If you’ve been planted in the couch cushions for the last few weeks or your workout regimen has slipped, here’s how to start exercising again and establish an exercise routine you’ll actually stick with.

By Real Simple Editors
Updated May 20, 2019
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If the only working out you’ve done over the past few weeks is beating yourself up for being lazy, it’s time to forgive and move on. We asked fitness experts and personal trainers for their best advice on how to start working out again after a lull, whether it’s a morning workout or an afternoon round of stretching exercises.

Their tips will teach you how to start exercising like you never stopped (or like you’ve been doing it forever); with a little patience and determination, you’ll be hitting the gym (or the yoga mat) in no time. Here’s how to get up, establish a workout routine, and stay motivated long past waning New Year’s resolutions.

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In order to accurately track your progress, it’s helpful to identify your starting point and then define your goal. Jonny Straws, a certified personal trainer based in Orange County, California, suggests taking measurements of your body and some photos so you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come. Throw on a sports bra and shorts (or a bathing suit, or whatever you feel comfortable using), then take a video to capture your body from all angles. You can turn the video into still photos by taking screen shots. Do this every two to four weeks to track your progress, Straws says. You might also want use a tape measure and track measurements in your biceps, waist, hips, bust, and thigh areas so you can see how your body is changing.

For a more data-based method of tracking, invest in a smart watch or fitness tracker (if you don’t already have one) to track your heart rate. Heart rate can be an indicator of fitness level, according to the American Heart Association, and knowing yours can be a good way to track the health of your heart. Active people often have a lower resting heart rate because their heart muscle is in better condition, so you may see your resting heart rate go down as you move from a low or moderate amount of physical activity to a high amount.

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So you haven’t lifted a weight since the week before Halloween? Give yourself a break. “People want to go back to where they were with their fitness a few months ago, but they can’t,” says Liz Josefsberg, CPT, a weight loss expert who worked several years as the director of brand advocacy for Weight Watchers. The first week you’re easing back into exercising, start small. Know that any movement is good movement. Commit to doing 10 minutes of an exercise video or walking for exercise three days this week. “This will help you establish behaviors and create the habit you want to have in place,” she says. It can also be an opportunity to brush up on good form and basics, such as how to do squats.

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The first week you intend to exercise, look ahead at your schedule and establish modest changes to your routine. On Sunday night, commit to getting your exercise clothes out for the next day and then setting your alarm to wake up 30 minutes earlier on Monday. “Set the bar low with new behavior modifications in order to make changes that’ll last,” Josefsberg says. She doesn’t even suggest exercising that first Monday: Just prep the night before and wake up earlier. Then on Tuesday morning, slip on those exercise clothes and do 10 minutes of one exercise DVD, Josefsberg suggests.

Write down five ways you are going to be healthy today, Straws says: “Written words are powerful!” Your daily success list could include things like not drinking soda, eating more vegetables, doing 30 minutes of walking today, taking the stairs in your office once a day, and drinking more water. Keep them small and achievable so you’ll be motivated by your daily victories.

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Starting a morning workout routine is just like establishing any other new habit: It requires some plain-old hard work and dedication. Try these tips from Josefsberg to make it stick: Prep your coffeemaker to go off tomorrow morning when you wake up for a coffee-before-workout treat; pack your lunch the night before or ask your partner to help out with making lunches for the family; decide which workout DVD or routine you’re going to do the next morning; lay out the work clothes you’ll wear and get them ready the evening before; and consider buying dry shampoo so you can save time in the shower before you start your workday.

Look at each week ahead of time and plan exercise accordingly. If you have an early-morning meeting, be realistic and understand that you probably won’t work out that day. Advance prepping and planning can eliminate decisions about your workout, clothes, or what you’re eating that day—freeing up time to actually exercise.

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The gym can be an intimidating place for many of us, and if you’re out of shape or just inexperienced you might be afraid that people are staring or judging you. “Most of the time, everyone at the gym is focusing on themselves, even the fittest, most attractive person you’ll come across,” Straws says. Start with cardio machines to build up your comfort level, or bring some weights to a quiet area of the gym or an empty studio to start training by yourself, he suggests. You could also ask the personal trainers at the gym for help getting set up on certain equipment to make sure you’re using it properly.

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Here’s the reality of any journey, whether it’s business, relationships, or fitness—you’re going to make mistakes and stumble along the way. There will be times when life will get crazy and you’ll temporarily be derailed, Straws says. “Everyone falls. It’s part of the experience and you should expect it. But the difference between failing on a diet or fitness routine and succeeding is that you pick yourself up from the fall and keep going, or you use it as an excuse to quit,” he says. Just like you would if you were faced with an issue in the workplace, identify the problem and take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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Between week three and week four is the classic time when people quit their New Year’s resolutions, says Josefsberg. You could fall prey to this whenever you start your fitness journey. “Start this journey knowing you’re going to be tempted to drop your routine during that ‘red flag’ time and reward yourself so you’ll be inspired to keep going,” she says. Buy a new workout outfit, begin a new fitness DVD, try a new class at your gym, download some new songs, buy new shoes, or reward yourself with a massage or mani/pedi pampering session. “Get through that scary time when your motivation starts to wane and you’ll come out on the other side with your behaviors even more ingrained in those healthy habits,” Josefsberg says.

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“I would suggest divorcing the terms ‘weight loss’ and ‘exercise’ from one another,” Josefsberg says. Exercise for the health benefits that aren’t related to weight loss, such as feeling more energized, happier, and calmer and experiencing better sleep. “I think it can become punishing when you think of exercise in terms of weight loss, especially when you’re starting out,” Josefsberg says.

When you don’t feel like exercising, remind yourself of how good you’ll feel during or after exercise, says Sydney-based exercise physiologist Bill Sukala. “If you can begin to associate being active with pleasure and how good you feel as a result of it, you’ll be more inclined to stick to your exercise routine,” he says.

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Fitness experts and doctors alike often say the best exercise is the one you enjoy and will keep doing. If you hate boot camp workouts or can’t see yourself making a weekly commitment to yoga, move on to something you’ll look forward to showing up for. That workout could be a dance class, spinning, ballet-inspired barre workouts, or walking with friends. You want to make this experience as pleasant as possible. “Take an inventory of what needs to happen in your life to make this time that you’re starting an exercise program very, very different from the last time you tried and quit,” Josefsberg says.

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If you can nail down a few fitness habits—whether that’s getting up a few mornings a week or even showing up to the gym when you don’t feel like it—you’re more likely to be successful. “Habit is 75 percent of the challenge with exercise,” Sukala says. Once your mental game is on point and established, the physical aspect of following through with your intentions will be easier, he says.

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“If you made a promise to anyone else in your life—your husband, child, boss, or friend—you would do stick to it, but because it’s you and because you can somehow always negotiate with yourself, you might not stick to your commitment,” Josefsberg says. If you hit snooze a few times one morning and skipped your early workout, find time to get those 30 minutes in later in the day.

“What I see is that when someone slips up once, that becomes the excuse not to do the exercise at all,” Josefsberg says. “Figure out where you’re going to put it in the schedule…later in the week or that day.” This is one of the most common problems Josefsberg sees her clients make. Treat the fitness and health commitments you make for yourself like you would your job, family, and friendships. You wouldn’t let important people in your life who are counting on you down, so why do it to yourself?