A beginner’s guide to exercise


by Abilash Kalupahanage


What image does the word ‘exercise’ conjure up in your mind? A huge bodybuilder, sculpted like a Greek god, flexing in a gym mirror? A peaceful jogger, headphones plugged in deep, running the streets? A sleazy telemarketer trying to sell you a machine for a ‘six-pack in six weeks’? Painful memories of P.T class? Whatever connotations you may have in your head, one thing you cannot do is deny how essential exercise is to living a healthy life. If you wish to live a life of meaningless comfort, settled like a fat rat in front of the TV, achieving nothing but mediocrity, then, by all means, feel free to stop reading this article. This is for those of you who wish to do something meaningful and worthwhile with your lives. If you want to start taking care of yourself, or if you are on the fence on whether you should exercise, then read on to find out why you should work out and how to get started.


Why should you work out?


I must confess, as I started writing this article, this seemed a rather silly question at first. One would assume that the benefits of regular exercise would be self-evident. Nevertheless, the massive number of people who loathe doing anything even remotely physical in nature is clear evidence to the contrary. So allow me to break it down for you.


Let me appeal to your vanity first. One reason to work out is for aesthetics or simply put, to look good. We all want to look attractive, and yes, part of this is having good genetics, which we have no control over. But, you still have far more control over your looks than you may imagine.


Exercise will always make you look better. This can be in two ways.


The first is through something that most of us would love to work on. Fat loss. Are you a little overweight? Got a bit too much of a tummy? Dealing with a double chin? This could solve all of that. All you need is a little cardio. Cardio, also known as Aerobic exercises, works in quite a simple way. An activity of moderate or low intensity that is done continuously forces your body to burn carbs and fat to turn it into energy. This ‘burns’ your body fat. So if you want to lose some of that excess fat, get off your chair and go exercise. 


The second reason is the one you always see with ‘gym rats’. Muscle building or Hypertrophy. Feeling a little too scrawny? Want to gain some weight? Want that ever so elusive six-pack? Hit the weights and start lifting and you will soon begin to notice muscle growth. 


The other reason you should start to exercise is for the practical benefits of it, the most obvious of which is improved health. Regular exercise has numerous health benefits. It helps people battle obesity and significantly improves heart health. The CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) identifies physical inactivity as a big risk factor for heart disease. The AHA (American Heart Association) recommends 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity 3-4 times a week. The AHA also reports that it makes you less likely to die from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease when comparing active and inactive patients. Physical inactivity is shown to cause 6% of the burden of CHD (Coronary Heart Disease) and 9% of premature mortality. On top of that, a meta-analysis of 21 studies showed that higher levels of leisure-time physical activity resulted in a 21% reduction of CHD in men and a 29% reduction in women. So while we may not have the key to immortality, exercise is the closest thing we know of.


If all of that was not enough to convince you to exercise, then consider strength. While you won’t become Hafþór Björnsson (“The Mountain” from Game of Thrones and a professional strongman), you will undoubtedly become far stronger than you were before. Why is strength important amidst the comforts of modern life you ask? Well, apart from the pure joy of being able to lift heavy weights, you never know when you might need to use your strength. It might be the difference between life and death in a particularly sticky situation. In addition, having a strong body helps prevent injuries, so you need not worry about broken bones following each fall. 


If by now you are not buzzing with eagerness to go exercise, then you are truly a lost cause. 


Now comes a question that is just as important as the last one.


How should you work out?


The short answer is; how should I know? The long answer, on the other hand, is a bit more nuanced than that. Simply put, it is complicated. It depends on your body and what you wish to achieve.


If you want to achieve fat loss, the best method to do so is to try a mixture of cardio and making changes to your diet. Now, I must confess that dieting is not my forte. I eat anything and everything like a starved dog that broke into a supermarket. But, I do know a fair bit about cardio, all of my fat loss having come from running on the stairs nonstop for an hour (which I would not recommend you try). Start with a low intensity, long workout, like jogging or cycling.


The ideal rate would be about where you are able to talk to someone with a little difficulty while exercising. And that’s it. Simple right? Keep up a simple routine and you’ll be leaner and fitter in no time.


If you wish to build muscle or strength, then weight training is the way to go. Since this article is aimed at beginners and you, the reader, are most likely completely new to this, I will not go into too much depth. But in a nutshell, when you work with weights, the particular muscle gets damaged and each time it recovers, it grows back a little bit bigger. This is the basic principle behind weight training. No matter who you are, I suggest starting with a little callisthenics (bodyweight training) and building a solid foundation before moving on to weights. Bicep curls will not help you if you cannot even manage 20 push-ups. Once you have the basics down, you can create your own workout routine, adding exercises based on what you wish to achieve. Just keep in mind that isolation exercises that focus on 1 muscle (curls, leg extensions, etc.) are better at building muscle mass, while compound exercises that incorporate many muscles (squats, kettlebell swings, etc.) are better at improving strength. Oh, and one more thing for all you future gym rats to keep in mind. Rest. Be lazy when you have to be. This is vital for recovery. Sleep is when all of the actual muscle building happens, so if you don’t get enough of it, your hard work will go down the drain like the kids from ‘It’. 


Now, before I leave you, allow me to present a few tips that almost every fitness instructor will tell you is vital to your success. Of course, not having an instructor, I learned these the hard way, but that is another matter. The first and most important tip I can give you is to put safety first. Safety is always paramount. Always maintain proper form and know your limits. Pushing your limits is one thing, but being egotistical and stupid is quite another. So put your safety first or be prepared for a few hospital visits.


Another important tip I can give you, which I struggled with, is to manage your expectations. Rome was not built in a day, nor did it fall in one. Your body has been through years of neglect and obviously, a few months of exercise will not make you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or some Instagram model. Give it time and trust the process. And even after years of working out, you, may still not have the ideal physique you saw on some model somewhere. So what? Not to sound like a motivational poster, but, you will be better than who you used to be and that is all that matters. 


I would also advise you to do exercises which have a high carryover. What does this mean? It means exercises that have the widest range of practical applications. To repeat something that the legendary fitness instructor Pavel Tsatsouline once said, if you do leg extensions, you become good at leg extensions. That’s it. But if you do squats, you’ll be able to run faster, jump higher and have more overall lower body strength. This is vital to anybody doing general training. So unless you are a bodybuilder or a model, stick mostly to the more useful exercises. 


Finally, I give you my most important tip. And don’t worry, I have saved the best for last. My most important tip is to have fun. Fun. It seems so obvious and yet most people neglect it. Remember that this is meant to be enjoyable, not some punishment. So have fun. Do you have a long, 2-3 hour workout? Plan to go on a run? Play some music or listen to a podcast. Make it enjoyable. (I prefer listening to podcasts during a workout). Bored of a workout routine? Change the exercises. I like to put my favourite exercises at the beginning and the end of a session so that I start and finish on a high note. There is no reason to be bored while working out. If you are constantly suffering, you are far more likely to quit. Trust me on that. I was one of those guys that went to the gym for a month and then quit. Having fun is far more important than you think. 


And there you go folks. Everything that you, as a beginner, need to start exercising and taking care of yourself. Take it from me, deciding to work out was one of the best decisions of my life. Now you have that choice before you. The ball is in your court. What will you do? Will you rise up to meet the challenge or will you live in mediocrity? 


References: https://www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/exercise-statistics