It’s That Time of Year

It’s that time of year that we resolve to start fresh and eat better, workout more, play less iPhone Candy Crush and generally remake everything.  Unfortunately, too often those resolutions don’t make it past Groundhog Day.  Research shows that about 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only about 8% actually achieve them.

But that same research indicates those that make resolutions realize more success than those who don’t, so make that list.

Yet how do you make sure those good intentions make it to summer and beyond? In a recent Reuters article on the topic, American Council on Exercise researcher Jennifer Ratliff suggests borrowing from the business world and adopting the S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting approach (smart, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound).  For example, if you haven’t been exercising don’t set the goal of working out five days a week.  Start with two or three days and build on the enjoyment and satisfaction of working out.

Unfortunately another stumbling block for New Year’s resolutions is injury.  Many well-intentioned resolvers make the mistake of doing too much, too soon or start an exercise program that is too advanced.  Overuse injuries such as kneecap pain or rotator cuff tendinitis are often the result of quick changes in the volume or intensity of exercise.  For instance, resolving to run a marathon and beginning a training program without any preparation often results in a knee or lower leg overuse injury.  Other common scenarios, starting Cross Fit without a solid base of general strengthening; resolving to get more flexible by going to five yoga classes a week; starting a soccer league with players 20-years your junior.

So how do you resolve to get fitter and improve health without ending up on the examination table of your local orthopedic surgeon or physical therapist?

  • Start slow-research shows that the majority of the general health benefits of a fitness program can be achieved with light exercise such as walking.  One to two hours a week (depending on the type of exercise) of cardiovascular exercise and one 15-30 minute session a week of strength training.
  • Be a beginner-don’t try to pick up an exercise/training program where you left off a month/year/decade ago.  Bones, ligaments and tendons are just like muscles and get stronger in response to regular exercise.  The converse is true as well so prepare these structures for more advanced exercise by sticking with a basic, beginner program for several months before trying more advanced exercise (plyometrics, Olympic lifting, marathon training).
  • Aim low-when starting from scratch, trying to adhere to a 7-day a week exercise program at best invites burnout and at worst welcomes injury.  Exercise is addicting but the habit needs to be nurtured a bit before trying to make radical changes in activity.
  • Don’t “work through the pain”-small problems can end up being big problems if they are ignored or “patched-up” for too long.  Make modifications in volume, intensity or type of activity if pain or soreness starts to become consistent (e.g. if the knee hurts after a run switch to the bike).
  • Cross-train-integrating different types of activities keeps exercise interesting and minimizes the chance of injury.

The best part about starting to exercise?  Those who are the least active get the biggest gain from starting to exercise.  Those poor slobs that have been working out everyday realize very little additional health gain by exercising any more.  Of course those that regularly exercise have banked a great deal of health related gains already as a Physical Activity Guidelines report suggests, “It has been estimated that people who are active for approximately 7 hours a week have a 40 percent lower risk of dying early than those who are active less than 30 minutes a week.”

That’s good motivation to get out and exercise.