How NOT to Feel Worse When Starting to Exercise


“I want to exercise, but every time I start, I  feel worse instead of better.” Have you ever had that thought? It’s actually a pretty common problem, especially for people who are very deconditioned and/or living with a chronic condition. Knowing it’s going to make us feel worse has the potential to send us running back to the couch. That’s why it’s important to learn the things we can do to reduce our chances of feeling worse when we start to exercise.

By now you probably know I always “give it to you straight,” so I have to tell you that we may not be able to completely avoid that initial soreness and energy drain that starting a new exercise program can cause. When we’re using muscles and tapping into energy systems we haven’t used in a long time we can expect an adjustment period. BUT – there are things we can do to make the transition easier.

When we’re first starting to exercise more, it can be helpful to remember the three S’s:

The Three S’s For An Easier Transition to Being An Exerciser

1. Start Smartly

Too often, people just decide they “need to get in better shape,” and the next thing you know, they’re in the gym killing themselves. Guess what – they very rarely stick with it. They end up giving up because it’s too hard to sustain, they start feeling worse than before, or worse yet, they hurt themselves and can’t do any kind of exercise for a while. Doing a little groundwork ahead of time can help us make sure we’re healthy enough to exercise and figure out the best way to go about it.

What does starting smartly look like? Here are a few things that can help get us off to a good start:

Consult your doctor. This is always the first stop, especially if you haven’t exercised for a while or live with a chronic condition. Our doctors can help us figure out the types of activities we should start with and what we should avoid. They can also help us establish the appropriate intensity range – one that can help us benefit from the exercise but keeps it from kicking our butts in the process.

Plan your exercise for the time of day you feel most energetic. So often, we feel like we need to exercise at the “best” time of the day. You know — that old, you have to “work out first thing in the morning” idea or “work out right before bed” in order for exercise to work mindset — but when we’re first starting out, the “best” time of day is when we actually have the energy to do it. (Oh – and side note – exercising within a couple of hours of bedtime can actually keep some people awake, so if you’re trying to improve sleep quality, you definitely want to throw that idea out the window.)

If you’re exercising outside, avoid exercising in extreme temperatures. Exercising in extreme temperatures is never pleasant, but it can be downright dangerous when we’re first starting out.

Stay hydrated. A common cause of that “exercise hangover” feeling is often dehydration. Making sure we drink enough water is a simple thing we can do to avoid dehydration and its associated symptoms.

Always warm up and cool down. It’s important to make sure we do a warm-up and cool-down every time we exercise.

A lot of people think a warm-up means stretching before you exercise, but it actually is a process of getting us ready the exercise we’re going to do. This may mean starting out with a very slow walk to get our muscles warmed up and the synovial fluid moving around in our joints, or starting with a very low level of the exercise we’re going to be doing.

The cool-down is vital. When we stop exercising suddenly, our blood can pool in our extremities and make us feel faint. Just as with the warm-up, we can cool down by doing what we were doing at a lower intensity, then spend a few minutes stretching to help reduce muscle soreness.

2. Start Small

It’s important to start small if we haven’t exercised for awhile. Starting out with some big complicated workout can make us feel worse both while we’re working out and in the days afterward.

Remember, as we talked about in Do We Need to Change How We View Exercise, we don’t have to start out doing 30-minute workouts. Even adding a few minutes of movement to what we’re already doing is beneficial.

As the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans states, “Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.”

If you can only walk for five minutes at first, that’s great. That’s five minutes more than you were walking. The even better news is that once we adjust to the increased movement, we can start to build on some time.

If we’re starting to incorporate some traditional exercise in addition to our activities, we can start out with just one or two workouts per week. That gives our bodies plenty of time to rest and recover. When we’re working out, our bodies are undergoing physiological changes and need time to repair themselves.

Once we can comfortably complete our one or two workouts per week, we can start to add on.

Starting small gives our bodies a chance to ease into exercise and avoid feeling worse when we first get started.

3. Start Slowly

It’s hard to start slowly when we want quick results. But do we want quick or do we want lasting? Okay, so we probably want both. Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually happen. When we’re trying to keep from feeling worse when we first start to exercise, starting slowly is vital.

What do we mean when we talk about starting slowly? It can mean our pace as we go through exercises, but it can also refer to the intensity we’re exercising at. Exercising at an intensity that’s comfortable for us can help us reduce the discomfort we can experience when we’re first getting started.

One easy way to make sure we’re working out at a comfortable intensity is to use a rating of perceived exertion. This means we rate our workout intensity by how hard we feel we’re working. An easy scale to use is a simple 1 – 10 scale. 1 would be the effort you’d expend sitting on the couch. 10 would be working out to the point of completely wiping out all your energy.

When we’re first starting out, we want to be at the low end of the scale – somewhat light. This means we should able to carry on a conversation without running out of breath. Starting at a lower level of perceived exertion can help us avoid feeling worse while reaping the benefits of more movement.

Squat rack in gym with lavender text box, text in white: No matter how many mistakes you make or how slowly you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn't trying.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

We live in a fast-food society. We want what we want, when we want it. Unfortunately, that bleeds over into our expectations for our wellness efforts also. Everybody seems to be looking for the “quick fix,” but the truth is, it doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t mean we can’t get great results though; we can. They just don’t usually come overnight. It really is helpful to be realistic about the work we’re going to have to put in and focus on the process.

We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare had the fast, hard start and saw those initial results, but then he stopped for a nap. (Do you think he ran out of energy?) The tortoise, on the other hand, started out smartly, then took small, slow steps to get to the finish line first. Which one do you think felt better while they were racing?

Starting out smartly, small, and slowly isn’t glamorous and it doesn’t give us fast results. What it does give us is a lifestyle change that we can stick with. It can help us build a great exercise habit without feeling worse as we start making the transition to being an exerciser.

Have you ever had an experience with exercise where you felt worse instead of better when you started? How did you handle it? Please share!



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Dark teal background with person on exercise cycle, with text overlay: How NOT to Feel Worse When Starting to Exercise


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  1. I love these tips Terri. Especially starting slowly. My mistake when I got back into exercising was I went into it full speed with the mindset of a 20 year old. Although my mind was young, my body was not having it and I paid the price with aches and pains. It made my comeback a lot slower because I had to recoup my body. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much Mark! It’s hard to get used to our *more seasoned* bodies, isn’t it? I saw something on Facebook the other day that talked about how we still feel young, but then we walk past a mirror….😁 Seriously, though, you make such a great point about us needing to start out more slowly when we have a few years on us in order to avoid those aches and pains. I’m glad you were able to make the adjustments and make fitness a part of your life again. Blessings to you my friend!

  2. Hey Terri, love your little quip in the above box . . . “you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying”! You are so very right about that and I think it’s an exceedingly important point to keep in mind when starting to exercise; anything is MORE than nothing! As for your question, “Have you ever had an experience with exercise where you felt worse instead of better when you started?” – how about every one of them! As you know, I’m not a fan of working out (which, incredibly, is quite curious given the career I chose where it was a component of my duty), but as I age I’ve come to realize – as you have long taught – that continuing to move is incredibly important if we hope to continue to move!! I think back to several years ago when my chronic back pain became so severe that it was all I could do just to get out of a chair or walk across a room; every movement was excruciating. But you have always taught that in order to move you have to keep moving, and so after several weeks of physical therapy I (begrudgingly) started a workout routine focused on rehabilitating and strengthening my core while keeping that synovial fluid where it belongs. I still am not enthralled with working out, but I do love being able to keep up with you as we journey through our life together, and so I stick with it. Thank you for being an advocate for wellness and teaching me along the way. Love You Honey.

    1. Thanks Honey! I’m glad you liked that quote, though I have to confess I was torn about including it, because I always say we shouldn’t compare ourselves to anyone else…. I’ve definitely loved seeing your pain decrease as you starting exercising regularly. I look forward to many more years of love and laughter with you. I love you Baby!

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