How to start your fitness journey for beginners: A free 12-week plan

fitness woman tying shoe

How to start your fitness journey for beginners.

I went down a Reddit rabbit hole and stumbled upon this question. 

I’m finally starting my journey of losing weight which has been much needed for awhile now. The only thing is that I am extremely out of shape and have difficulty completing exercises and workouts I find online. So I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions for a workout plan or videos you like. I’d really appreciate it. If so and thank you so much in advance.

Which led me to write this article.

Just so we’re clear, I’m defining a beginner as anyone that has been training and working on their nutrition consistently for less than 6 months. Consistently is the keyword here.


Using the “how to start your fitness journey for beginners guide”

First things first, bookmark this page or email it to yourself. You’ll want to come back to it later.

  • Read the entire article
  • Download the free habit tracker
  • Practice and establish each skill for 2 weeks before leveling up to the next one
  • Contact me if you need some help navigating it

Pretty simple, right? 

How to start your fitness journey for beginners pre-work: Know what to expect 

I’ve coached thousands of clients in-person and online and there are five challenges I can guarantee will present themselves when starting your fitness journey.

  • You won’t always feel motivated
  • At some point, you’ll feel tired
  • Stress will make things hard and you may feel like you have a lot on your plate
  • You’ll get bored with your routines, workouts, meals, and more
  • You will not be perfect. You will make mistakes

All of this is ok and to be expected. The best thing you can do is to accept and embrace these challenges. There are two simple strategies I recommend practicing over the course of your journey.

Strategy #1: What would you tell you kid (or best friend)

If your kid came to you and said, “I’m not motivated to do my homework.” What would you say to them? Don’t have kids? That’s cool, what would you tell your best friend?

The goal is not to evaluate yourself positively or negatively but to do so honestly and rationally. It’s easier to do this using the best friend method because a lot of personal emotion is taken out of it.

Strategy #2: The if-then strategy

Here’s how it works.

If I’m not motivated, then I will [insert a small action you’re confident you can take].

For example, if I’m not motivated to cook, then I will order a meal that I know is healthy and meets my calorie needs.

If I don’t have time to go to the grocery store, then I will order them online for delivery. And set this up to recur each week until I have more time. 

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche take it day by day. Which I get and totally understand. When you make mistakes it’s nice to wipe the slate clean and pick right back up at your next workout or next meal. But I’d also like you to look at the bigger picture.

Think of all the workouts you’ll be doing this year. Imagine all the healthy and calorie friendly meals you can create for yourself this year too. For example, say your plan is to workout 3 times per week and eat 1 healthy meal each day. Over the course of a year that’s 156 workouts and 365 meals.

Let’s say you miss a workout and enjoy some of the best pizza of your life in Chicago. That’s 1 out of 156 or 99%.

Now let’s get a little more realistic. You miss 10 workouts and eat 10 bowls of ice cream for dinner because butter pecan is the best. Disagree with me and I will fight you. That’s 146 out of 156 workouts or 93% and 355 out of 365 meals. Say whaaaa. That’s awesome.

Ok, let’s keep going down this rabbit hole. You miss 20 workouts and 20 meals.  That’s 136 out of 156 or 87% and 345 meals out of 365. That’s pretty amazing.

I say all this because health and fitness are a long game and while taking it day by day is a great strategy seeing the bigger picture for health is just as important.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman has a beautiful quote I love.

I have a phrase that I live by: ‘Add some zeros to it.’ There is not any one thing you can do that will be enough to get you the results you want. For example, working out at the gym one time isn’t going to help you lose a lot of weight. However, if you add some zeros to it, and repeat that one workout 100 times or 1,000 times, you’re going to get somewhere.

It starts with that single workout or meal. But it’s that workout or meal repeated over time that leads to results, and the good news is you don’t need to be perfect to be successful.

You just need to be good enough.

5-day course skinny

How to start your fitness journey for beginners: Week 1 & 2, start walking and explore meaningful movement

Change is more about consistency and momentum and less about motivation and willpower. Sure, there is a certain level of those things that are needed, but relying on them to get started and maintain progress is a common mistake I see.

One way to get around this is by creating a keystone habit for yourself. A keystone habit is a habit that usually leads to other habits falling into place. One of the easiest keystone habits to develop is a regular walking routine.

If you’re like most people, at best you have 30 to 60 minutes, two to four times per week that you can dedicate both physically and mentally to a strenuous workout. But finding a few minutes here or there to walk is much easier.

Some benefits of walking daily:

  • Helps with recovery by improving blood flow throughout the body
  • Low intensity activity that doesn’t take away from weight training recovery
  • Burns calories without exhausting you
  • Keystone habit for a lot of people
  • Physical and mental health benefits, stress relief, and can boost mood and energy (1)
  • A great way to connect with loved ones or get time away on your own.
  • Lower blood pressure (2)

I love a good run. There’s nothing like that high you get after it. But running is a high impact exercise that can make it tough on the joints and muscles and even increase appetite.

While there is a difference in calories burned walking one mile versus running you can use walking and NEAT as a great way to expend calories.

NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It is all the activity that is not exercise your do in a day, Things like walking, playing with your kids, cleaning, and fidgeting can all help you burn more calories.

Making time for more steps

Take mini-breaks to get some steps in or play. Start and end your day with a walk, park further away, and walk to local places.

  • Aim to walking a few times this week. Even if it’s just to the mailbox and back
  • Record your steps and then try to slowly increase by 100, 200, or even 500+
  • Eventually aim for 8-15k per day
  • Make it fun. Take the mile everyday challenge.
  • Use it for conversation, podcasts, and audiobooks.

One of my favorite ways to move more outside of walking is to build a meaningful movement routing.

Recommended reading: Getting started with movement guide: Meaningful movement. Move your body in ways you enjoy.

How to start your fitness journey for beginners: Week 3 – 10, fix your diet

Eating healthy and nutrition for maintaining a healthy body weight has been made way too difficult. There isn’t the best diet, perfect macro percentage, or certain foods you HAVE TO start or stop eating.

Here’s a big secret. Every single diet works for weight management.

  • To lose weight the diet needs to create a calorie deficit. This means you need to eat fewer calories than the body needs.
  • To gain weight the diet needs to create a calorie surplus. This means you need to eat more calories than the body needs.

This is regardless of what you eat. So yes, you can eat carbs and lose or gain weight. You can eat ice cream and lose or gain weight. You can drink wine and lose or gain weight. You can eat meat and lose or gain weight. You can “eat clean” and lose or gain weight.

How diets work

Now this doesn’t mean quality of food does not matter, it absolutely does. It’s only a reminder that calories and how much you eat determine weight management.

When making changes to your diet it’s ok to start small. You don’t need to change everything overnight. Below is a series of simple practices you can try that will make a huge difference in improving your diet.

Week 3 & 4: Start creating more calorie awareness

Get a good idea of how many calories you need each day to reach your goals. I like the bodyweight planner from thee National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive And Kidney Diseases. But you can also use the simple formula below to get yourself started.

Is this perfect? No, but it gives you a target and with a target, it’s much easier to aim.

  • Fat loss: Bodyweight x 10-12
  • Maintain weight: Bodyweight x 13-15
  • Gain weight: Bodyweight x 16-18
  • Example: 150 x 10 = 1,500 and 150 x 120 = 1,800 (Between 1,500 and 1,800)

You don’t need to count calories to be successful. But as Yale researchers showed us, for fat loss creating a calorie deficit is important.

Use this number to give yourself a rough idea of how many calories to eat per meal. For example, if 2,100 calories are needed to reach your goals, and you like to eat 3 meals a day with no snacks. You now know this is roughly 700 calories per meal.

You can look at nutrition labels or nutrition info online to learn more about the foods you’re eating. Apps like Myfitnesspal, Lifesum, Chronometer – and websites like Calorie King can help with this too. 

Today, we’re looking to improve calorie awareness by taking on two small tasks.

  • Reading labels or looking up nutrition info online or in an app
  • Learning about calorie density and choosing foods that fill us up without a ton of calories

MISSION 1: READ LABELS AND LOOK UP NUTRITION ONLINE

We are notoriously bad at estimating how much we’re eating. So today we’re going to create better awareness by learning about the calories in the foods we make at home and when we go out to eat.

  • If you’re eating anything with a label pay attention to the serving sizes and calories per serving.
  • If you’re eating anything without a label (an apple for example) look it up in an app like MyFitnesPal or Calorie King. Simply type in the food and learn about the calories in different serving sizes.

Before going out to eat see if the restaurant provides nutrition info online, and choose what to get before you arrive. If not, see if they have the nutrition info on the menu when you get there.

Interesting that the salad you were thinking of getting is actually 1,000 calories 

Take note of the recommended calories per day to reach your goals. This will give you an idea of how many calories to take in per meal as you eat out or create meals of awesome on your own.

MISSION 2: CHOOSE LESS CALORIE-DENSE FOODS

Calorie density can simply be summed up as more food with fewer calories.

More specifically, it’s the number of calories in a given weight of the food. A food high in calorie density has a large number of calories in a small weight of food (i.e. olive oil). A food low in calorie density would have a small number of calories in the same weight of food (i.e. broccoli).

Choosing foods lower in calorie density is important because these foods are satiating and fill our stomachs without adding tons of calories to our diet.

Generally speaking, vegetables and fruit are the lowest in calorie density, followed by whole food starches, animal proteins, and finally liquid calories, nuts, seeds, and oils. Highly processed foods like cookies, candy, ice cream, and fries would also be calorie-dense foods.

How calories fill up the stomach

Now, this doesn’t mean we can never eat these foods. It just means to be aware of them, eat them in moderation, and adjust the consumption of them based on our current goals.

If you’re up for it, look for a few places to swap some calorie-dense foods with less calorie-dense options.

  • Orange instead of orange juice
  • Side of fruit or a side salad instead of fries
  • Mustard in place of mayo
  • Seltzer water with lime instead of soda or an adult beverage
  • Fresh fruit instead of dried fruit or trail mix
  • Zucchini noodles instead of regular

Week 5 & 6: Start including a serving of protein and veggies with most meals

Protein 🍗🥩

This is important for maintaining muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit and trying to lose weight and body fat. Protein when combined with resistance or strength training helps to keep your body from using muscle as a fuel source when in a calorie deficit. This is important because you want to maintain as much lean muscle as possible. It keeps your metabolism high and frankly helps you look better naked.

Protein is also very satiating. When you’re training and reducing calories to lose fat and weight you will most likely be hungry at points. Protein (especially when combined with veggies) will keep your appetite at bay and feel fuller for longer stretches.

Veggies 🥒 🥕

Vegetables are low in calories but high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, and other filling things. It would take eating a ton of them to get to a calorie level that leads to weight gain. 

But how much protein and veggies per meal?

  • For men: 2 palms of protein or roughly 6-8 ounces and 2-3 fists of veggies
  • For women: 1 palm of protein or roughly 3-4 ounces and 1-2 fists of veggies

hand portion estimates portion sizes

To help you include a source of protein and veggies with each meal download this simple food list. Mix and match your favorite sources and get creative with herbs, spices, and various seasonings to create meals you’ll enjoy.

Week 7 & 8: Self-care before snacking

Snacking is rarely related to physical hunger. I’ve found that self-care before snacking to be the most effective strategy for coaching clients that need to reduce snacking for weight management goals.

Set up a reminder. Something that reminds you to practice self-care before snacking. Sticky notes, an alert on your phone, whatever works for you.

Choose a very specific action that you can practice when you feel like you want to grab a snack. There will be times when you blackout and catch yourself in front of the pantry with a spoon in a jar of peanut butter. If you catch yourself during or after mindless snacking, still practice the action.

  • drink a glass of water
  • do tow push-ups
  • step outside for some fresh air
  • take 5 deep breathes
  • journal
  • stretch
  • meditate

Whatever slows you down, gives you a break, and makes you feel good

Reward yourself for practicing the action with something other than food. This could be something as simple as a checkmark on a calendar.

And if you are physically hungry and need a snack, choose something low calorie like a piece of fruit – just enough to tide you over until your main meal.

Week 9 & 10: Adjust carbs and fats for weight loss or gain

Carbs 🍚🍎

Carbs are not the enemy and they alone don’t make us fat. Hopefully, by now you’re starting to see that what influences weight gain or loss is calories consumed.

If you prefer low carb, cool. Go for it. Your body can run fine without them, and you can lose or gain weight eating them depending on your overall calorie intake.

However, carbs are a great source of energy. Especially if you’re a very active individual or someone that trains very hard.

Fats 🥑

Healthy fats are very satiating, great for hormone health, and a wonderful source of energy. They can also add great flavor and variety to meals.

The point of all this is that calories, protein, carbs, and fats all play important roles in our diet and are important for our health. The way and how much you consume of each is totally up to you.

But if we are looking at them in terms of overall importance for body fat and weight loss, it would look like this.

nutrition importance

Recommended reading: Getting started diet guide: Improving your nutrition

Week 11 & 12: Strength training

The internet has made this way more difficult than it needs to be. We spend too much time arguing over reps, sets, rest time, liner, and non-linear. Honestly, just make sure you’re applying progressive overload over time and you’ll be fine.

Without progressive overload, it’s virtually impossible to get stronger or build muscle. In order to get stronger, build, or maintain muscle – The stimulus has to be more than it is used to. If you do the same thing over and over again nothing will change.

There are multiple ways you can do this.

  • Intensity: Lifting more weight in your next training session.
  • Volume: Doing more reps, sets, or exercises.
  • Frequency: Doing more training sessions than the week before.
  • Tension: Increasing the duration of each repetition within an exercise. For example, taking 5 seconds to lower yourself in a push-up.

Focus on compound movements.

This doesn’t mean you have to squat, bench, and deadlift. You’re fine starting with machines or your body weight. Below is an example a routine using machines, bodyweight, or free weights that use similar movement patterns.

Machine workout

Dumbbell workout

Barbell workout

Body weight workout

Each of these can be done Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) for a few weeks. And yes, you can do the same workout 3 times per week. You’ll get to practice some of the most important movement patterns and focus on form.

For most of us that want to get stronger and to look and feel better with and without our clothes on this will be fine and you can do it forever as long as you use progressive overload

Recommended reading: Getting started strength training guide

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Making adjustments as you go

Just because you do X doesn’t mean you get or deserve Y. Sometimes you’re going to work really hard for something and it’s not going to work out the way you had hoped for or at the rate you expected.

Patience is a virtue. 

Pause, reflect, take a mini-break, or ask for help. Review what’s going really well for you and where there could be room for 1% better.

Getting started with the 12-week how to start your fitness journey for beginners plan

This article is one of many ways you could start or restart your fitness journey. My hope is that it takes some of the confusion and overwhelm out of it for you.

  • Pre-work: Mindset, weekly reflection
  • Week 1 and 2: Walking routine
  • Week 3 and 4: Calorie awareness
  • Week 5 and 6: Protein and veggies
  • Week 7 and 8: Self-care before snacking
  • Week 9 and 10: Adjust carbs and fats
  • Week 11 and 12: Start your strength training routine

I purpose placed strength training at the end of how to start your fitness journey for beginners so you can focus more on walking, meaningful movement, and your diet. But if you feel ready, feel free to add it in during any week.

Best of luck,

Justin

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