If you’ve recently started working out regularly, good for you! Following through on your goals to improve your fitness this year is the first step, and often the hardest. Although you’re eager to see results, it’s also important to pace yourself – fitness is not sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s true that more you do, the longer you workout, and the more intensely you do it, the greater your results, but it’s also easy to overstep your ability level in the early stages. So what if you overdo it? One of the following three things may happen:

Injury –Muscles that aren’t used to being stretched and taxed in certain ways can become inflamed, strained, sprained, pulled, or torn. Excess strain on certain bones can lead to stress fractures, and exceeding your max heart rate could cause you to hyperventilate, pass out, or worse.
Soreness and fatigue – the old adage says ‘no pain, no gain,’ right? While some soreness should be expected when starting a new fitness program at the health club, extreme soreness or muscle fatigue could indicate you’re pushing yourself a little too hard. It can also impact future workouts and derail your progress.
Inadequate recovery – Every workout, you’re literally tearing down muscle fibers. Only when you rest can they recover and gain the advantages of training. Overdoing it by not scheduling rest days or getting enough sleep and down time can affect your health, leave you vulnerable to recovery, and sap your motivation.
All of these are good reasons to monitor your heart rate, gauge your perceived exertion, test different levels and duration of intensity, incorporate interval training, and ultimately, listen to your body.

Heart rate

Beginners should stay within the lower range of their max heart rate, about 50%, and build up to the recommended 85% ceiling. In the early stages of your program, test your heart rate frequently, whether by checking your own pulse, using a fitness center machine, or strapping on a personal monitor.

Perceived Exertion

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a fancy term that describes how hard you feel like you’re working, on a scale from 0-10. If you’re just starting out, experts recommend staying in the 3-5 range for a while. The Cleveland Clinic provides a free download of a RPE scale to help you learn this important self-assessment tool.

Test the Waters

Just because you’re building your fitness slowly doesn’t mean you can’t workout intensely sometimes. Cautiously try a variety of different exercises and intensities to see what you like and how your body handles it. Everyone has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, so certain ‘intense’ moves or paces might come easier than others. As always, be willing to recognize when something new exceeds your ability, and back out before you get injured.

Include Interval Training

Not only does interval training torch a ton of calories, it strengthens your ability to work longer at higher intensities. Short recovery intervals help keep your heart rate in range and protect you from overexertion. An example of interval training would be walking at an RPE of 5 with 1-minute intervals at an RPE of 7. You can use interval training in nearly any type of exercise you choose.

Listen to Your Body

All of this advice is good, but the most important way to avoid overdoing a new exercise program at the fitness gym is to listen to your body. If at any time you feel dizzy, light-headed, or otherwise unwell, stop and cool down. Make sure you stay hydrated, don’t get overheated, and focus on safety before pride or the prospect of fitness gains.

Keep putting in the time, and before you know it, you’ll be able to do much more than you could when you started!