Safely Easing Back Into Fitness

Daily exercise is important for maintaining a healthy heart. Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that daily exercise helps with lowering blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight and quitting smoking — all important factors for lowering your risk of heart disease. On top of that, a fitness routine strengthens your muscles, meaning your heart doesn't need to work as hard to pump blood.

That being said, if you've been out of the workout world for a while, it's important to ease back into your routine with safe exercises. While you may feel a sudden burst of motivation, it's important to know your limits instead of picking up where you left off. Too much exercise too quickly can lead to burnout, injury and other effects that can keep you from living your best life.

You can get back into your daily exercises without hurting yourself if you ramp it up slowly and listen to your body. These tips can help you create a safe and sustainable exercise routine.

1. Understand the Risks

A growing issue known as rhabdomyolysis — the death of muscle fibers from injury and the release of those fibers into the bloodstream — is common among people who, even if healthy, throw themselves into new exercise routines too quickly. Rhabdomyolysis can cause severe muscle pain and brown urine.

Dr. Todd S. Cutler, a hospitalist and writer of a recent rhabdomyolysis study, said to NBC News, "Essentially, the way that people seem to get exercise-related rhabdomyolysis tends to be when they're doing first-time activities, especially high-intensity activities, like spinning or multi-modality exercises like CrossFit. The type of patients that we see are pretty young, and in pretty good health."

A 2016 article in the BC Medical Journal (BCMJ) noted that intense exercise can increase short-term risk of muscle injury and larger health concerns such as heart attack, especially if you've had a previous bout of inactivity.

So even with youth and good health on your side, working out strenuously can do more harm than good if it's not your recent norm.

2. Speak with Your Doctor

You should always speak with your doctor before starting a fitness routine, especially if you have any health conditions. Your doctor can identify any limitations you should be aware of and suggest how to adjust for them in your workouts. Remember, the goal is to incorporate safe exercises that help you live better, not cause injury.

Additionally, your doctor can take measurements that can help you track your progress toward better fitness, such as body mass index (BMI), resting heart rate and cardiorespiratory fitness.

3. Set Benchmarks and Goals

Researchers in the BCMJ article also found that incrementally increasing the time and intensity of your workout helps reduce your risk of chronic disease and early death. You can do this by setting smaller benchmarks.

Recording benchmarks and working toward step goals holds you accountable and helps you notice small progress toward a larger goal, which can help you keep the "slow and steady" mindset.

Start with some current stats. The Mayo Clinic suggests considering your goals, such as weight loss or flexibility, and answering some of the following questions:

  • What's your BMI? (Online calculators can help you determine this measurement based on your height and weight.)
  • How long does it take you to walk or jog a mile?
  • What's your pulse rate after walking one mile?
  • How far can you reach forward when sitting on the floor with your legs outstretched?
  • What is the circumference of your waist?

You can use the answers as your fitness starting point. Sometimes it can seem hard to see progress, especially when you're easing into exercise safely and slowly, so it's good to take a variety of measures that you can compare your performance to.

4. Increase in Doses

Everyone has their own "exercise prescription," especially those who haven't worked out for a few weeks or longer. The BCMJ study found that for many participants, getting less than half of the weekly recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise was still enough to reap major heart health benefits.

The takeaway? Don't be concerned about starting slow — it's helping your health more than you may think.

5. Remember to Stretch

According to Harvard Health Publishing, flexibility is essential to moving safely and with ease, and if you haven't stretched or exercised in a while, you'll need to do some work to get that flexibility back. Your muscles shorten and stiffen when you stop stretching them, which means jumping right into a workout could lead to injury.

To stretch on your own, start with a nice warmup such as low-intensity walking or biking to ensure you're not stretching cold muscles. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds, or up to 60 seconds in tighter areas. Resist the urge to bounce, which can tear muscles. If something hurts, ease up a bit, then hold.

Yoga is a great way to make stretching routine, especially as it comes in so many styles and intensities.

6. Walk to Better Heart Health

If you're unsure where to begin as you ease back into fitness, start with some brisk walking one to two hours per week (or 15 to 20 minutes per day). Even with this you'll begin to see boosts in your heart health and a lowered risk of stroke and diabetes.

It's great that you're getting back into a fitness routine — especially if you want to keep heart disease at bay and help your heart muscle function at its best. To really reap the rewards of exercise, though, it's important to start small so you don't hurt yourself or burn out.