Many people start a fitness routine on New Year's Day only to quit after a few weeks. Others train for an event, such as a road race or triathlon, only to fall off the exercise wagon once that goal has been accomplished.
Those stops and starts are frustrating — just think back to the last time you tried to gear up again after weeks or months of inactivity.
Here's the bottom line: Exercise should not be a special event. Like showering or brushing your teeth, activity should be just another part of your daily routine. You can vary the details as your circumstances change, but you'll get the best results if you always keep going.
And don't forget variety. If you do the same thing day after day, your muscles will get used to the activity, and you won't get any stronger or faster. Either switch out your activities or vary the intensity. Maybe you run or walk a few days a week, alternating with cycling or swimming. Strength training and stretching are musts, too.
Bonus: Next time you get an invitation for a really special event, like an active vacation, you'll be good to go.
"Develop a basic maintenance plan that you can stick with, then turn up the heat if you have something special, like a ski trip, that you want to get ready for," said Jeff Bullock, a multisport athlete and personal trainer who owns a St. Petersburg gym.
"That way you'll be ready for anything."
The core of the matter
In exercise circles, the core, or abdominal muscle group, is a hot topic. "It is a real trendy thing to talk about," Bullock said. "But unlike most trends, this one is actually good."
Strong core muscles help you in everything from sea kayaking to snow skiing. Not to mention what they'll do to support your spine and prevent chronic back pain that otherwise might sideline your best fitness intentions.
"With a strong core, everything else is easier," Bullock said.
But developing strong abdominals requires more than just sit-ups. You want to work every muscle in your midsection.
"So the first two maintenance exercises I recommend are bent-arm planks and side bent-arm planks," Bullock said. "They will do more for you than any crunch could ever do."
The goal is to hold the position for at least a minute. If you can't do that right away, just start with what you can do and build up from there. You can do these ab exercises every day (unlike other muscle groups, the core doesn't need a couple of days' recovery after strength training), but you will feel results if you do them at least three days a week.
You've got the beat
If you plan to hike the Appalachian Trail or head out on your first Century bike ride (that's a 100-miler for the uninitiated), you need to build cardiovascular endurance. That means you will need to run, racewalk, bike or swim at a high enough intensity to get your heart and lungs pumping.
Bullock's background is running, so he is partial to that discipline. Provided you're not too overweight and you don't have joint problems or other constraining health issues, running also may be your most convenient form of cardiovascular exercise because it does not require any specialized equipment beyond a good pair of shoes.
"I would recommend running at least twice a week, working up to the point where you can run 3 miles fairly easy," he said.
Start by alternating running and walking. If you have a smartphone, there are several apps such as Couch to 5K that will help you build up; otherwise, find a training program online and use a stopwatch.
Try to keep your runs between 2 and 5 miles. If your legs hurt, cut back. And vary your speed. One day run hard, the next run easy. "You never want to go all out every time," Bullock said. "This will lead to overtraining and injuries."
Can't run? Pick another way to get your heart rate up to a safe level — heart rate monitors are the best way to be certain. Depending on where you're starting, brisk walking might be all you need at first. Just be ready to pick up the pace as your fitness improves.
You've got legs
Big biceps might look good, but they aren't really an asset in most activities. Strong legs, however, are a huge asset in sports and other activities. And of all the leg exercises out there, the most functional are deadlifts and squats.
A deadlift is basically picking up something heavy off the ground, using proper form that ensures you're using your leg muscles. A squat is holding something on your back (like a barbell or even a backpack) and then squatting down and standing up.
"Both movements are very important in just about any type of physical activity," Bullock said. "And just like in running, it is important not to go heavy every time."
So some days, go light (50 percent of your maximum) and do a lot of repetitions (25 to 30) with slow tempo (4 seconds up and down). Some days go a little heavier (80 percent of your max) with fewer reps (eight to 12) at a faster tempo. Work these exercises into your routine on days that you are not running or biking.
The final part of your maintenance plan targets upper body strength. The two best exercises also happen to be the best known, the push-up and pull-up. But don't be discouraged if you can't do a full push-up or pull-up right out of the starting gate.
"The easiest way to make a push-up easier is to elevate hand height," Bullock said. "In other words, do push-ups with your hands on a park bench instead of on the ground."
You can also do push-ups on your knees. High school gym teachers used to call these "girl push-ups."
"I hate that name," Bullock said. "I know plenty of women that would demolish most men in a push-up competition."
Work your way up to three or four sets of 25 push-ups. Ultimately, you want to do them straight legged with your hands on the ground. If you can do more, do more.
Pull-ups can be an even bigger challenge for many people. If you can't do a full pull-up, get help to boost yourself up and just do "holds" for as long as you can.
If you have access to a gym, a lat pulldown machine will give you similar results.