Building fitness can be tricky, especially if you’re just starting out. Here are six ways to make sure you get the most out of your new exercise routine.

This article has been adapted from a piece by Alice Ball and Giulia Basana in the Autumn 2021 issue of Optimum Nutrition magazine.

Regular exercise is paramount for good health and you can start noticing benefits early on in your fitness journey.

But if you’re unsure how to start, going gung-ho and suddenly increasing your activity can be a swift route to injury.

Because of this, it’s important to take a few precautions.

1. Check your health

If you’ve been leading a largely sedentary life, it’s sensible to consult your GP for a physical assessment before starting anything new; especially if you are planning to undertake a strenuous or vigorous activity such as running or cold water swimming.

Having a pre-existing medical condition may make some sports and activities more challenging, so it is recommended to seek medical advice on which exercises are safe for you.

“An early check-up can detect any health problems or conditions that could potentially put you at risk of injury during exercise, and can help you assess your fitness level,” says personal trainer Arleta Waszczynska.

2. Slowly does it

According to Waszczynska, incremental progression is a key part of getting fitter safely.

“You don’t want your first run to be a marathon. You need to gradually build up your fitness level so you can eventually get to your goal. This takes time and commitment.”

A programme such as the NHS’s Couch to 5K is a good example of safe, incremental progression for those who want to get into running or just generally improve their fitness.

The nine-week programme begins by alternating running with walking for 20 minutes, before building up to managing 30 minutes of continuous running.

This is designed to gradually build up running ability, without sustaining injuries.

But if this still seems too ambitious, strip it right back; begin with a 10-minute walk three times a week, and build up from there.

“Exercise progression has to be done right,” says Waszczynska. “Start with the basics, but don’t get too comfortable: as soon as it gets easy, it’s time to move up.”

3. Mastering technique

Movement competency is another key pillar of fitness, says Waszczynska.

This is the ability to perform fundamental movement patterns like squatting, deadlifting and lunging.

The end goal is not physical fitness, but establishing a baseline level of quality movement.

“Being able to perform an exercise correctly and having good form not only makes training safer, but also more efficient, less laborious and more enjoyable,” says Waszczynska.

“People with poor or limited movement competency are likely to experience performance related limitations and an increased risk of injury.”

One study conducted on male rugby players, for example, found a link between players’ movement competency and injury outcomes.

Players who had poorer movement competency during screening were more likely to become injured than those who had better technique.

To improve movement competency, focus on mobility and stability drills, says Waszczynska.

These are exercises that allow joints to move through a range of motions without pain and stiffness whilst strengthening the joints, muscles, and tendons.

Once you have mastered technique, especially for strength-based activities, you can begin adding in light weights or repetitions.

4. Rest up

The next stop on the way to getting fitter is recovery.

“You don’t build muscles or get stronger during the workout,” Waszczynska says. “It’s what comes after.”

During a training session the body is under physical and mental stress; intense exercise causes micro trauma in the muscle tissues and challenges the nervous system.

It’s during the recovery period that the muscle tissues repair and neuromuscular adaptations take place.

Lack of adequate rest will cause further breakdown of the muscle tissue, which will prevent muscle growth.

“If you’re into muscle building for instance, and you’re in the gym almost every day, it would be a good idea to rotate the exercise selections, type of training or intensities so that you don’t stress the same muscle group every day,” says Waszczynska.

Mobility exercises, walking, low intensity cardio (e.g. gentle swimming) and yoga are all great recovery practices.

Choose the ones that you enjoy and help you to relax most.

5. Cross training

Not just the huge machines at the gym, cross training simply means pairing workouts that will support each other; for example, adding in a swim session between a couple of runs, or a yoga class among HIIT (high-intensity interval training).

Strength or resistance training, for instance, is beneficial for pretty much any time of physical activity.

“Strength training improves the ability to combat fatigue and helps athletes become more efficient and more robust,” says Waszczynska.

"Take running for example: cardio and endurance sessions will make up for most of the training programme.

“However, scheduling some time for a weekly mobility, stability, activation and strength workout can help prevent common injuries and improve the efficiency and power of running.”

6. The role of nutrition

Finally — or perhaps first — nutrition is important.

“A healthy and balanced diet fuels your workouts and helps to repair the body afterwards,” says Waszczynska.

“When it comes to workout nutrition, it might differ depending on fitness goals.”

For most people, she says, balanced meals made up of lean protein, vegetables and fruits, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates two hours before and within two hours of finishing the workout will provide enough fuel to sustain regular physical activity.

“Just make sure you are consistent with your healthy eating and resting habits.”

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