How to start exercising : Life Kit Feeling blocked with it comes to starting an exercise habit? You can actually get the health benefits of exercise with just 22 minutes of exercise a day — and you might be surprised what "counts" as exercise. Kiss your excuses goodbye!

Start an exercise routine that you'll actually stick with

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I used to really hate exercise. I would get winded just going up the stairs. I had bad insomnia, and I was always too tired to work out. I have two small kids and no time. Basically, I had a lot of good excuses, just like everyone else.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think my biggest hurdle for getting to the gym is staying motivated.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Lack of energy and money.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I sit all day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I feel self-conscious about the way I look.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I got put on clothes. I got to drive there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Exercising can be kind of boring.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I've got to move when all I want to do is just sleep.

GODOY: But I've actually turned it around. I love exercise now. And the method I used to do it, there's science to back it up. This is your NPR Life Kit for exercise. In this episode, how to learn to love exercise, or at least like it enough to actually do it. We've got four tactics to help you bust through those barriers that are keeping you from starting or restarting an exercise habit. The good news, it's easier than you think. More in a minute.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Support for NPR and the following message come from LinkedIn learning, which offers over 13,000 online courses to help you achieve your goals. You can take a course like managing stress and learn from experts about the importance of mindfulness, listening, thinking, and communicating positively and much more. LinkedIn Learning videos are short, so you can fit a lesson in between workouts and apply it that same day. And Life Kit listeners get a month of learning free. Start your free trial at

GODOY: I'm Maria Godoy. I'm senior editor here on NPR's health and science desk, and I actually crave exercise. But wait, before you say she's a fitness freak, know this. A year and a half ago, I was completely sedentary. And I'm not going to tell you how much I used to weigh, but it wasn't healthy. So what changed? Well, I came across this bit of research.

MICHELLE SEGAR: The research does now show that basically all movement counts. And anything counts, and anything is better than nothing.

GODOY: That's Michelle Segar. She's a sport and health psychologist at the University of Michigan. She studies how we sustain healthy behaviors, and she's got your first big takeaway. If you want to get exercise, start by reframing what you think of as exercise.

SEGAR: I've been astounded that, even up until today, very educated people don't know, don't believe that walking actually, quote, unquote, "counts" as valid exercise.

GODOY: And that was a big hangup for me. I had all these preconceived notions about what kind of exercise was worth doing.

Alright. True or false, you have to sweat for it to count for health benefits.

SEGAR: False.

GODOY: You have to do it in 30 minute, uninterrupted stretches.

SEGAR: False.

GODOY: You need to feel the burn or it really doesn't count.

SEGAR: False.

GODOY: Alright, so where...

SEGAR: Did I pass?

GODOY: Yeah, you passed. Ding, ding, ding. You're a big winner. You get to keep your Ph.D.


GODOY: But even though these ideas about exercise are wrong, they're still really prevalent. We actually heard them from a lot of you. Here's one person we heard from. His name is Tom Ryan.

TOM RYAN: I sort of came of age in the '80s where things like aerobics and Arnold Schwarzenegger were starting to really become big. And the aerobics culture and the weightlifting culture all were promoting this you got to go crazy and really just be hardcore, and that's what I thought I had to do.

GODOY: Tom, I also fell victim to legwarmers, but good news. Psychologist Michelle Segar says don't let your preconceptions about a gold standard of exercise keep you from actually doing it.

SEGAR: And that's what gets in people's way because if we don't believe there's a continuum from very little to a lot and our life only permits us a very little, then we choose not to do anything, when very little might be exactly what we need.

GODOY: Because the fact is, you don't have to be a marathoner or a gym rat to get health benefits from exercise. Science tells us so much counts as moderately intense activity. And the expert guideline is we should be getting 150 minutes of it each week. That helps ward off diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, even some cancers. There's actually this very geeky but cool resource called the Compendium of Physical Activities. It's used by researchers to compare apples and oranges when it comes to exercise, and it uses a value called a MET, or a metabolic equivalent.

LORETTA DIPIETRO: Just sitting doing nothing is a MET value of one, right. You're working at your resting metabolic rate.

GODOY: By the way, that's Loretta DiPietro. She's an exercise scientist at George Washington University.

DIPIETRO: An activity that say, is two METs means it makes you work at twice your resting metabolic rate. So getting up and walking across the room is about two METs.

GODOY: And Loretta says the compendium lists the MET values for all kinds of activities. Everything from mopping the floor, that's like 3 1/2 METs, all the way to ballroom dancing, which is almost eight METs.

DIPIETRO: Having sex, that's in there.


DIPIETRO: Oh, yes.

GODOY: Really?

DIPIETRO: Yes. You've not looked thoroughly through the compendium.


GODOY: But the magic number you want an activity to hit is at least three METs.

DIPIETRO: That is correct. Moderate intensity activities are defined as those that require between three and six METs.

GODOY: Lots of regular activities do that. Climb the stairs slowly and that's four METs. Climb them quickly and it's nearly nine METs, which means you're burning nearly nine times as many calories as you would be if you were just sitting doing nothing. Even vacuuming or drumming can count if you do them with gusto.

And researchers now know that these little movements add up.

DIPIETRO: Think of it like putting pennies in a piggy bank. And, you know, if you just put three pennies in, you may think oh, this doesn't add up to much. But at the end of the month, it does indeed.

GODOY: Which is great news because so many of you say the biggest problem for you is time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It takes me about 45 minutes to get home from work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I pick up my kids at 3:30, cooking every dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: After my 10 hour shift that starts at 4:30 A.M., it's difficult to force myself to go to the gym.

GODOY: And that brings us to our second big takeaway. Don't think of exercise as all or nothing. Even short bouts of exercise have value, and they can help you build up fitness. So instead, think of exercise like climbing a ladder. Start at the bottom and work your way up.

DIPIETRO: I think a ladder is a wonderful metaphor for initiating an exercise program when you've been sedentary. In climbing a ladder, you start from the first rung.

GODOY: So start small, like standing up from your chair and sitting back down repeatedly. Stand up, sit down. Stand up, sit down. Kind of like you're doing squats. Or just take a five-minute walk.

DIPIETRO: It helps to clear fat and sugar out of blood just by moving.

GODOY: And that can help ward off diseases like type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

DIPIETRO: Second rung would be three 10-minute bouts of physical activity. Climbing the stairs. Maybe one of those three sessions, you walk for 10 minutes outside.

GODOY: Studies show these shorter bursts of exercise can give you similar heart health benefits as one longer bout, and they can also help keep you from gaining weight. In other words, you're getting fitter even in these short bouts. And eventually, you can build up to working out in much longer stretches.

It is hard, but it's doable.

DIPIETRO: It is absolutely doable.

GODOY: I actually did it over the last year, Loretta.

DIPIETRO: And how did you do that?

GODOY: By going up the ladder, literally. Came across this research, started doing little 5, 10 minute walks, then started taking the stairs, then decided I liked that, then doing it longer and then starting to use the elliptical that was gathering dust in my basement. And then...


GODOY: ...Then I got a trainer. And then I started taking classes and yeah, now I workout every day.

DIPIETRO: Right. So, I mean, is it true that the more you accomplished, even if it was walking up stairs, you felt like you could take on the world?

GODOY: Yes. Absolutely, actually. I do.

DIPIETRO: So, right. And so we call it self-efficacy, right. When you complete your goals, no matter how modest those goals are, it creates this feeling like I can do more.

DIPIETRO: After I started exercising, I did lose weight, which was nice. And I'm now at a healthy weight, but that's not what's kept me going. For me, exercise has become the only time in my day that's all about me. Away from my busy job, away from my two small and adorable, but demanding children. And honestly, with my hectic schedule, exercise gives me the energy to keep going.

Which brings us to your third big lesson, and it has to do with motivation. Don't exercise because you want to look better or be healthier. Instead, focus on how it makes you feel. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but Michelle Segar says there's science behind this.

SEGAR: I would say for the - for the majority of people from the work I've done with people over the last couple of decades that exercising to improve health, avoid a disease or to lose weight are not very good motivators.

GODOY: She says what really works is focusing on the short-term benefits of exercise.

SEGAR: When people actually get an immediate positive experience when they move, that that is just about the most potent motivator for continuing to do it.

GODOY: And there's a lot of science on those immediate benefits.

SEGAR: We know that it helps people generate energy. We know that it boosts mood. We know that it improves executive functioning and all the tasks associated with that focus, you know, creativity. There are so many positives that happen when you move.

GODOY: Michelle has spent a lot of time studying this, and she says the reason why wanting to lose weight is a bad motivator is it just takes way too long to see any payoff.

SEGAR: The bottom line is it's much easier to ingest 600 calories by eating a quick muffin on the way to work than it is to burn off 600 calories with exercise.

GODOY: It could take you up to two hours of walking to burn off that muffin. And if your goal is significant weight loss, you need to be getting closer to 300 minutes of moderate activity each week. If you're just starting out, that can be incredibly daunting.

SEGAR: And so given the ease of calorie intake versus expenditure, what we eat really plays a greater role in how much we weigh than how much we exercise.

GODOY: So instead of dreaming of that future beach bod, focus on all the immediate rewards you get from exercise.

SEGAR: When you have more energy and you're a happier person, you bring that much more enthusiasm and energy and performance to your role in your work and your patience as a parent and patience as a partner to someone if that's a part of your life. So feeling better isn't just this selfish, hedonic thing, it actually is fuel for the things that matter most in our lives.

GODOY: So next time you're doing some kind of exercise and you think oh, I don't actually mind this, stop and ask yourself why do I like this? Is it clearing my head? Is it easing my anxiety a bit? Did I just need a shot of sunshine? And this can be a really empowering way to think of exercise.

But a lot of you told us that part of the reason you don't exercise is because you find it boring, or you're embarrassed to do it in public, or going to the gym makes you anxious or uncomfortable. Like Jess Angle, who left us this voicemail.

JESS ANGLE: I get on the treadmill, and I just have this overwhelming feeling of just needing to leave, needing to run away, feeling like I can't breathe. It's really uncomfortable.

GODOY: Michelle says there's another way we can be thinking about this, and it's your final takeaway. Instead of forcing yourself to do something that makes you feel bad, figure out what kind of exercise and exercise location makes you feel good.

SEGAR: The big goal is to have people think of physical movement as their ally in life, as a strategy, I dare say, even as a friend they can help them feel their best on the days they feel good and feel better on the days they feel bad.

GODOY: So if you hate working out next to gym rats, try getting a set of weights for home, or follow workout video on YouTube or ride a bike in the park. The point is, keep trying things until you find your happy place and, it doesn't have to be the same thing every day.

SEGAR: So how can we craft our physical movement so that we want to do it, so that we're able to do it today or tomorrow. And then if you can't do it the day after tomorrow, instead of feeling guilty or like a failure, you go oh, there's one day it didn't work. But guess what, I have the rest of the week and the rest of my life to keep fitting it in.

GODOY: You ready to start exercising? Here are the four things to remember. Number one. Everything counts when it comes to movement, so choose to move at every opportunity you can and know that even short bouts of exercise have real measurable health benefits. Number two. Think of exercise as a ladder. The more you do, the more you can do, but you've got to start somewhere. Number three. Motivate your exercise by feeling the immediate benefits. And finally, keep trying different things until you find a form of exercise you actually like. And soon, those roadblocks will start to disappear.

If you like what you hear, listen to our next episode. It's all about how to make an exercise habit stick. And check out our other Life Kit podcasts at And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss a thing. We've got new podcasts coming out every month on all sorts of topics. And here, as always, is a completely random tip. This time from NPR producer Connor Donevan.

CONNOR DONEVAN, BYLINE: Here's a tip I use all the time. When you're sending a business email, put the pleasantry, so the - how are you - or - so nice seeing you the other day - at the end instead of the beginning. It'll make it seem less like throat-clearing and more like you actually care, which, hopefully, you do.

GODOY: NPR Life Kit is produced by Sylvie Douglis, Elisa Scarce and Chloe Weiner. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. This episode was edited by Carmel Wroth, with help from Allison Aubrey and Rachel Cohen. Music by Nick Dupre and Bryant Gerhart. Our project manager is Mathilde Piard. Neal Carruth is our general manager of podcasts. And the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Maria Godoy. Thanks for listening.

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