How to Start Working Out: 6 Steps to Build Exercise Habits

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Lauren Panoff

Published 04/17/2024

Consult Richard Simmons, Jillian Michaels, a dietitian or the latest scientific research, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Exercise is important. Knowing this fact is one thing, but knowing how to start working out is another.

Moving and challenging your body every day (or at least most days) is associated with better mental well-being, more successful weight management and a lower risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Overall, exercise helps you live healthier for longer.

Wondering how to get into working out? Making intentional movement part of your daily routine is a great way to increase your fitness. We’re covering what this can look like and how to start a workout routine safely.

When making any major lifestyle change, being safe is crucial to setting yourself up for success. Like when you’re building something, the saying goes, “Measure twice, cut once.” In other words, solid prep work is vital before you dive in.

If you’re unsure how to start working out, the first thing to do is speak with a healthcare provider to make sure it’s safe based on your current health and needs.

If you have any preexisting medical conditions, take certain medications, recently had surgery, are pregnant or recently gave birth, it’s particularly important to be medically cleared for physical activity. Your healthcare provider might have safety guidelines to follow or suggest specific types of exercise.

Once you get the green light, here are a few pointers on how to exercise safely:

  • Fuel yourself properly before and after. Eat a balanced meal or healthy snack before exercising to avoid fatigue and low blood sugar, and refuel afterward with high-quality nutrients.

  • Warm up. Warming up your muscles with stretches and light movements helps loosen your body up to prep for more strenuous movements and prevent injury.

  • Hydrate. Dehydration is never good, but especially when exercising and sweating. So don’t forget to bring water to your workout.

  • Listen to your body. Try being in tune with what your body tells you about what kind of exercise feels good each day and how hard to go. It’s okay to do shorter or lower-intensity workouts some days.

  • Cool down. Bring your heart rate back down after a workout by stretching, walking and sipping water.

  • Rest. Give your body a chance to recover regularly with intentionally lighter workout days or rest days.

Find actionable steps and tips for how to start working out below.

When creating your exercise plan, we recommend:

  • Setting clear goals

  • Choosing activities you actually enjoy

  • Starting slow and gradually building up

  • Being consistent

  • Reframing excuses and rethinking obstacles

  • Celebrating progress

Here’s how to start working out for beginners in six steps.

1. Set Clear Goals

When it comes to physical health, you might find yourself wandering aimlessly sometimes. (Hopefully only metaphorically — be safe out there!)

When setting a fitness goal, however, having clear goals is essential. Otherwise, you may as well be a hamster on a wheel — or a recumbent bike — just spinning around with no real motivation or milestone to reach.

Committing to a daily exercise routine is much harder when you don’t have a target. So, before getting started, get really clear about what you’re working toward.

Are you hoping to lose 20 pounds or drop three inches from your waistline? Do you want to put on muscle? Is it improved endurance and grit you’re after? Maybe it’s a combination of things. Write them down and put them somewhere you can be reminded every day.

Once you have a big goal in mind, divide it into smaller goals or milestones to help you reach it. This helps with motivation and consistency.

For example, if you registered for a 5K race six months from now but haven’t run since grade school PE class, start with something smaller, like being able to run without walking for 60 seconds.

Eventually, this goal might shift to running one mile or jogging for 20 minutes without stopping. And ultimately, you could find yourself doing three miles, no problem.

Finally, make realistic goals. If you’ve never lifted weights before, don’t set out to do a 300-pound squat by next week.

2. Choose Activities You Actually Enjoy

Working out is excellent for your mental, physical and emotional health — absolutely. But it should also be something you enjoy spending time doing (at least most days).

What’s enjoyable for one person may not be for another — and that’s okay! So consider movements you’d actually like to engage in or new things you want to try. Think outside of the (gym) box — plenty of options can be simple workouts for beginners.

For instance, some of these types of exercises might strike your fancy:

  • Jogging or walking the dog

  • Playing a sport, like tennis, soccer, pickleball or basketball

  • Yoga, pilates or barre

  • Strength training (with resistance bands, dumbbells, weight training machines or your own body weight)

  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

  • Biking or indoor cycling

  • Joining an aerobic group fitness class

Especially on days when you’re not feeling very motivated, it can be helpful to make your workouts a social event. Invite a friend to run with you, use a buddy pass for someone at the gym or sign up for a group class.

3. Start Slow and Gradually Build Up

The best piece of advice for pretty much anything is to start where we are. Don’t try to jump the gun and thrust yourself into an uncomfortable and potentially disappointing (or injury-prone) scenario.

Even when starting a very basic exercise routine, listen to your body. It’ll tell you if you’re doing something too intense or demanding. That burning pain in your hamstring? Yeah, maybe find a low-impact exercise or work on your upper body today instead.

Not only is this practice of checking in with your body vital for injury prevention, but it also helps prevent burnout. Mental toughness and dedication are good, though if you’re not feeling it, it’s okay to take it easy or take a rest day.

To get the most health benefits, try working up to at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise. Or to save time, you could do 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity. At this risk of stating the obvious, this would be spread throughout the week, like a half-hour five days a week.

Add in at least two days a week of strength training, focusing on each muscle group.

We know this probably sounds like a lot. But your stamina, strength and potentially a genuine love of exercise will build up over time. The amount of time you spend at the gym, your steps, reps and sets will all increase too.

4. Be Consistent

When thinking about adding something new to your routine, first assess your current situation and make sure your exercise program plans are realistic.

You might need to make some adjustments to your schedule to prioritize time for regular exercise. We suggest putting your workouts on your calendar like you would a meeting or appointment so they’re top of mind. Then plan other activities around it.

Another way to hold yourself accountable is to schedule workouts with a friend, register for a fitness for beginners class — those text reminders can help! — or grab your dog, who we can pretty much guarantee will always want to walk or run with you.

Logging your workouts can help you establish a consistent routine. There are plenty of fitness apps that connect to your phone or smartwatch, or you might prefer the old-school method of writing them down in a paper planner.

In any case, this can give you motivation to finish each week strong. You can also look back at what you’ve already accomplished and see how far you’ve come.

What’s more, research shows that having habitual cues for exercise as part of a daily routine (like heading to the gym right after work) — rather than time cues — is associated with more consistency.

5. Reframe Excuses and Reconsider Obstacles

Obstacles and excuses will arise, and that’s totally normal. Here are some common ones with ways to reframe them.

“I don’t have time today.”

Reframe: Keep your health a top priority by scheduling shorter, high-intensity workouts (hello, jump rope!) or incorporating physical activity into your daily routine. Take the stairs, go for a quick jog on your lunch break or get on the walking pad trend to walk during a meeting.

“The weather sucks.”

Reframe: Find home workout alternatives like dancing, yoga or bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and push-ups. Alternatively, embrace outdoor activities for different weather conditions, such as skiing in the winter, hiking in the spring or swimming in the summer.

“I’m too tired.”

Reframe: Did you know physical activity can actually boost your energy levels? Start with lighter exercises, like yoga or a leisurely walk, that’ll invigorate you rather than drain you further.

“I’m not making any progress.”

Reframe: Progress takes time and consistency — and the number on the scale isn’t the only way to measure it. Focus on non-scale victories, like increased stamina, improved flexibility, elevated moods or better sleep quality. Track your progress to stay motivated and celebrate small achievements along the way.

“The gym is intimidating.”

Reframe: Remember, everyone starts somewhere, and most people at the gym are focused on their own workouts. Start with simple exercises or beginner group classes and gradually increase as your comfort level evolves. Consider finding a workout buddy for moral support.

Stick it out! One study found that having a regular workout routine was associated with more motivation, self-efficacy and social support compared to irregular exercise patterns. This might be because you don’t have to think about it as much when it feels like a habit rather than a chore.

6. Celebrate Progress and Let It Evolve

Sometimes, you have to be your own loudest cheerleader, so make a point to celebrate the progress you’re making.

Achieving those mini goals we talked about earlier calls for some personal rewards. Maybe that looks like a night out with friends at a new restaurant, buying those running shoes you’ve been eyeing or taking yourself to the spa.

Most importantly, don’t fall into the comparison trap when navigating how to start exercising.

You’re only racing against yourself! It’s okay if you don’t reach each milestone as quickly as you’d hoped — setbacks are to be expected.

Be kind to yourself, regularly look back at how far you’ve come and let your workout journey evolve as you get more comfortable.

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Regular exercise is such a wonderful thing to give your body and mind — but it’s not the only thing.

A few other essential lifestyle habits can help support your physical and mental health while lowering your risk of disease.

Get Better Sleep

Sleep is your body’s opportunity to rest, repair and rejuvenate. Getting enough shut-eye allows it to rebuild muscles, optimizing the benefits of all the hard work you’ve been putting in. Sleep is also necessary for healthy weight management.

Not to mention, getting enough sleep improves mental clarity, motivation and energy levels — all things you need to approach tomorrow’s workout with focus and enthusiasm. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night.

Eat Nutrient-Dense Food

Nutrition and exercise go hand in hand in helping you reach your health goals. Fueling your body with nutrient-dense food gives you not only energy but also the building blocks for muscle repair, recovery and growth.

Essentially, eating healthily can help you get the most out of your workouts.

And that’s not all. Meals and snacks containing a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can help support immune function and overall wellness so you can better sustain your workout routine.

Choose plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes and other lean proteins.

Remember to Hydrate

Hydration is fundamental for life, let alone to be physically active. Keeping your fluids up helps regulate your body temperature, helps nutrients get where they need to be, flushes out waste and enhances muscle function.

Drinking plenty of water also helps prevent dehydration-related problems like fatigue, cramps and mental fog. Try to keep a water bottle with you to sip throughout the day.

Plain water is always best. But sometimes, electrolyte waters (containing sodium and potassium) can help you replenish after a particularly sweaty gym sesh.

Exercise has so many benefits for health, especially when paired with other lifestyle habits like good nutrition, better sleep and hydration.

If you’re ready to start a beginner workout plan, here are some reminders:

  • Consistency is key. Instant gratification isn’t a thing with workouts. Your six-pack abs aren’t going to show up overnight, but they might in a few months with consistent work. Stay on course and keep your eye on your goals.

  • Mix it up. Exercise shouldn’t be some boring chore you check off your to-do list each day. Keep things interesting by rotating activities you enjoy, ideally a combination of cardio, high-intensity sessions, strength training and more leisurely workouts.

  • It’s you against you. What other people are doing doesn’t matter — this is your marathon (maybe literally). Stay in your lane and avoid the comparison trap. You’ve got this!

If weight loss is a primary goal of your exercise routine and you’re curious about weight loss medications, our licensed healthcare providers can help!

Get started by taking our free weight loss assessment.

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