feeling great and getting hurt.
Considerable spoke to trainers and physiologists to compile a list of important points to keep in mind before steering to the gym.
1. Get clearance from a doctor
Before starting a new exercise regimen, make time with a physician to ensure all systems are go.
Krissi Williford, exercise physiologist and personal trainer in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, recommends anyone over 60 get a physical before they return to the gym to ensure they haven’t developed any new health issues.
According to Williford, “A general physician or internist can do the physical but it is best to see someone you have history with if possible. A doctor you have history with will know your background personally and medically which will allow them to advise on a higher level.”
This is especially important if you have any pre-existing conditions, blood pressure concerns, arthritis, diabetes or any number of health issues that must be accounted for when determining a new exercise routine.
2. Discuss your goals
Recent research has demonstrated that any modest increase in physical activity — at any age — will benefit your health and longevity. Once you’ve heard any caveats from your doctor, it’s up to you to explain what exactly you’re hoping to accomplish.
Whether you’re speaking with your primary-care doctor, getting tests done with a cardiologist, or devising a plan with a personal trainer, you need to have a clear idea of why you want to get back in shape, and to what end.
Your personal goals can shape the type of feedback you get.
Williford believes the more focused your agenda the better: “Be specific on what your exercise goals are so your doctor gets an idea of the load you will be placing on your body. If you ask a generic question like, ‘How do I start?’ the answer will be, ‘Walk for 10 minutes a day’ or something general. So be specific.”
Are you hoping to lose weight? Is there a specific event you are training for? Do you simply want to get more exercise? Knowing exactly what you want to accomplish will not only help you, it will help the people around you understand your motivations so they can offer the most helpful encouragement and advice.
3. Start slowly
Do your body a favor, and ease into whatever regimen you start.
Jaime Hickey, certified personal trainer and founder of Truism Fitness, describes a familiar gym scenario: “Too many times I’ve seen older clients come in thinking that they’re going to start off where they were in their 20s and 30s. If you haven’t been active in a while than you need to take it slow and gradually build back up to your max.”
If you’re running, be prepared to run more slowly and for a shorter distance. If you’re lifting weights start out with fewer reps bearing less weight.
Adds Hickey: “Don’t be ashamed to just use the barbell or curl bar with no weights on it. I’ve even had people start off with PVC pipes just to get the movement down before we start using any kind of weight.”
4. Warm up and cool down
In addition to taking your time getting back in the workout flow, make sure you properly warm up and cool down before and after any exercise session.
According to Hickey, “You do this by warming up for 10 minutes [with light aerobic exercise] and then stretching the muscle that you’re going to use that day for another 5 or 10 minutes. Thus will greatly help reduce injuries and help you not be as sore the next day.”
5. Listen to your body
Once you’re back into a workout routine, be attentive to how you are reacting physically.
As Williford puts it: “Listening to and paying attention to your body and how you feel before, during, and after exercise is a big component of enjoying exercise and being able to make adjustments.”
Just because your body is being pushed beyond what it’s used to doesn’t mean it has to be an awful time. Williford reminds people that exercise “should be enjoyable to some degree and not make you miserable all the time.”
If your body is yelling at you to stop, you should stop, reflect on what you can change to improve the experience, and adjust accordingly.
Hickey concurs: “Exercise is intended to make you healthier and feel better physically and mentally, not the opposite.”
So go ahead: Get the car a tune-up and take it out for a spin. You could be cruising in the fast lane before you know it.