Between work commitments, family obligations and social events, it may seem daunting — and downright impossible — to add anything else to your plate. As a result, people tend to sacrifice the one thing they might enjoy doing the least — exercise.
Perhaps it started with a busy week, and then one week turned into two and then before you knew it, you hadn’t visited the gym in a series of months. Whatever the culprit, there are ways to pull yourself out of a workout rut and create a lasting routine.
Here, health and wellness experts provide five strategies that will get you back on track.
Find your motivation, then talk to a doctor
The thing about fitness is, you have to want it for yourself. Finding the motivation to get back to the gym and get healthy must come from within, says Jonathan Leary, founder of Remedy Place, a social wellness club. And it’s not just about finding the motivation, but about having the right kind of motivation to get in shape. Forget external motivators like looking nice in an outfit and dig a little deeper, Leary says.
“Too often people focus on the common [motivators] in terms of weight, or they have a health scare, or they want it for someone else,” says Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise. “You have to start examining why. Ask, ‘why do I want to make, this switch?’ It really has to be focused on things that are really meaningful for you as the individual and finding your right why.”
Once you figure out why you want to get healthy, your first stop shouldn’t be at the gym. Rather, it should be at your doctor’s office, according to Karen Litzy, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.
“It’s a good idea to see your physician or your physical therapist before going back to the gym,” she says. Your doctor will likely perform a quick evaluation of where you’re at in terms of strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health, she adds. In doing so, a doctor can ensure you’re healthy enough for physical activity and can guide you on how to remain safe at the gym.
“It’s a reassurance that everything is okay,” she says. “Getting that physical evaluation and allowing people to feel strong in their bodies is the first step.”
Take your time getting back into a routine
Just a short amount of time off from the gym can undo some of the health gains you’ve made, according to Bryant.
“A week of full inactivity is going to cause some detriment in your physical performance,” he says. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, for example, found that taking a break from physical activity for just two weeks can result in a rather substantial reduction of muscle strength and mass — and it can take even longer to gain it back.
In other words, if you were diligent about your routine a month or two ago, don’t expect to hop back into it right away like nothing has changed. Instead, health professionals suggest taking it one step at a time. “When reentering the gym, remember the point is to fix the body, not break it,” says Leary. “Really analyze each type of workout because some of them could increase your risk for injury.”
It’s about taking a metered approach, experts suggest, starting with just a few minutes a day of cardio, then working up to longer workouts, incorporating weights and even hiring a health coach or personal trainer. Ultimately, a healthy adult should be working their way toward 150 minutes of exercise a week, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Don’t change everything at once
When getting back into a fitness routine, you may be tempted to overhaul your eating habits, too. Oftentimes, people tend to fixate on making too many changes at once, says Bryant. Instead, “focus on one thing at a time,” he says. “Focus on just trying to re-establish an activity habit. The reason why I tell people to focus on how they feel is that too often people are focused on the wrong metric.”
Just like those metered workouts, health professionals suggest slowly changing your nutrition patterns over time so you don’t feel overwhelmed and then give up out of frustration. But if you do want to make some changes to your diet, Leary says to start adding more water to your daily routine to ensure you’re hydrated as a first step.
“The more active you are, the more you sweat,” he says, so replenishing your water levels will ensure your body isn’t depleted of key minerals, and in turn, can help you recover faster.
Take a holistic approach to your workouts
Rather than logging a certain number of miles and then calling it a day, it’s crucial to start thinking about your workouts holistically — that includes your cool down, stretching and recovery, too, experts say.
“You want to be functional and pain-free,” Leary says. “Unless you are a professional athlete who has to be strong and powerful, your number one focus should be mobility and flexibility.”
A recovery routine is vital, says Leary. That should include daily stretching and adequate cool down time after workouts. And, if you can, try to incorporate regular massages or an occasional visit to a physical therapist to ensure every part of your body is working just the way it should, he adds. These tactics will help mitigate injury risk, so you won’t have to take weeks off from your workout routine again.
Redefine what exercise means
Perhaps the best news of all: you don’t necessarily have to join a gym or spend hours a day running outside to get a good workout. Rather, you can do it all in the comfort of your own home.
“Let’s say your schedule is packed, and you’ve got family responsibilities. Just find something you can do for five or 10 minutes,” says Bryant. “That’ll help reduce the amount of workout decline that you may experience.”
There are simple ways to start thinking outside the box when it comes to workouts, according to Bryant.
“Look into how you can incorporate more activity into your normal day,” he says, suggesting to avoid taking elevators and escalators when possible, and trying to log as many steps as you can each day. It could also be as simple as getting up and walking to a coworker’s desk to chat instead of sending them an email, or taking a five-minute break to stretch your legs, he adds.
“Think in terms of incorporating activity into your family life too,” Bryant suggests, whether that’s doing squats with your relatives during the commercials of television shows, taking family walks, or playing soccer with your kids rather than sitting on the sidelines. “Try to make moving your new mission,” he says.