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How to start exercising if you’re out of shape

Try some low-impact activities to ease into an exercise routine.

You know that regular exercise is good for your heart. But only about half of American adults manage the 2.5 hours per week of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) recommended by the federal physical activity guidelines. Being too busy is a common excuse, but there are bona fide reasons for not exercising. If you’re recovering from a heart attack, are overweight, or are simply out of shape, 30 minutes of exercise a day may feel out of reach.

“You don’t want an exercise goal that’s so far-fetched that you feel like you can’t even try,” says Krystal Johnson, an exercise physiologist with the cardiac rehabilitation program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Some of the people she counsels are extremely sedentary or don’t like to exercise. “If I can get them to commit to 10 minutes of exercise, two to three times a week, that’s a start,” she says. The goal is to build up gradually to 150 minutes a week.

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Bored of brisk walking? Try a waltz, fox-trot, or other ballroom dance to step up your fitness efforts.

Measuring your exertion

To get cardiovascular benefits, moderate-intensity exercise—the type that gets your heart pumping—is key. Most people think of exercise as burning up calories, but exercise researchers think in metabolic equivalents, or METs. METs measure your level of exertion and are based on how much oxygen your body uses during a particular activity. A single MET is the amount of energy you expend when you’re sitting quietly. Activities rated at 2 METs use twice as much oxygen as sitting, 3 METs use three times as much oxygen, and so on. Activities that fall in the range of 3.0 to 6.0 are classified as moderate.

However, one problem with the MET scale is that an activity in the moderate range may require more effort from someone who is unfit or older. Researchers find that gauging activity by a person’s perceived level of exertion is useful. As people age, their maximum MET levels drop, so the scale may shift; light-intensity activities may become moderate, and moderate ones, vigorous.

Moderate METs

So if you’re out of shape or older than 65 and haven’t been exercising, it makes sense to ease into exercise with activities in the low- to moderate-intensity range, or about 2.0 to 4.0 METs (see table). A small study in The American Journal of Cardiology corroborates this idea. Researchers monitored 10 unfit, older men with stable heart disease during 10-minute bouts of table tennis (ping-pong). While they played, the men’s MET values ranged from 2.0 to 5.0, with an average of 3.2 METs. The men perceived their exertion as “fairly light,” yet the researchers deemed the exercise to be at an appropriate training level for these men.

Finding the best fit

Exercise experts often recommend brisk walking because it offers the added bonus of helping to strengthen your bones, says Johnson. Different forms of exercise may be a better fit for people with certain health issues. Just be sure you’re comfortable and able to do the exercise correctly, she adds. People with low back pain often find a recumbent bicycle more comfortable than a standard bike. Another option is a recumbent stepper (NuStep), which is available at some cardiac rehabilitation centers and health clubs. Obese people might also find this machine more comfortable to use than a recumbent bike, especially if they have large bellies.

If you have achy joints, swimming or water aerobics are excellent choices. Need to de-stress? Try tai chi, a Chinese martial art that combines simple, flowing movements with deep breathing, or chair yoga, a gentle form of yoga practiced sitting in a chair or standing using a chair for support.

Low- to moderate-intensity exercise

Curious about how many calories you’re burning? The formula is METs times weight (in kilograms) times hours of activity. (Multiply your weight in pounds by 0.45 to get kilograms.)

Sample activities

equivalents (METs)

Light household work (making a bed, washing dishes, preparing food

2.0 – 2.5

Moderate household work (sweeping, vacuuming, mopping floors)

3.0 – 3.5

Bicycling (5.5 mph)


Canoeing (2.4 mph)


Golfing (using a golf cart)


Golfing (walking)




Ballroom dancing (slow)


Ping-pong/table tennis

3.0 – 4.0

Posted by: Dr.Health

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