Realistic advice for those who want to start working out again after a long break

Experts offer tips to help us exercise effectively without ending up in the physio

One in five people does not perform the minimum amount of exercise recommended by the World Health Organization.
One in five people does not perform the minimum amount of exercise recommended by the World Health Organization.Santi Burgos

Once the Christmas holidays are over, one of the most common New Year’s resolutions is: I’m going to start working out. Often, this occurs after years of a sedentary lifestyle punctuated by several abortive attempts at change. The data suggests that this is the case for a large majority of the population. A review of various studies recently published by researchers from the Public University of Navarre (UPNA) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, analyzing data from 32 countries and more than three million people, showed that only one in five individuals complied with the weekly exercise recommendations issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). As one of the authors, Mikel Izquierdo, director of UPNA’s Department of Health Sciences, points out, this data “suggests there is enormous room for improvement.”

“If everyone did 150 minutes of exercise per week, whether that be cycling or walking at a pace that prevents conversation, the health benefits would be enormous,” he notes. Another paper published last November maintained that even less exercise would reduce the risk of premature death. “The most common mistake when making these resolutions is to start at too fast a pace,” says Juan Ramón García, a primary care doctor. “That then turns into tendinopathy and brings on other problems. You have to give it time, warm up well, loosen the joints gradually and stop if you see that you are getting overly tired.”

Conservative start

All the experts consulted by this newspaper agree that we should be conservative with our ambitions when we start out. Alejandro Lucía, researcher in Physical Activity and Health at Madrid’s European University, stresses that “you should begin gently, aiming for small changes that can be maintained in the long term. We are not made for exercise to be fun; it is something we do to survive, so it is normal not to like it,” he points out, adding that we should be “looking for a reward system that makes it easier to start exercising and, also, to incorporate it into everyday activities, walking and taking the stairs when possible.”

We are not made for exercise to be fun; it is something we do to survive, so it is normal not to like it
Alejandro Lucía, Madrid’s European University

Professional help

After taking that first step out of a sedentary lifestyle, it is widely considered advisable to seek professional help, either in private gyms or public sports centers. “We should have a plan which has been designed by a specialist in sports science that allows us to set short and medium-term goals,” says Pilar Sáinz de Baranda, who teaches physical education and sports at Murcia University. “If we obsess about losing 20 kilos or more, we’ll train for a week then quit and the whole thing will have a rebound effect.”

Building strength

According to Sáinz de Baranda, an exercise plan should include “a cardiovascular component, such as running or cycling, a flexibility component with dynamic stretching, and a strength component,” using either weights or one’s own body weight. Despite the myths associating cardiovascular exercise with weight loss and weights with weight gain, strength exercise is essential due to its capacity to increase the metabolic rate – the amount of energy consumed at rest – and prevent problems that arise with age, such as sarcopenia, which leads to increased fragility, lack of balance and poorer overall health.

Commitment

Mikel Izquierdo agrees it is advisable to put yourself in the hands of a professional who will tailor exercises, and their intensity, to your individual needs. “The problem for people who start exercising alone is commitment. In no time, they either stop or end up at the physiotherapist,” he says. Izquierdo also warns that online influencers may be very motivating at first but can end up making it impossible to achieve the goal of committing to long-term sustainable physical activity. Alejandro Lucía, however, does consider that apps can be useful “as a means of establishing rewards when goals are met.”

What the doctor ordered

Although the data shows that it is not easy to crank up physical activity after years of inactivity, experts consulted by EL PAÍS believe that there is a change in collective attitudes and exercise is beginning to be seen as a preventive medicine against aging with few side effects. “In the past, doctors were aware of the importance of exercise but did not know where to send the patient; now it is easier to put patients in touch with professionals in municipal facilities,” says Izquierdo.

Still, Izquierdo maintains, “we are, to an extent, illiterate on the subject of exercise,” while Lucía adds that “going to the gym or exercising in a broader sense is to absolutely invest in health, and it is something that I think is not stated often enough.” Lucía points out that this could be due to the existence of drugs such as statins or new diabetes medications used for weight loss “that supplant the effects of exercise.” A mistake? According to Izquierdo: “Whoever does not find time to exercise will have to find time to be sick.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS