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How to Start Working Out: Tips For Creating an Exercise Plan

You don’t need a formal fitness plan to be fit. Even small (at-home) activities can add up for big benefits.

By Alyssa Shaffer

It may have double the letters, but to many of us, exercise is still a four-letter word. We hear over and over how important it is for our health and well-being, yet the idea of investing in a gym membership or getting to a fitness class sounds simply overwhelming. And if you haven’t exercised in a long time, where do you even begin? It’s enough to make you want to just stay on your couch. But wait! Maybe exercise simply needs a rebranding.

“It’s really less about exercise and more about activity,” says Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Clover Health. “Don’t focus on getting on a treadmill or lifting weights. Instead, focus on reducing your sedentary time. Make it about moving your body.” 

The Benefits of Exercise Abound

The advantages of physical activity—especially for older adults—have been well documented in thousands of studies across the globe.

“Regular physical activity improves nearly every aspect of the body,” notes Michael E. Rogers, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Human Performance Studies and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University. “It has a positive effect on every system—from your brain to your bones.”

Movement becomes even more important as we get older, because starting at about age 40, we start to lose muscle mass, explains Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist, and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer at Clover Health. And the more muscle you lose, the harder everyday activities like standing up from a chair or avoiding falls can become. No matter what you call it, physical activity falls into a few main buckets:

  • Aerobic, such as taking a walk, swimming, or riding a bike
  • Strengthening, which can mean lifting dumbbells, a basket of laundry, or even your own body weight
  • Flexibility and mobility, including everything from raising your arms in a yawn to circling your ankles as you sit in a chair
  • Balancing, whether it’s standing on one foot during yoga or righting yourself from a near trip 

How Much Activity Do You Need?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends:

  • Adults complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, which amounts to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
  • At least twice a week, adults complete muscle- strengthening activities.

These recommendations don’t have to mean heading into a gym. The goal is simply to move more and sit less.

“Older adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate- to-vigorous-intensity physical activity gain some health benefits,” reports the CDC. And it’s not an all-or-nothing game. “Any type of physical activity for any length of time will offer some benefits,” Dr. Rogers explains.

That means even small amounts of movement—walking in place as you watch TV, doing an extra lap around the perimeter of the grocery store—can be helpful. 

“If you can do 5 to 10 minutes at a time and work your way up to 150 minutes in a week, that can be just as good as doing longer chunks,” says Dr. Rogers.

Adding in balancing moves like standing on one leg (being sure that you are near something sturdy you can hold on to for support) can lead to improved strength and function. And getting up and down from a chair a few times in a row will strengthen your lower-body muscles.

Of course, you can always kick things up a notch and check out the local fitness facility, join a walking group, or download an app like SilverSneakers to get more structured workouts.

Remember: Check in with your doctor before starting a new fitness program. 

6 Exercises to Try At Home

Chair Squats
Strengthens legs and glutes

Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair with your feet flat on the floor. Extend arms out in front of you for balance. Press through your heels to stand up, then slowly sit down. Keep your back straight, inhaling as you stand and exhaling as you sit. Repeat 8–10 times. 



Towel Pulls
Strengthens arms, chest, and shoulders

Stand with your feet firmly planted, holding a medium to large towel in both hands about shoulder distance apart. Lift arms to shoulder height and pull the towel in opposite directions with both hands. Hold for 10–20 seconds. Relax arms and repeat 3–5 times. 



Pilates Pull-Ins
Improves core strength

Pull your stomach in toward your spine. Activate your belly by imagining you are zipping up a tight pair of jeans or drawing your belly button to your back. Keep breathing, but hold for 10–20 seconds. Release and repeat 3–4 times. 



Single-Leg Balance
Improves balance and core strength

Rest hand lightly on a counter, chair, or other sturdy object for balance. Lift one foot a few inches off the floor and balance for as long as you can, up to 30 seconds. Switch feet and repeat. 




Shoulder Circles
Improves shoulder mobility

Reach arms out, shoulder height. Circle arms up, forward, down, and back, moving through your full range of motion. If you feel tightness, slow the movement down and only go as far as you can without pain. Repeat 8–10 times, then reverse direction. 



Hip Extensions
Improves hip mobility

Stand tall facing a counter, back of a chair, or other sturdy object. Tighten your core. Lift one leg straight behind you as far as you comfortably can. Keep your leg straight. Pause. Return foot to floor. Repeat 10–15 times, then repeat on the opposite side. 



Are you a Clover Health member starting your fitness journey? Learn more about your supplemental fitness benefits here

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of Clover Living magazine.

Published on 1/4/22

Photo credits: Getty; Illustrations: Antonio Sortino