6 Tips for Starting and Maintaining an Active Lifestyle

  •   January 10, 2020
  •  Nancy Littke, PT

It seems you can’t go a day without seeing an article, advertisement or social media post proclaiming the virtues of exercise. In addition to other benefits of exercise, the evidence shows that most chronic conditions are improved through regular physical activity.1,2 So, if exercise is good for us, why do many of us struggle to achieve our recommended daily dose?

Tip #1: Change your frame of mind: think of it as increasing your physical activity, not starting an exercise program.

For many people exercise is a dirty word. Let’s not use it. We will talk about physical activity choices instead. You can achieve health benefits from an active lifestyle without a trip to the local gym (gym memberships, spandex, and weights not required). Exercise is a more planned and structured way to be active, while physical activity can include anything that causes your body to use energy while in motion. In fact, some researchers have shown that a lifestyle approach to physical activity (such as biking to work or walking the dog) is more effective than structured exercise programs in the long term.3

What is important is that physical activity is regular and consistent. The Canadian Guidelines for Physical Activity recommend that those aged 18-64 years spend 150 minutes each week engaged in moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity.4 The good news is that you can achieve this by accumulating 30 minutes per day in 10-minute sessions.4

When you break your activity into ten-minute episodes, it doesn’t sound so overwhelming, does it?

Tip #2: Choose physical activity you like doing.

People often think that they need to join a gym and take part in some sort of grueling exercise class to reap the benefits. Nothing could be farther from the truth! You can benefit by walking, participating in a dance class, going skating with your kids, doing yard work, or riding your bicycle.5 Yes, you can join a gym, lift weights, go to spin class, or train for a marathon if you like, but you don’t have to!

Doing what you love is one key to making the physical activity habit a lifelong one. If you are having difficulty identifying things that “count” towards that 150-minute goal, check out the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services “Ways to be active” brochure for some suggestions.5

Tip #3: Figure out what motivates you.3

I joined a gym because I was struggling to go up and down stairs or get down on the floor to play with my grandchildren. As a physiotherapist, I knew that improving my leg strength and general fitness would help but I used many excuses to put it off. When I finally joined a local gym, I discovered that I was frugal enough that it bothered me if I didn’t get my money’s worth out of the membership. The net effect is I am participating in a class several times a week. After a year of attending 3-4 classes a week, I am happy to say my knee pain is less, stairs are easier, and I can enjoy floor time with my young grandchildren. Why did I wait so long?

Other motivating strategies may include:

  • Making a regular appointment with yourself and schedule it in your calendar like any other meeting.
  • Finding a consistent time that fits within your schedule to help prevent the need to cancel or change the appointment. That may be first thing in the day to get it out of the way, while watching your favorite TV show or before you get home and into your comfy clothes at the end of the day. Pick a time you can stick to and book it!
  • Committing to a milestone such as a race or a ski trip that you know you couldn’t do without training first.
  • Investing in a fitness monitor and challenge friends or co-workers to a step or stair competition.4
  • Competing! Have you ever been accused of being competitive? Use it to your advantage and participate in an activity that will inspire your competitive nature.
  • Joining a social or community walking or dance group and take your partner.

Figuring out what motivates you is the key. If you can tap into your source of motivation, you will be on your way to making your physical activity habit a lifelong one.

Tip #4: Find an exercise buddy.

It is a sure bet that you have a friend or family member who also wants to become more active and who needs support and motivation to get started. Give them a call! Evidence suggests that having an exercise buddy helps keep people engaged in their activity.3 Knowing that someone is waiting helps get you started on the days when you’d rather stay on the couch.

Working with a personal trainer may offer yet another solution as it combines a couple of these strategies - you’ve made a financial commitment, and someone is expecting you to show up. Having social support in place while you are making these changes is key, whether that’s a trainer, a workout buddy or a supportive family member.3,5

Tip #5: No gain with pain.

When starting an activity program, one common mistake that people make is thinking that they will undo years of inactivity in a week. It doesn’t work that way. You are building a lifelong habit. To do so you need to make activity a positive experience and that won’t happen if you injure yourself in the first week. To avoid injury and the spiral back to inactivity, start your program slowly and gradually build up. For example, begin with a daily walk and when you have that down add something else that you enjoy. Increasing your exercise time so that you are doing one 30 minute continuous session per day instead of three 10 minute sessions could be the first progression in your plan.

One thing I know for sure is that success begets success. Set a goal of adding physical activity to your day and work to achieve it. Then set a new goal. Start with a small, measurable change and then add a little bit at a time.5 It helps to plan rewards to celebrate reaching your goals and to share your success with those close to you.

Tip #6: Be kind to yourself.

Realize that change is hard, and you are engaging in a lifestyle change for the long term. Give yourself credit for your efforts and any progress toward your goal. If you miss a day, don’t give up on your activity plan, let yourself off the hook3 but plan to resume your efforts the next day.

For more suggestions on ways to put the excuses behind you and get going, have a look at the What stops you from being physically active brochure from the Center for Active Living. You may find something else that will work for you.

It’s important to make sure that exercise is safe for you, especially if you have any long-standing health problems or if you have had a recent change in your health status. Complete the Get Active Questionaire7 to be sure, and talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.

If you are unsure how to begin a physical activity program, seek the advice of a physiotherapist to get you started. Click here to find a physiotherapist close to you.


  1. Evans M. 23 and ½ hours: What is the single best thing we can do for our health? Accessed on Nov 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUaInS6HIGo
  2. Dean, E. Physical therapy in the 21st century (Part1): Toward practice informed by epidemiology and the crisis of lifestyle conditions. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice; 2009; 25(5-6): 330-353.
  3. Alberta Centre for Active Living. What stops you from being physically active? Accessed on Nov 28, 2019. Available at: http://www.centre4activeliving.ca/media/filer_public/c5/2c/c52c4d03-b761-4f92-a521-fd03a20d7f41/d-barriers.pdf
  4. Canadian Society of Exercise Professionals. Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. Accessed on November 28, 2019. Available at: http://csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP_PAGuidelines_0-65plus_en.pdf
  5. President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. Ways to be active. Accessed on Nov 28, 2019. Available at: http://www.fitness.gov/Ube-active/ways-to-be-active/
  6. Canadian Society of Exercise Professionals. Pre-Screening for Physical Activity: Get Active Questionnaire. Accessed on November 28, 2019. Available at: https://store.csep.ca/pages/getactivequestionnaire
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overcoming Barriers to Physical Activity. Accessed on Nov 28, 2019. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/getactive/barriers.html