10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Working Out

I’ve been actively exercising for about four years now. It’s been a long–and sometimes difficult–journey, full of rough periods of plateau, injury, and frustration. But I’ve made it through, and come out at lot stronger on the other side (both figuratively and literally).

Along the way I’ve picked up quite a few lessons that have really helped me and that I wish I’d known more about before getting too far into my journey.

Today, I’m sharing my wisdom with you in the hopes that it will prevent you from making some of the same unpleasant mistakes that I went through.

So, without further ado, the best exercise tips for beginners:

1. You’re going to fail sometimes. It’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up.

When I first started exercising regularly, I would set myself lofty goals: be able to run a mile in a week or two (starting from nothing), or be able to do a pull-up after only 10 gym sessions–when I could barely lift anything.

When I’d fail to reach these goals, I would get frustrated and think that I should be able to do better, which was often not really the case. Then, as a result, I would lose my motivation and fall off the wagon a bit.

Even when you’re trying your best in fitness, at some point you will probably fail to reach a goal.

It’s just part of working out. You might get hit with a bad injury and be forced to rest, you might have a super busy work week that leaves zero time for exercise, or you might have a bad bout of depression and be stuck in bed. Whatever goal you had set–you’ll fail. But that’s okay.

Failure is bound to happen, and the most important thing you can do is control how you react to it. Don’t be like me when I started, and get frustrated (or like the guy below, give up completely). Instead, just realize that setbacks are a part of the fitness lifestyle. Use the opportunity to come back stronger next time.

[Don’t be like this guy!]

2. The biggest thing you can do for yourself is just start.

Overthinking exercise can stop you from doing it. If you’re trying to get into exercise for the first time, you may find yourself doing some of the following:

  • Trying to research the best workout clothes
  • Looking up protein shakes and workout supplements that you think you’ll need to succeed
  • Trying to find the perfect exercises
  • Setting up a full-on calendar for what your training is going to look like

If you see yourself doing these things, stop.

Trying to do everything in advance will just lead you to being overwhelmed, and if you’re like a lot of people–you might actually never get to the exercise part!

I had this problem early on. I tried to research a training plan and totally change my diet at the same time. There were way too many things doing on, and I ended up failing at both.

The best thing you can do for yourself is stop thinking about all the details and just start exercising.

You’ll have time to figure that stuff out later. It’s more important to just build an exercise habit first.

3. You don’t always have to try your hardest. Sometimes just doing something is enough.

One of the biggest roadblocks that many beginners face is turning exercise into a habit. When you’re just starting and it’s something you’ve never done before, it doesn’t come naturally.

And if you are lacking a strong sense of internal motivation, it’s going to be impossible to keep going unless you can turn exercise into a habit.

However, habits can be super difficult to build if you set an unreasonable goal. For example, if you’re coming from no exercise background and say that you’re now going to exercise every single day for an hour, you’re almost certainly going to fail.

A much better way to start is to set yourself a daily goal of just starting. Rather than say that you’re going to exercise for an hour, say that you’re just going to start. That could mean:

  • Putting on a pair of running shoes, walking outside, and jogging for a quarter mile,
  • Driving to a gym,
  • Pulling out a yoga mat and doing a few stretches,
  • …or anything else that is a very small goal.
[Just a few sit-ups is enough to get you moving. It doesn’t take much!]

You’ll probably find that once you start, you want to keep going. You’re already at the gym, so why not get in a good workout? You’ve already started jogging–why not go another few miles, even if you walk a lot of it? The great thing about doing this, though, is if you don’t feel like you want to keep going, that’s okay. You still achieved your goal of doing something. And over time, your body will adjust and start to recognize the act of something as a new habit.

Beginning something new this way is much more likely to lead to long term success than setting lofty goals for each day.

To learn more about habit building, I’d recommend reading Atomic Habits.

4. Exercise is one of the best ways of fighting off depression. Don’t let it fall by the wayside.

Exercise plays a huge role in mental health. Just take a look through some of the many studies on exercise and depression [For example: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7].

In my own experience, exercise has been the single biggest help in fighting off depressive episodes. When in periods of struggle, right after I’ve finished a workout, I’ve felt the cloud of sadness lifting away. It’s never magically made things disappear, but it has had a significant and noticeable impact.

Even though I knew about the benefits of exercise and depression early on, and had experienced these improvements in my own mental health as a result of fitness, I still went through periods where I let my fitness fall by the wayside–usually when I had a lot of schoolwork to do or stressful exams/presentations coming up.

It was one of the biggest mistakes I made.

Whenever I let exercise slide, depression found a way to creep back in. And that made it harder and harder to fight it off because the more depressed I was, the harder it was to drag myself to the gym. It would have been so much easier if I had prioritized exercise and not let it slip from my schedule.

If you struggle at all with depression, make an extra effort to ensure that exercise is a priority. It will make such a huge difference on your well being.

5. Lift heavy.

While cardio and light weights are okay–and good in moderation–lifting heavy weights is one of the best ways to improve your fitness.

This is counter to what you see a lot of women doing, so it deserves some explanation.

Heavy weights are typically associated with men in the media, but they are great for everyone. This is for a few different reasons.

  • If weight loss is your goal, heavy lifting actually helps you lose weight faster. Unlike cardio, building muscle speeds your metabolism. That means that even when you are not working out, you’ll burn more calories (a couple extra per pound of muscle you add)
  • It can help you get stronger without developing extreme muscle definition. Lots of women are scared of the bodybuilder look, but the average woman who does strength training will never look like that. Why? Because women have low testosterone, which plays a big factor in men’s muscle growth.
  • Strength training with heavy lifting can strengthen bones and slow bone density loss, which is really important for women due to the common nature of osteoporosis.

If you skip the heavy weights, you’ll never see these benefits.

[Aim for a weight where you can complete approximately 7 reps before you’re too tired to keep going. If you can do more than about 12 reps, your weight is too light for maximum strength gain.]

6. Don’t waste time on targeted movements. Instead, focus on compound lifts.

When you’re getting started, it’s easy to get excited about all the different machines at the gym. I know I did!

Ooh, a curl machine! That looks fun! And ooh, a tricep press! Perfect way to build some nice arms…

– My Internal Monologue

But they are not built equal, and some will give you much more benefit for your time than others. You want to focus on machines (or free weights–but those can be scary for beginners) that do compound movements, activating multiple muscle groups at once. That means, if you’re working on a right schedule, no bicep curl or tricep press machines!!

Instead, try some of these:

  • Lat pulldown
  • Row
  • Leg press
  • Assisted pull-ups/chin-ups
  • Chest press

7. Don’t forget about your diet!

[Eating healthy plays a huge role in fitness! And if you’re focused on strength gain, you’ll need to watch your protein consumption as well.]

At first, I thought health and wellness were all about exercise–that if I just lifted weights and did cardio all the time, I’d magically be super strong, look ripped, and feel better. I was wrong.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the actual exercise bit is only half of the equation. Diet is the rest. You may have heard the saying that “abs are made in the kitchen.” It’s completely true. During periods where I had. abad diet, no matter how much I exercised, I never made much progress. But when I got my diet together, everything came much more easily.

Diet plays a huge role in wellbeing. It controls how much energy you have. It provides the protein your muscles need to grow. It impacts your sleep and your mental health, which both need to be in good shape for your body to get the most out of fitness.

Don’t neglect it. Although I went through many periods of wishing it worked that way, you won’t be able to get anywhere if you just eat cheeseburgers and fries all the time.

For some ideas on healthy eating, you can checkout my blog collection on the topic.

8. Exercise doesn’t have to be done solo.

One of the great things about exercise is how many different ways you can do it! At first, I was drawn to the fact that you can easily do it solo. As an introvert, I like to have lots of alone time and exercise is a great way to build that in, so for the longest time I only ever did it alone.

But exercise can also provide great benefits when done as a group activity! This is particularly true if you’re someone who has a busy schedule. If you do group exercise, you can build social activity and fitness into the same time slot and don’t have to sacrifice one to fit the other in.

Plus, exercise in a group has the added benefit of helping keep you motivated. After trying group fitness, I learned that it can be more effective than solo fitness for really pushing you. In front of a group, you always want to do your best.

I still do lots of solo fitness, but I have integrated some more group stuff into my training. They both have their own benefits and it’s good to try all your options out before settling on something.

[Even though I mostly exercise alone, a group fitness class every once in a while is a great way to keep me accountable for going to the gym.]

9. Exercising more will lead to so many great changes. Stick with it!

The awesome thing about exercise is that it doesn’t just make you stronger. The act of getting fit actually has a tendency to spill over into other areas of your life, pushing you to make improvements in all sorts of things.

After I started exercising for a while, I noticed that I wanted to make new changes in my life that I’ve never thought about before. I focused so much more on my mental health and got into meditation. I became much more interested in food/diet, and started digging into how to eat healthier. And I worked to try to find ways to reduce my screen time, which was causing headaches and adding anxious/depressive feelings to my day.

These changes don’t come immediately, though. You have to stick with it for a while. It probably wasn’t until year two that I really started noticing a difference in how I thought (year one, my exercise was pretty on and off, which could explain why it took so long).

If you’ve just gotten started haven’t found that much benefit from exercise yet, stick with it. In the long run, you’ll start to see big differences.

10. Some results are just unattainable. Set goals that work for you, and don’t base your success on what you see others accomplishing.

I wrote about this idea more in depth in my first ever post on this blog. When you get started in fitness, your main inspiration is often whoever you see doing fitness on the internet. At least that’s who it was for me.

But those people are not average. Fitness is often their day job–whether it be as an influencer or as a top athlete. They spend hours at the gym every day, have personal trainers, and are paid to be as fit as possible (which can sometimes mean that they take unhealthy steroids). Some were just born with incredibly good genetics.

Most of the time, their bodies are not attainable to the average person. With my schedule as it is right now, for instance, I’ll never look as muscular as someone like Simone Biles, whose entire job is to focus on gymnastics. No matter how much I try, it’s just not going to happen.

This can be hard to realize at first, and it can lead to setting unhealthy expectations. You can’t expect to go to the gym a few times per week for a year and suddenly have 10% body fat. It’s a multi-year process that takes a huge amount of effort, and some factors may be outside your control.

So don’t base your goals on what you see on the internet. Base them on what works for you–what makes you feel good, or what’s reasonable based on your rate of improvement.

It will help you feel so much more confident in your fitness!

[Tip: Spend a few minutes at the beginning of each month planning out what your goals will be for that month. This will help make sure you’re keeping on top of things. Base them on your current abilities and interests, keeping in mind that they should be realistic! Don’t base your goals off of anything you see on social media.]

So there we go! My top 10 tips I wish I knew when I started to work out.

I hope they can help you out! If there’s any other tips I missed that I should consider, please share!

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