Need a Gentle Start at the Gym? Try These Ideas.

woman on elipticalMost of us were once beginners at the gym, new to fitness and in need of a guidance. But you might need an even softer start after a setback like illness, injury or other health challenge.

Whether you’re returning from a major surgery, an illness, or simply find yourself very unfit after years of weight gain, there are plenty of benefits to be gained from exercise. And there are some very good reasons for you to take it slow and exercise with care.

Here are some common concerns to watch out for, and a list of ideas for gentle starts at the gym:


Concerns & Gentle Starts

Fatigue: If you’re finding that you fatigue easily, you want to be able to control the level of exertion you experience while exercising – the intensity, speed and duration will all be a factor. This is where starting small with “baby steps” comes into play.

  • 10 – 15 minutes is enough (yes, it’s worth it, and you can build from there!)
  • Work at a pace that you feel 100% comfortable with
  • Build on the habit of regular gym visits, alternating workouts, slowing increasing duration
  • Try the simplest of walking programs on a treadmill one day
  • Sit on a bench for short sets of a few upper body exercises with light dumbbells another day
  • Learn a few stretches and core exercises you can do on the floor for a third day…then repeat


Weakness: If you haven’t been exercising for a while (or ever), then you’ve likely lost strength in your muscles. It might make sense to move right into strength training to get it back, but you’ll need to be careful with how much resistance you expect to handle.

  • Select 2 – 4 strength machines with simple movements, like leg press and chest press
  • Take your time and work on your form at the lightest weight you desire
  • Visit the gym every other day to allow for rest and recovery
  • Don’t add weight until you work your way up to 3 sets of 12 – 15
  • As your strength increases, add an exercise for what is responding best (Legs? Shoulders?)


Pain & Stiffness: Weight gain, aging, disease, lack of mobility…. all of these can cause pain and/or stiffness in your joints. It’s best if you don’t put a lot of pressure on your joints or your spine with high-impact movements. And, if you can’t get up and down from the floor with relative ease, stick with seated and standing exercise. in short, listen to your body.

  • A warm up and cool down can be your entire workout as you reacclimate to exercise
  • No matter what workout you’re doing, warm up before and cool down after
  • Try a stationary bicycle as your main workout—no impact, limited range of motion
  • Try no-impact exercise with accessories like elastic bands and stability balls
  • Try adding sauna and steam after your sessions, or even better, massage


Breathing & Heart Rate: If you find yourself breathing heavy or know that your heart feels like it’s going to pound out of your chest if you push yourself, you might look to gentle aerobic conditioning as well as breath control during exercise.

  • Consider a bit of beginner yoga or sitting on a mat for a simple stretch and tone class
  • You can ask any instructor for tips on breathing, and let them know you’re starting slow
  • For the very unfit, walking is recommended. Start with 10 minutes add 1 minute each session
  • As you gain stamina, learn your moderate heart rate zone and walk in it 3 – 5 times a week


Imbalances: If you’ve been injured, chances are you’ve compensated your body mechanics as a result. This can cause physical imbalance including weakness, tightness, lack of coordination or other symptoms. Other causes of imbalances are weight gain, arthritic joints, even scar tissue. The key to gentle starts here is to find control and avoid (re)injury.

  • Start with 3 – 4 body weight exercises while on the floor, like bridges and crunches
  • Once you feel stronger, add a few standing body weight exercises, like wall push-ups
  • Work unilaterally (both sides, like a squat) instead of bi-laterally (one side like a lunge)
  • Try 10 minutes of a seated row with light resistance to help everything work at once

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