Man stretching his shoulder in a living room before starting new routine

How to Get Back in Shape After Inactivity

Published: February 2021 | Updated: February 2021

Ahhh, the “quarantine 15.” You’ve been inside your house for almost a year, finished every show and movie on Netflix, and the only exercise you’ve done is walking to and from the fridge. Guilty as charged. But, just because you are homebound does not mean that you need to be a couch potato! Here are six tips and tricks to get you from sedentary to back in shape.

1. Make a routine

Plan out your exercise schedule

What’s the best way to start getting back in shape after months of inactivity? Simple: just start doing something, anything to get your body moving! There are a million different ways to get active, but that doesn’t mean you have to do or try all of them. Pick something you enjoy, stick with it and take it one day at a time. Make cardio your BFF; go for a swim or run, take your bike out for a spin, walk to the coffee shop on your lunch break, or try an online fitness class… but don’t try to do it all in one day.

Rather than spending your free time in a social media blackhole, take the hour you would spend mindlessly staring at your phone and do something that makes you feel good. Start to incorporate time into your day that gets you moving rather than sitting around by removing distractions that may be what made you sedentary to begin with (*cough cough* put down your cell phone).

2. Start slow

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t expect yourself to go from couch to 5k overnight, especially if you’re getting back in shape after years of inactivity. Start by going for a walk around your neighborhood or local park for at least 30 minutes. Begin with one day a week and gradually increase the number of days and the length of time you go for a walk.

Make your walk fun and throw in some headphones and listen to a podcast or get in the groove with your favorite music. Also, try skipping the elevator and opt for the stairs, or try parking further away from your destination in order to increase mobility and get some extra steps in! Gradually increase the number of days you are active and soon you will find yourself doing something each day of the week.

4. Work out and worry less

Man feeling relaxed after stress relief

Regular exercise can help you better manage your stress levels. Interestingly, exercise itself is a form of stress. So why would inflicting more stress upon yourself help you keep your calm?

Contrary to popular belief, stress is not the bad guy. It’s a biological process that prepares you to be ready for whatever may come when you face an uncomfortable situation. (Like when you hear “duck!” and your body reacts to get out of the way.) The problem comes when our stress response gets out of balance, leaving us worked up and frazzled. There’s a reason why when we’re having “one of those days,” going for a run or taking a kickboxing class is just what the body needs.

And while busy schedules make it challenging to fit exercise into our daily routines, extensive research shows that moving more is a great way to stress less.

That’s because physical activity provides stress relief by imitating the effects of stress (aka the “fight or flight” response). There’s a whole cycle of physiological experiences you go through during a workout session that aren’t all that unlike being in a suddenly stressful situation. You start to get warm, then you feel challenged, then (possibly) a burst of energy or exhilaration if you hit that classic “runner’s high” moment. Finally, when you’re all done, sweaty towel in hand, you will feel relaxed, calm and refreshed.

5. Exercise your way to optimism

Woman feeling calm through deep breathing

Did you know that exercise helps you, quite literally, think happy thoughts? This might be hard to believe when your muscles are being challenged, but noticing that (temporary) occasional discomfort is actually good for your mental outlook.

That’s because a workout isn’t that far removed from the act of meditation. When you exercise, you’re engaging your mind and body. You’re consciously aware of the connection between your brain and your muscles; you pay attention to how you move, your form, and your breathing—everything works in unison to help you hold that crow’s pose or run for several miles, taking your mind away from pestering thoughts.

Meanwhile, the deep breathing improves your mood by promoting the release of endorphins and other brain chemicals that influence your emotions. The end result of regular exercise? A more positive mindset.

6. Young at brain: The anti-aging power of exercise

Woman solving a sudoku puzzle for better cognative activity

Time spares no one, especially when it comes to the brain. Our cognitive abilities and performance naturally begin to decline as we age. Factors such as a poor diet, aging cells and oxidative stress make us susceptible to cognitive health-related implications. We may notice that we have difficulty remembering conversations or planning and organizing events, or we can’t remember what we did with our glasses (that happen to be on the top of our heads).

The good news is that you can be proactive to combat age-related cognitive decline, and regular exercise is marvelous at doing precisely that!

Physical exercise encourages better cell-to-cell communication, prompts neurotransmitter and hormonal balance, and helps promote a healthy inflammatory response. You can also give your mind (and neural connections) a workout by choosing hobbies and activities that stimulate your mind, such as learning a new language, solving puzzles, catching up on your reading list or mastering a musical instrument. Aging is inevitable, but you can do your part to stay young at heart (and mind).

What’s the best exercise for brain health?

Older woman dancing for both physical and mental exercise

If you’re worried about having to do some strenuous exercise to promote your cognitive health, fear not! You don’t have to exercise until your legs feel like jelly to get those brain-friendly gains. Whether you dance, jump rope, or choose yoga, get your body moving at least 30 minutes three to four times a week, or aim for 150 minutes of full-body movement a week.

If you’re transitioning from couch potato to “getting back on track” after being inactive for a while, remember to take it slow and build on your progress. Even if it’s just 10-minute workouts, the important thing is to start and keep going. As your mind and body change, you’ll soon notice you look forward to getting on your mat or showing up to your Zumba class.

It’s never too early to start caring for your brain. A brain-friendly lifestyle includes regular body movement, eating nutrient-rich foods, getting restful sleep and drinking enough water. Of course, having a smart nutritional strategy also helps maintain optimal cognitive health and performance, especially in the long haul.

References

By: Andrew Davis, Health & Wellness Writer

Andrew Davis is a graduate of Pace University NYC with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. He has more than a decade's worth of experience in content and social media in the health and wellness space. An avid traveler, Andrew also has volunteered as an English teacher and humanitarian in countries throughout Asia.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD