Wellness·5 min read

Getting Physical Again: Why You Should Exercise (but Not Torture Yourself)

getting physical again
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Unsplash
August 13, 2021

Psst...This guide about how to work exercise back into your routine is part of our How to Skimm Your Life New Year's Challenge. Go here to view all of our challenges and click "Day 13" to let us know if you completed this one.

I keep saying “I need to workout.” But do I, really?

It makes sense if exercise hasn’t exactly been a priority while living through a global pandemic. And that’s OK. On the flip side, you might’ve heard that lots of people have been clipping into Pelotons. In fact, “Peloton” (the bike or just the app) was one of the most cited “best pandemic purchases” among Skimm’rs. But exercise isn’t all or nothing. And you don’t have to be in pain to make gains. 

You have my attention.

What the Department of Health and Human Services recommends weekly: strength training exercises two days a week, plus either 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (think: brisk walking or mowing the lawn) that passes the “talk test,” meaning you could chat but not sing, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (if you use a fitness tracker, that’s 70% or more of your max heart rate) which could equal jogging, running, or biking fast or uphill. A combo of both will also do the trick. If door one (150 minutes) sounds daunting, think of it like this: 15 minutes in the morning and evening, five days a week. Totally doable.

But I feel out of shape. 

Deciding you want to work out is a good first step. In the Before Times, you might’ve hit the gym IRL. Maybe you’re considering going back to that, or getting hyped by an instructor virtually. But stepping away from your computer or phone could be helpful: all that extra screen time hasn’t been great for body image. You’ve probably also spent a lot more time alone...and sitting with your inner critic. But hear this: It’s OK if your shape has changed, your clothing size is different, or your weight has fluctuated. You’re certainly not the only one experiencing these changes. And it makes sense that you’re not exactly the same after going through a traumatic event like a global pandemic. So appreciate your body for getting through it. And remember that no two bodies are the same, from the way they process stress, metabolize food, respond to exercise, and move generally. You could also perform and feel differently depending on how tired and nourished you are, and where you are in your menstrual cycle (more on that here).

I’m gonna need some more motivation.

If you want better gut health and sleep, then exercise could help. Plus, moving your body has proven to boost memory and mood, which could have to do with the fact that it gives you a mental break and helps improve brain plasticity (hint: your ability to learn new things). No, we’re not going to tell you that exercise is good for weight loss. But instead, allow these benefits to get you going: Exercise gets you more in touch with your body, gives you a sense of purpose, and, as studies suggest, gives you more energy and motivation. If you’re pregnant, feel good, and were active before, you can stick with 150 minutes of moderate exercise, as long as you modify exercises when you need to. And if you’re postpartum, give your body time to recover. It’s best to talk to your doctor about what’s right for you, but generally you’ll want to limit activity at first to pelvic floor exercises and maybe some walking (more on navigating the fourth trimester here).

So how much work should working out be?

Exercise shouldn’t feel like torture. It should be something you’re down to do regularly. Then it becomes a routine. For example, instead of seven days a week of HIIT classes (which actually might not do as much good as we think), focus on simply moving regularly any way you like, and generally limiting sedentary behavior (aka Zoom life). Some movement (think: approximately 30 minutes per day) is way better for long-term health than none at all. Not saying the runner’s high isn’t real, but hitting the pavement might not be for everyone. Study after study shows that even brisk walking can benefit memory, physical health, and ability to creatively problem-solve. We’re walking on sunshine with this news.

When should I get moving?

Timing is everything...and personal. While a morning workout is a perfect start to many people's day, an evening sweat could be better for metabolic health. Test out different timing and see when you’re feeling most into moving. If you’re going for an hour or longer workout, you’re going to want to eat carbs and proteins (think: banana, PB on some oatmeal) more than an hour beforehand. And consuming protein and carbs soon afterward can help your body recover. And don’t forget to drink up before, during, and after you sweat it out.

But rest days are also important, right?

Yes — especially in between strength workouts or intense aerobic sessions. They allow your muscles to recuperate and grow. So give yourself time for R&R. If you’re new to the workout club, you could need 72 hours to chill after intense cardio workouts. And as a general rule, taking at least 1-2 days off a week is important for preventing overtraining syndrome, which can lead to fatigue, depression, and decreased performance. Also important: stretching after a workout. It helps you stay mobile, flexible, and strong. Plus, some stretches are good for your posture and performance. And can be calming. Ommmm.


You survived some crazy sh*t. So it’s understandable if exercise wasn’t your top priority in the last year or so. Instead of worrying about your current fitness level, focus on moving to feel good, whether that’s a Barry’s Bootcamp or a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Because any type of regular exercise routine is good for your mental and physical health.

theSkimm talked to Dr. Amal Hassan, consultant physician in sports and exercise, and Dr. NiCole Keith, member of American College of Sports Medicine President (who appeared on this Skimm This episode), for this guide.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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