Making the decision to get fitter and healthier isn’t a small matter. Finding ways to break your bad habits and introduce healthier ones is rarely as easy as we all wish it were! The good news is that even small changes can lead to bigger ones.
So if you’re looking for ways to eat better, get fit or get lean, or you just need a new way to approach your health, here’s our ultimate guide to improving your overall health and fitness.
Start with the Right Mindset
It’s essential to recognise that everyone has their own ways of approaching a new health and fitness regime. Getting healthier is a personal journey, and the best fitness plan for your family or friends won’t be the best one for you. There are different meal plans, different goals and different styles of exercise. It’s not enough to know how to make a workout plan; you have to know how to make a workout plan that works specifically for you.
Mindset will be vital. Some people are great at motivating themselves and can get to the gym regularly while having plenty of time and money to buy and prepare healthier foods. Others will need a personal trainer, while others will just need a health and fitness buddy to help with motivation.
However you approach the start of your journey to improved health and fitness, even with an army of personal trainers, you will have to put the work in. A personal trainer won’t hover over you at home to ensure you don’t open that extra packet of biscuits or order a takeaway. Will power is going to play a big part in your journey, so ensure that you:
- Commit to your changes: A diet you dodge more often than not won’t do you any favours. And avoiding a gym session in favour of a Netflix binge won’t help you get fitter. Do some research on the best ways to stay in shape without effort…you’ll find that there aren’t any!
- Have a goal: Goal setting is important for almost everything we do in life, and getting healthier is no exception. Setting goals makes us more focused on what needs to be done to meet those goals. If you’re working on getting lean, losing weight, improving the health of your heart or simply getting ripped, those goals will determine how you eat and exercise. Set your targets, and start tackling them.
- Learn about food: Eating well is not the same as simply eating. The goal should be a healthy, balanced diet. A good rule of thumb to remember is the 70/30 rule. This states that all weight loss is 70% about what we eat and 30% about exercise. Start counting calories (there are lots of apps that help with this), cut down on your sugar and salt intake, and up your protein and vegetables.
- Regular exercise: Whether you’re a complete newbie, trying to motivate yourself after a break from workouts or looking to build mass, you will have to exercise at least three times a week. Walking to your local shop isn’t going to cut it.
- Have a routine: It takes time for a new routine to become a habit (it’s estimated to take about 66 days or two months), so have a daily and weekly routine that you can stick to. Don’t be afraid to start with small changes, but make sure that they are changes.
- Make the big changes: An unhealthy lifestyle means that you’re making mistakes with your body. You likely know exactly what those mistakes are (e.g. too much alcohol or too many bars of chocolate). Try starting a meal diary to list everything you eat. This can highlight where you’re going wrong and give you the first clues to where you need to make the biggest changes.
- Cheat meals: Having the right mindset doesn’t mean that you won’t be occasionally tempted by a chocolate muffin or a break from your exercise. Don’t beat yourself up, but don’t let one cheat turn into, “well, I’ve already gone wrong, so I might as well skip the workouts this week and eat this whole pack of muffins.”
- Be patient: You won’t be able to see the results of your hard work for a while, so don’t get disheartened if you don’t have abs of steel after a week of healthy eating and gym visits. They say that it takes about four weeks of exercise and healthy eating before you start to see the changes, around eight weeks for people closest to you to notice, and twelve weeks for everyone to see that you’re looking better. It takes time, but it will come.
Why Learn How to Get Fit at All?
If you’ve had a lifetime of very little exercise, eating whatever you want and drinking more alcohol than is good for you, the thought of “getting healthy” can be terrifying. So why bother?
Being fitter and healthier will make you feel better, physically and mentally. There are so many benefits to a healthier lifestyle! Check out what the NHS has to say about it. Getting to a healthy body weight, reducing your chances of a heart attack, cutting down the likelihood of diabetes and a longer life are all proven results of living more healthily.
Part One: How do I Start Exercising?
If this is your first time committing to a healthier lifestyle, the thought of a workout can be very off-putting. Even people who are already fit and healthy and go to the gym five days a week can be challenged by the idea of committing to a brand new way of working out.
If you’re putting off getting healthier because you’re worried about exercise, start small. You don’t have to immediately sign up for a gym membership or spend money on weights and gym equipment at home. Begin by going for a faster than normal walk three times a week.
As time passes, you can start adding different types of exercise to your routine at the pace you feel comfortable with. Remember to set specific times when you know you’re going to be exercising. That could be before or after work, after you’ve done the school run, or while you’re waiting for that last washing load to be done.
Of course, taking the slow route with smaller exercises to ease into the lifestyle change isn’t going to work for everyone. Some people will be more motivated by making big changes, so sign up for the gym or invest in that home exercise equipment if that’s what works for you.
Before You Start
If you start exercising and eating more healthily after decades of unhealthy eating and a sedentary lifestyle, your body is going to have a bit of a shock. If you’re older than 40, that will add to the shock! It’s always a good idea to speak to your GP about your plans, as they can advise you of any potential difficulties you may have or dangers you may face. They will know how to make a workout plan that works perfectly for you and your current health and fitness levels.
For example, jumping straight into a cardio workout if you have a heart condition is not the smartest of moves. Your doctor will let you know what exercises are safest for you and help clarify your goals. Remember that when you’re starting, those goals need to be easy and achievable.
Common Exercise Types
Exercise should feel as much like fun as possible (although everyone has those days when it feels like a chore). However, there is no one-size-fits-all exercise, and what’s best for you may not be brilliant for your gym buddy or the guy who always seems to be on the Pec Fly machine.
Here are some of the most common types of exercise, most of which you’ve probably heard of, even if you’re not quite sure what they mean.
The goal of aerobic exercise is to get your oxygen levels higher and your heart pumping faster. It tends to involve long periods of repeated movement. Running, rowing and cycling are all aerobic activities.
These are the kinds of exercises you will do if your goals are to build muscle and strength. It will largely involve weightlifting, and all of your major muscle groups will need to be focused on roughly twice a week (although this will depend on your goals).
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Extremely popular right now, HIIT involves short, repeated bursts of very hard work, followed by short recovery periods. HIIT workouts are often seen as cardio exercise, but they can be just as useful for strength training.
Balance, Stability and Flexibility
Stretching is essential to get right. If you don’t warm up your body before a workout, your chances of injury will be much higher. Flexibility training will ensure that you’re more limber, dexterous and mobile. It will also improve your balance. Look at bodyweight exercises like forward lunges, or take up yoga (there are plenty of yoga videos on YouTube).
Once you’ve started working out, you’re going to have days when it all just seems like too much. Staying motivated is one of the hardest aspects of starting a journey to better health and fitness. Here are some tricks that can help.
Track your Progress
Whether you use a fitness app, a smartwatch or even an old-school notebook and pen, always track your progress. From running times to weight loss to how much weight you’re lifting in the gym, seeing those numbers change is a huge motivator (as long as the numbers move in the right direction!).
Workout with Others
It’s much easier to stay motivated if you’re not alone. You could head to the gym with friends, family, or work colleagues. If that’s not an option, consider attending a group workout class. Not only is it much easier to stay motivated if you’re working out with other people it can be a lot more fun too.
Embrace the Fun
Talking of fun, your workouts should always be fun. If you find that you’re not enjoying one kind of workout, switch to something else. This isn’t an excuse to skip leg day, but with so many ways to exercise, sticking with a workout you hate is simply going to mean demotivation can set in more quickly.
Pay Attention to Your Body
When you’re working out, always listen to what your body is telling you. If you try to push your way through the pain because you don’t want to look weak in the gym, then you’re going to injure yourself. And if that happens, you may not be able to exercise for a while, which will set you back from hitting your goals.
Part Two: Eating Healthy
You can go to the gym every day and slam the heaviest weights you can find, but if you’re still cramming chocolate into your throat every hour, you’re not going to get results. So much of being healthy is about what you eat. For some of us, eating healthily is even more of a challenge than doing sit-ups!
The problem is that eating unhealthily is just so easy. It takes time and effort to make a healthy meal, whereas picking up your phone and ordering an UberEats delivery couldn’t be easier. You need to remember that eating healthy food isn’t just important for your weight. A good, balanced diet also means higher energy levels, so you’ll be able to work harder when you exercise.
If you want to start eating more healthily, there are endless guides, meal plans and articles available online to help. From the NHS to BUPA, you’re not going to run out of tips and advice about healthy eating. However, remember the following, and you can’t go wrong.
Set Realistic Goals
It can be extremely difficult to change eating habits. Start with small steps if that is easier for you. Establish goals that aren’t too difficult to manage, such as cutting down your number of takeaways every week.
Don’t Punish Yourself
One of the biggest problems with many formalised diets is that they can be torturous. You’re still allowed to enjoy food! The key is to remember that healthy eating doesn’t mean a salad for every meal. Instead, it’s all about finding the right balance of meals.
Use Meal Plans
Meal plans can be an effective resource when you’re trying to eat more healthily. Have a look online for practical meal plans but don’t be afraid to make changes to suit your overall goals and your tastebuds alike.
When we’re working towards a goal, knowing we’ll get a reward at the end of it will always be motivational. These don’t have to be big rewards like a holiday (although that could be great for your long-term goals). Having a professional manicure, getting a haircut or seeing a movie are great mini-rewards for hitting your healthy-eating targets.
Go Easy on Yourself
Deciding to be healthier is a big step, so you should be pleased with yourself for even attempting it. On days where you fail, don’t beat yourself up. You’re likely to have a few setbacks. Don’t use them as an excuse to give up. Your future won’t be defined by those setbacks: your ability to overcome them and move forward will be what defines your future.
Eating out is rarely, if ever, as healthy as cooking your own meals. It’s cheaper too! If you struggle to get motivated in the kitchen, meal prepping is a good way to get everything done in one go. Use your meal plan and make a week’s worth of food in one day.
You don’t have to give up meat (although that’s becoming a very popular option), but it’s a good idea to cut down on how much of it you eat. You can replace the meat in your meals with other high-protein foods like canned fish, seeds or eggs. It’s likely to cut down on your shopping bills too.
It’s a good idea to only buy fruit and vegetables grown locally and in season. Remember, you can always freeze whatever you don’t get around to using. Frozen fruit and veg are great for adding to smoothies if you’re going that route.
Part Three: How Do I Lose Weight?
One of the most popular reasons for switching to a healthier lifestyle is to lose weight. It could be the weight you gained over a Christmas break, the consequences of having a baby or just deciding that you want to look better in the mirror.
The problem is that there are so many conflicting ideas and fad diets that it can get very confusing very quickly. But remember that losing weight is all about one thing — you.
Losing weight will mean finding a food plan and taking time to exercise. So any plan for weight loss will ultimately depend on the time you have available to spend on it, your goals and what you enjoy doing. To lose weight naturally, you will have to change your unhealthy habits.
Remember, too, that if you try to do too much, you could end up having the opposite effect and cause yourself harm. So while there are extreme low-calorie diets available, they can be dangerous if your body isn’t ready for it. Talk to your doctor before making any major dietary changes, and get advice about what’s best for you and your body.
Losing Weight through Healthy Eating
There are an almost infinite number of diets and weight loss strategies out there. Some are great; some are downright dangerous. Paleo, keto and Mediterranean diets may work great for you, but not for the people you’re dieting with.
The thing is, all of those diets work by doing the same thing. Lowering the number of calories that you consume and eating foods that are proven to be healthy, such as:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Grains and nuts
- Lean meat
- Low-fat dairy.
You should try and cut out processed foods as much as possible. That doesn’t mean you have to stop eating the foods that make you happy. With healthy eating, and weight loss in particular, it’s all about finding the right balance.
If you immediately switch from a diet of steak and eggs for every meal to one of salads, yoghurts and plain toast, you’re not going to have fun. It will lead to more setbacks when you cave and need your favourite food and drinks.
Use weight loss plans if that helps; join healthy eating clubs and other organisations if that’s what it takes to keep you motivated. Don’t pay attention to any new fad diet that makes a million unrealistic promises (sorry, but flopping on the sofa and munching crisps will not lead to losing weight).
It takes time to put on weight, and it takes time to lose it. Don’t expect immediate results just because you didn’t order a burger today, and you walked to the shop instead of driving (which is a great thing to do, by the way). Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get immediate weight loss results.
Losing Weight through Exercise
How much exercise should you be doing before you start losing weight? There’s no set answer; it will depend on what you’re eating, your calorie count and how often you’re active.
If you’re starting to exercise for the first time, you can begin with a target of 50 minutes of exercise per week. Once you’re doing that comfortably, start adding more minutes. Ideally, you want to aim for around 200 minutes of exercise a week, and your exercise should be moderately intense.
There’s no straight answer to how much exercise you’ll need to do to lose weight, but there are ways to make it easier. Ideally, you want to burn as many calories as possible while reducing how many calories you eat and drink. A calorie deficit means that you lower your calories so that your body has to start burning through fat.
If you’re starting to eat healthily, your calorie intake should be lower than it used to be. If you’re exercising on top of that, you’ll be burning through your fat in no time.
Is it Possible to Be Overweight and Fit?
It’s absolutely possible to be at a healthy level of fitness while still being overweight. Consider the opposite side of the spectrum, with supermodels as skinny as can be, but are lacking strength and muscle definition and have weak hearts through lack of cardio.
Of course, when you are overweight, your health will be negatively affected. You’re also going to find it harder to stay active, making weight loss more difficult. As you do start to lose weight, though, you’ll find that exercising starts to get easier and easier. And you’ll need a workout plan that progresses as your weight improves.
Part Four: Tips and Tricks for a Healthier, Fitter Life
If you’re new to workouts, healthy eating and the gym, it can all be very intimidating. Here are some tips to help you stay on track and start seeing real improvements.
Have a Schedule
If you have clearly defined times of day when you plan to work out, you’ll be far less likely to miss an exercise session. Use your calendar or a daily alarm clock to ensure that you get your workouts in every week. It’s very easy to find that your time gets repeatedly taken up by something other than exercise. With a set schedule, you’ll find that you’re using your time more efficiently.
Bad Days Happen
While missing out on a trip to the gym can be frustrating, don’t let it get you down. Life will sometimes get in the way of your plans. Just don’t let one missed exercise session turn into two, then three. Even if you do only five minutes of a workout that was meant to be an hour, that’s still considerably better than doing nothing at all.
Take Your Time
Your health and fitness goals are going to take time to reach. So you need to give yourself time to let the results start showing. If you try to rush by racing from exercise machine to exercise machine or adding more weight than is safe, you’re more likely to injure yourself than make health improvements. Be as patient as you can, and take your time. Getting healthier is a big change and a slow journey.
Wear the Right Gear
You wouldn’t go onto a construction site without a hard hat, and you shouldn’t start going for a run without a good pair of running shoes. What you wear can directly impact the effectiveness of your workouts. The right clothing can reduce injury risk, allow your body to regulate temperature and even act as a motivator.
Do I Need to Go to the Gym for a Workout?
A gym is an excellent tool for getting fitter, but it’s not your only option. Going into a gym for the first time can be very intimidating. For some people, a gym is simply too overwhelming or distracting. Don’t think that not being able (or not wanting) to hit the gym is a barrier to getting fit.
Home workouts are more popular than ever. If you’re working out from home, you don’t even need to spend money on expensive weights or equipment either. Use items from around your home to replace those weights. Bottles of water in a bag are a good replacement for dumbbells or do low-impact exercises that are all about small movements focused on very specific muscle groups.
If you’ve been using resistance bands in your workouts, you can simply replace them with a rolled-up towel or an old pair of tights.
However, it’s bodyweight exercise that will be your mainstay if you’re working out at home without equipment. Use the weight of your body — push-ups, lunges and sit-ups are all fantastic exercises and don’t need additional kit (although it’s a good idea to invest in an exercise mat, for comfort).
A Word about Running
Yes, running is an excellent cardiovascular workout. It builds up your strength, endurance and mental health. Running is also one of the most consistently popular forms of exercise, especially with apps like Couch-to-5k making progress much easier to monitor. It’s also free to run, which is always good.
If you’re going to try running for the first time, start slow. It’s a good idea to start with walks, and then slowly up the speed as the weeks go by. And if you don’t enjoy running, don’t feel like you have to do it. Yes, running is one of the best all-around exercises you can do, but if you’re not having fun, it will be easy to skip a session.
Get a Personal Trainer
If you’re great at motivating yourself and have plenty of time to plan your weekly nutrition needs, you have everything you need to get started. For others, more motivation will be needed. While not everyone needs a personal trainer, they are a great way to ensure you stay focused on your goals.
Talk to your local gym or look online for a personal trainer if you decide to go with this option. Make sure that you understand the difference between a fitness instructor, a gym instructor and a personal trainer.
One important aspect of getting healthier is staying hydrated. When you work out, you will sweat. The moisture leaving your body will need to be replaced. Always take a bottle of water with you wherever you’re exercising. If you don’t drink enough, you could cause serious damage to your organs.
The most commonly cited advice on water consumption is to have eight glasses of water a day. Of course, everyone is different, and you may need more or less water than that. You know you’re getting dehydrated if you have any of these symptoms:
- Dark yellow urine and not many trips to the bathroom
- Your skin is becoming dry
- Headaches and occasional dizziness
- Feeling faint
- Faster heartbeat and breathing than normal.
A lack of water can seriously damage your body. Always make sure you are drinking enough, even when you’re not working out. Water is great for you, but it’s a necessity when you’re getting hot and sweaty.
The Importance of Stretching
When you work out, you’re putting strain and pressure on your muscles, joints and tendons. When you do a pre-workout stretching session, you’re easing your body into activity. That warms up your muscles, tendons and joints, reducing the risk of injury. Always warm-up before a workout, and focus specifically on the muscle groups you’re working on today.
Post-workout stretches are also essential. If you’re learning how to gain muscle or lose weight, it may even be more important than the pre-workout ones. You’ll find that if you spend ten minutes stretching the muscle groups that you’ve been working on, the aches and pain of recovery will be considerably lower.
It might seem unlikely right now, but newcomers to health and exercise can quickly fall in love with it. The problem is that it can lead to overtraining.
If you’re over-ambitious about your goals and the timeline you’ve set for yourself, you won’t get the rest you need. It can be hard to stop training, especially if you feel like you’ve found a groove. Remember that rest is essential for recovering from the workouts that you do. Without rest, your body won’t have the time to repair the tissues after exercising.
A Quick Word about Classes
Exercise classes are incredibly popular, and for good reason. It’s often hard to push yourself when exercising alone! But when you’re surrounded by other people in a classroom environment and you have a good teacher, your motivation levels can skyrocket.
Classes are run by qualified professionals and can be great fun. Not only that, but it’s safe, effective and even a social activity if you want it to be. And there are so many classes to choose from, you’re almost spoiled for choice.
Here are some types of group exercise classes that you might be interested in:
- Tai Chi
- Water/Pool exercise
- Barre (based on ballet)
- Group circuit training
- Kettlebell sessions
- Total Resistance Exercising (TRX)
- Martial arts
- Tabata (this is extremely challenging and not for the fainthearted!).
Choose the kind of class that appeals to you most. If you’re working out and having fun, you’ll be far less tempted to cut your session short. And that’s good news for your health and fitness.
Start Your Fitness Journey Today
Making the decision to get fitter and healthier is not a small step. It’s incredibly bold, especially if you’ve spent a large part of your life being anything but healthy. And make no mistake — creating a training plan and sticking to it can be very hard work. It’s that challenge that you need to embrace. Get it right, and your accomplishments will surprise you.
Listen to your body, set your goals and have fun. You could be looking and feeling better than you ever thought possible.