Maybe it’s been a while since you hit the gym—hey, we’ve all been there! Whether you’ve taken a few months or a few years away from your fitness routine, those first few workouts can be a little tough. We asked 10 top fitness experts for their best advice on getting back into a fitness groove.
Self-compassion is key. When you begin a new workout routine, it’s important to start with a mindset of compassion, says Dr. Pamela Peeke, author of Body for Life for Women. “You have to fight off every impulse to bash yourself,” Peeke says. “You’re not allowed to tell yourself, ‘How did I ever let this happen to me?’ or, ‘It’s going to take forever to get back to where I was before.’ No. Now, you need to enter a cone of compassion.” Wipe out the negative self-talk, and you’ll be more motivated to push through any difficult exercises.
Choose your “why.” If you don’t know why you want to work out, it’s hard to stay motivated, says Sassy Gregson-Williams, personal trainer and former ballerina. Having a specific, measurable “why” will help keep you focused and coming back to the gym. Is it that you want to run a 5K? Lose 5 pounds? Just carry your groceries without pulling a muscle? Whatever the case, take the overall goal and break it into much smaller pieces. “We need to see progression,” says Gregson-Williams. “Tracking progress is an incredibly important tool for self motivation. Taking weekly notes to monitor where you are in the process will constantly re-motivate you to keep on going.”
Take it slow. “The biggest mistake people make when diving back into a fitness routine is doing too much too quickly,” says Casey Renee Rogers, wellness coach and founder of Health on the Rocks. “Not only is this unsafe, as it sets the stage for injury, it also erodes your motivation too quickly, leading to stagnation.” Rogers recommends setting realistic goals and expectations. Don’t aim to go to the gym every day. Instead, start by going to the gym once a week and taking a long walk on the weekends. “Setting the bar too high is setting yourself up for failure,” Rogers says. “Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, will sustain your motivation and lead to better results over time.”
Sneak in more steps. Boost the number of steps you take by scheduling brief walking breaks during the work day. For example, if you have a long hallway at work, make plans to walk up and down a little more, or take the stairs to the bathroom on the floor above or below you.
Get workout clothes you love. Instead of hitting the gym in a worn-out sweatshirt and baggy yoga pants, “buy an outfit that makes you feel good,” says Samantha Clayton, Olympic runner and fitness expert. “When we look our best in well-fitting gym clothes, we start out with a pep in our step and a little extra confidence.” The clothes don’t need to be skintight or pricey, just something fun to make the gym less like a chore and more like play.
Look before you leap. If you’re considering joining a gym or a fitness class, check it out before you sign up. “There’s nothing worse than getting 30 seconds into a class and thinking ‘uh oh’” says Jeanette DePatie, a plus-sized, certified fitness instructor. “In a hard class you might be tempted to work beyond your level and possibly get hurt.” Instead, go to the instructor or gym manager and ask if you can watch the class. If it looks good, sign up right away. If it looks like it might be too challenging, you can put that class on your goal list and save it for another day.
Bring a friend. Karena Dawn and Katrina Scott, co-founders of Tone It Up, find it’s easier to start a new workout routine when you’re not doing it alone. “Having an accountability partner will be so powerful for your fitness journey,” Dawn says. “You’ll be more likely to exercise if you have a workout date set up with a girlfriend.” With a gym buddy, you can keep each other on track and make working out a fun, social activity.
Keep workouts short and sweet. You don’t need to spend an hour on the elliptical to get a good workout. “Start with ‘short and sweet’ workouts,” says Jenn Glysson, owner of The Body Los Angeles. “Body weight workouts are amazing to gain your strength and stamina back.” Glysson recommends doing a circuit of four or five body weight exercises (push-ups, squats, planks, lunges, etc.). Repeat each move for 12 reps and complete the entire circuit three times. That might only take 15-20 minutes, but if you do it three or four days a week you’ll start feeling stronger and more confident. “Always remember to go at your own pace and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing,” says Glysson. “You are on your own journey!”
Take photos. Personal trainer Kaori Takee finds a weekly photo to be extremely motivating. Instead of using the scale as your only measurement, photos literally give you the whole picture. “When you compare week one pics to week six pics, you will inspire yourself!” Takee says. She recommends taking a picture in the same outfit, on the same day of the week, every week. After a few weeks, take a look back and be proud of all your hard work.
Focus on the mental benefits. Sometimes, focusing on the physical aspects of exercising can get you down. Things seem too hard, you don’t feel strong enough, or you’re worried the number on the scale isn’t where you want it to be. Fitness influencer Dawn Estelle Archer felt this way until she focused on the mental improvement she got from exercise. “I started taking classes at the gym and it was an hour of self-love, an hour of fun, and an hour of therapy,” says Archer. “I just became addicted to it.” Instead of picking a super intense workout, Archer recommends using activities you enjoy for exercise. “Go to festivals or farmers’ markets. Just do something that makes you catch your breath a little bit.” When your workout becomes self care, you’ll want to keep going. Soon enough, you’ll see the mental and physical results.
Be patient. No matter your fitness level, whenever you start something new, it’s important to be very patient with yourself. “Understand that it can be difficult knowing that you’re not lifting as heavy or running as fast or long as you could,” says fitness and health authority Paige Hathaway. You’ll probably feel very sore the first few days and be more out of breath than you remember. That’s OK. These tough moments won’t last forever as long as you keep moving forward. “With consistency and dedication you’ll get it back,” says Hathaway. “And get it back even better!”