Gray sneakers in front of yellow starting line with text overlay: Tips to Keep from Feeling Worse When Starting to Exercise

Tips to Keep From Feeling 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.

Now you guys 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. 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.

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.

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.

Tiny seedling coming up from the soil with quote: "When you're starting, make your goals so small that it is impossible to fail. ~Gymaholic

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 says,  “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.

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. As we talked about in Managing Expectations When It Comes To Wellness Changes, it’s 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?

Tortoise and hare in front of black background with quote "Where you're headed is more important than how fast you're going." ~Stephen Covey

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!



Woman Running Up Steps with text overlay: Tips to Keep From Feeling Worse When Starting to Exercise



    1. Ha ha! That’s definitely a great way to get more exercise Mel! I remember those days…. You don’t have to time to even think about how you feel when you’re running around after puppies, and before you know it, you’re getting lots of exercise in. Hope your week is off to a great start. Hugs!

  1. more great information Terri! I have struggled a lot with exercising…….it usually makes me feel poorly but I have learned to do what I can do and know that it helps me in other ways….

    1. Thank you so much Wendi! I think that’s the problem with those of us who live with chronic illnesses – doing the things we know are good for our overall health can often make us feel worse in the short-term. For me, I started out really small and progressed very slowly. Now that I’ve been at it for awhile, it actually does make me feel better. I hope you’re staying safe and well sweet friend. Hugs!

      1. Yes, I have been exercising for years…… hasn’t gotten easier or physically made me feel better, but it still has to be done so I just have to suck it up!

  2. My biggest excuse for not exercising is that I have too much to do. Unfortunately, it is just an excuse. I also learned to work “smarter” not harder to reduce energy expenditure….I have to find a balance

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Grace! It’s so important to find that balance you talk about, isn’t it? There are so many “moving parts” to our lives that we have to figure out how to make improvements in one area without detracting from the others. I hope you’re staying safe and well sweet friend. Sending hugs!

  3. Smart, slow and small, the three S’s of exercise! I love your suggestions as they really do make exercise seem a lot more appealing and manageable. I’m glad you mentioned the quick fix too, which I think can tie in to perfectionism and wanting it (our exercise) to go swimmingly the first time around. That doesn’t always happen, nor do we ever get instant results, and when we feel worse, we can get disheartened and disappointed, and it puts us off trying again. Super tips as always, Terri xx

    1. Thanks so much Caz! I agree with you that we can easily fall victim to perfectionism and wanting our exercise to “go swimmingly the first time around.” I’ve seen that very thing derail so many people. I wish we could just get out of our own way sometimes. Hope you’re feeling better sweet friend. Hugs!

  4. Great post, Terri!
    I think your points are spot on. It’s incredibly difficult to exercise when you’re practically hanging your head over the treadmill to vomit or your body hurts all over.
    So I think it’s great that you talk about fitting it into your chronic life.
    And it’s about consistency, that’s the hardest thing to learn and stick to. And has been something I’ve really had to learn. Even if I can’t do much, I do what I can, consistently. Even if it’s small.
    I’ve never had any relief come out of exercising, so it was initially *very* discouraging. Doctors kept saying exercise will help.
    Once I let go of finding that relief and just began exercising to prevent further disease and disability, it got easier.
    Thanks, as always!!

    1. Thanks so much Stace! You make such a great point about the key being consistency. Your statement “Even if I can’t do much, I do what I can, consistently. Even if it’s small” really sums things up brilliantly. Doing a small thing consistently reaps much larger rewards than doing big things every now and then. You also make an important point about letting go of finding relief from your Fibro pain through exercise. That just doesn’t happen for some people, and if that’s their only “why” for exercising, they’re not going to keep up with it. It’s vital for other things though, such as, like you said, “[preventing] further disease and disability.” Hope you’re staying as well as possible sweet friend. Sending hugs your way!

  5. Great advice! So many people think that they have to go hell for leather with exercise. But as you say, even 5 minutes is 5 minutes more than doing nothing.
    Another piece of advice I once read was to only exercise on days that your resting pulse was low… As this makes a big difference to how you feel during and after any form of exercise.
    But definitely taking it slow is the best way imho.

    1. Thanks so much, and thanks for sharing about the resting pulse rate! I hadn’t heard that before. I agree with you that taking it slow is the best way to go, especially when we’re first starting to exercise. Hope you’re staying safe and well my friend!

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