The Medical Minute: How to get started with physical fitness

A boy and his dad laugh together while playing football on a lawn in the summertime.

The first hints of summer are in the air along with the lure of the outdoors. But maybe after a long winter of hibernating inside you don’t feel ready for it.

May 2, 2024Penn State Health News

You aren’t alone. Only 24% of adults in the U.S. met the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The complex, high-energy world of burpees, hydration systems and interval training might seem inaccessible to the beginner. How do you even start to get in shape?

Breianna Hummer-Bair, a clinical exercise physiologist at Penn State College of Medicine, says your road to physical fitness needn’t be so intimidating. You don’t need pricey equipment or hours and hours of difficult workouts that turn you into a pile of sore muscle and sweat.

Do I even need a gym?

“No, not necessarily,” Hummer-Bair said.

In fact, if you’re just getting started with trying to get fit, you couldn’t have picked a better time of year. Let the outdoors be your gym.

That doesn’t mean reps of curls with boulders or chin ups on tree branches. Nor do you have to join the sweat-soaked runners you might see streaking past on a warm day.

“In general, just being outside is a good thing,” she said. If you have children, go outside and play with them. Take the dog for a walk, or just take your stroll sans pooch.

“We don’t necessarily count them as exercise, all those small things that we do where we’re not necessarily going to a gym and setting aside an hour of time,” she said. “All those little activities add up and count as exercise and physical activity, just not in the way we all typically think about exercise.”

What if you’re just set on joining a gym? What kinds of things should you look for?

“You want to find a place where you’re comfortable,” Hummer-Bair said. “You want to find a place with good cleanliness protocols that you can follow so you don’t get sick and can continue to exercise. But you also need to find a place that has a variety of options for you.”

Don’t lock yourself in, Hummer-Bair said. For example, don’t join a gym that specializes only in yoga if you aren’t sold on the idea of yoga yet. “If you’re just starting you might not know what you’re interested in,” she said.

Look for options with cardiovascular equipment ― treadmills, stair-steppers, elliptical machines and stationary bicycles ― and choices for the kinds of available resistance training you might try, both free-weights and machine.

Some gyms offer classes. You might like the group atmosphere and it could open you up to exercises you never tried before.

Don’t be afraid to try a gym and leave to find another one if you don’t like it. “A lot of times we give up and say, ‘Oh, I’m just not a gym person,’” she said. “Well that’s not necessarily true. Perhaps you just haven’t found the right gym.”

What kinds of questions should you ask the staff?

“I would ask if there are trained fitness professionals there,” Hummer-Bair said. Ask about credentials. Some gym staff members are fitness fanatics. Maybe they’ve obtained a certificate online. Nothing wrong with that ― their experience can come in handy.

Others, like Hummer-Bair, have obtained college degrees in exercise and can draw from a deep well of knowledge to keep you safe and help you achieve the goals you’re looking for using proven, scientific methods. A degree in exercise physiology or kinesiology can definitely be an asset to a newbie. That doesn’t mean you should avoid a gym where the staff has those same kinds of credentials. Instead, you’ll find some staff members have specialized training in specific types of workouts, and those can be helpful, as well, Hummer-Bair said.

Ask about the cleanliness rules. Does the staff regularly clean the machines? Do they require members to wipe down their equipment after they use it?

What kinds of clothing and apparel do you need?

“You don’t need to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe,” Hummer-Bair said.

Start with a comfortable pair of stretchy pants or shorts and a top that will keep you cool. “You want to be comfortable and be able to move,” she said.

Body image is a major reason some people avoid the gym and skip working out altogether. “You want to be covered as much as you need to be so that you’re comfortable,” Hummer-Bair said. “You don’t need clothes that are too loose or too tight so that you feel self-conscious. If you’re not comfortable you’re not going to be able to do the exercises in a way that they’re supposed to be done, safely.”

You’ll need the right kind of footwear for the activity you’ll be doing, and there are tons of options. Here again, Hummer-Bair suggests trial and error. Find a footwear retailer that can work with you on what works best for you based on your activity and physiological needs.

OK, you’ve got your stretchy pants and your sneakers and you found your gym. What are we doing to get fit?

“It doesn’t have to be a lot, especially if you’re just starting out,” Hummer-Bair said. You don’t have to transform yourself into a gym rat ― one of the people you see spending two or three hours straining over weights or sprinting on treadmills.

Starting out slow is key, she said. If you go too fast right out of the gate, you wind up with sore muscles, at best. At worst, you might seriously injure yourself.

But here is where it gets exciting ― you have tons of options. You can bike, hike, run, play frisbee, skip rope, swim or dance. You can do it at home, in the park, on a mountain top, at a friend’s house or at the gym. In an online community, in a class or by yourself.

“There are so many opportunities,” Hummer-Bair said.

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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