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Can You Get Back Into Shape After Years of Inactivity?

It’s never too late to start—or restart—your fitness journey. Here’s how to come back strong no matter how long you’ve been on the sidelines.

Woman in exercise clothes; getting back into shape after years of inactivity

It’s an age-old story: You’re an active kid and young adult, playing sports and regularly hitting the gym. But as your work and family responsibilities start piling up over the years, your workouts become far less frequent. Suddenly, decades have gone by and you realize you’ve been spending nearly all of your time sitting behind a desk or steering wheel. Your old speed and strength are gone, and you can’t remember the last time you intentionally broke a sweat or considered getting back into shape. Sound familiar?

Falling into a sedentary lifestyle and losing your fitness is incredibly common, but it doesn’t mean all is lost. No matter how old you are or how long it’s been since you worked out, it’s possible to regain your fitness and your health. 

Here’s a breakdown of what’s happened to your body during the time off and how you can figure out getting back into shape after years of inactivity to reverse the damage.

Does Sitting Really Take Years off Your Life?

You’ve probably seen headlines in the past few years claiming “sitting is the new smoking,” and although that’s not entirely accurate—a study comparing heavy smokers and non-smokers vs. those who sit the most and those who sit the least found that smoking is still far more deadly—sitting really can take years off your life. 

In a study of more than 100,000 participants from 21 different countries, researchers found higher sitting time was tied to a higher risk of death. Plus, a meta-analysis of 47 studies linked sedentary behavior to an increased risk of all-cause mortality, and the incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Another meta-analysis of more than 44,000 adults also revealed that these risks were highest in those who performed less than 30 to 40 minutes of physical activity per day. 

So while sitting may not be as deadly as a pack-a-day habit, it’s still detrimental to your overall health and longevity. That’s not to say you can’t ever sit, though. It’s the long, uninterrupted hours spent sitting that can be dangerous. 

getting into shape after years of inactivity, woman sitting at a desk

How Long is Too Much Sitting?

While it’s clear that constant sitting is harmful, the research is mixed on exactly how much sitting is too much. One meta-analysis linked an increased risk of cardiovascular disease with 10 hours or more of daily sedentary time, while another study saw an association between all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease with eight or more hours of sitting each day. 

Even if your job requires you to spend that much time sedentary, breaking up long bouts of sitting with short periods of activity can reduce the damage. A study of type 2 diabetics found that taking a break every 30 minutes of sitting for light walking or simple, bodyweight resistance exercises resulted in favorable glucose, insulin, and triglyceride responses. Another study showed that regular movement breaks during the workday were effective at lowering blood pressure. 

One option to break up long bouts of inactivity: try setting stand and move reminders on your fitness tracker, smartwatch, or work calendar. Just a light nudge may be enough to get you up and moving throughout the day.

Can You Reverse Years of a Sedentary Lifestyle?

Fortunately, it’s possible to return to fitness—and it doesn’t take much work to make a big difference when you first start. 

If you need proof that you’re not too far gone to make a change, look to this meta-analysis of studies showing that even people 80 years old and older were able to increase muscle strength and size through resistance training. 

The benefits go far beyond building muscle, too. According to a recent review of studies, resistance training is linked to healthy aging, improved mobility and cognitive function, and lower mortality risk from type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.  

“Something is better than nothing, and beginners actually get the biggest gains going from nothing to something,” says Troy Taylor, Senior Director of Performance at Tonal. 

As for what constitutes “something,” Taylor recommends aiming for the minimum physical activity guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM): 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise every week and two full-body strength training sessions per week. 

These guidelines are meant to be doable, wherever you are in your fitness journey. “When they say ‘moderate to vigorous,’ that doesn’t mean hill sprints,” says Taylor. “It means a brisk walk.” He adds that you can also split this up however you choose: It could be five 30-minute aerobic sessions per week or 10 15-minute bursts of activity spread out over several days. 

“When they say ‘moderate to vigorous,’ that doesn’t mean hill sprints. It means a brisk walk.”

-Troy Taylor, Senior Director of Performance at Tonal. 

When choosing what type of exercise to do, Taylor says if you pick activities you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to stay consistent.

How to Get Back Into Shape After Years of Inactivity 

Now that you know the importance of reintroducing exercise into your life, you’ll want to take a few concrete steps to establish good habits. Here’s what experts recommend for coming back strong.

Find Your Motivation

People who are the most consistent with their routines tend to be intrinsically motivated. In other words, they exercise because they find it truly rewarding not because of external pressure to look a certain way or do a specific workout. You’ll have the best chance of staying motivated if you do activities you love, celebrate your progress, and connect with others with similar goals. 

To tap into your own intrinsic motivation, experiment with different forms of exercise to find what you enjoy. Don’t hesitate to mix up your routine with a new coach or workout modality as novelty and variety can recharge your motivation. It’ll also help if you partner with a friend who has similar goals and keep each other accountable.

Start Slow

Getting back into shape after years of activity can feel frustrating—especially if you used to be very active. Instead of feeling discouraged, try to embrace the process and understand that starting slow is the best way to get back to your old self. You didn’t lose your fitness in a day, and you won’t regain it as quickly either, but with consistency and commitment, you can build back fitness and strength that even exceeds your earlier accomplishments.  

That was the case for Tonal coach and certified personal trainer Ackeem Emmons back in 2009 when he had to re-learn how to walk after being hit by a car. The former track and field athlete was impatient with his recovery at first but learned the importance of small steps. 

When Emmons started physical therapy after his accident he was discouraged by the simple, seemingly-easy exercises his therapist recommended. He felt ready to jump into more challenging workouts, but in retrospect, he’s glad he started slow. 

“Take your time,” Emmons says. “If you add too much stress too soon, it can actually hinder the process.” If you’ve been sedentary for years, the temptation to leap headfirst into an intense exercise routine may be strong, but doing so could result in injury that will only set you back.

Make a Plan

Every little bit of exercise counts. Start with walking five to 10 minutes each day and gradually add time until you reach the minimum guidelines. As for resistance training, try bodyweight exercises first. Moves such as push-ups and bodyweight lunges can be done anywhere and don’t require any equipment. 

When you’re ready to add on and return to weight lifting, it’s easy to make one of two mistakes:  Either you attempt to start right where you left off (years ago) and hurt yourself doing a routine that’s too challenging for your current fitness level, or you’re so uncertain about how to begin that you end up not even trying.

Avoid both missteps with an expert-designed program that meets you where you’re at, includes a healthy balance of effort and recovery, and challenges all your major muscle groups equally. One that’s mapped out for you in advance eliminates any decision fatigue and makes it easier to stick with your new routine. In fact, Tonal members who follow programs are 55 percent more consistent than those who only do one-off workouts. 

On Tonal, you’ll find multi-week, coach-led programs that will help with getting back into shape after years of inactivity. Check out these programs specifically designed for beginners and those returning to exercise after a break or injury. Once you’re feeling more confident, you can move on to programs that are aligned with your specific goal, whether that’s to get lean, build muscle, or improve overall fitness.

Build Habits

Now that you’ve selected your plan, you’ll want to establish habits that will help you follow through. Research has shown making a specific action plan, stacking habits (i.e. “after I brush my teeth, I put on my sneakers”), and developing cues (for example, laying out your workout clothes the night before a morning session) are all effective strategies for reinforcing your exercise habits. 

Tonal offers you the ability to plan your routine in advance and get helpful notifications to remind you when you have a workout scheduled. 

Prepare for Soreness

While starting slow and choosing an appropriately challenging program will minimize excessive soreness—the kind that makes you so achy you can’t complete your next workout—a little soreness is healthy and to be expected. Learn more about delayed onset muscle soreness here and how to tell the difference between normal sore muscles and pain from an injury. To ease soreness, try foam rolling. It can loosen up sore muscles and reduce discomfort before and after workouts. 

Get Inspired by the Community

One of the best parts of returning to fitness on Tonal is knowing that you’re not alone. Pop over to the Official Tonal Community on Facebook, and you’ll find members who are regaining their strength—or gaining muscle for the first time—at every age.

Take lawyer and father-of-three John Sill for example. He was a dedicated gym-goer until he had children and fell off track. Thanks to Tonal, he was able to build more muscle than ever before and even win a pro-level bodybuilding competition as an amateur. 

Or look at Arlene Kraushaar. At 66 years old, Kraushaar is the strongest she’s ever been. She went through decades of false starts trying to get into exercise at the gym before finally discovering Tonal. Now, she’s lifted over 3 million pounds. 

Putting It All Together

Getting back into shape after years of inactivity won’t happen overnight, but it’s possible to regain your fitness if you’re patient and put in the work. Small changes, such as breaking up each hour of sitting time with a few minutes of walking or spending 10 minutes per day on bodyweight resistance exercises, can go a long way. By sticking with a plan, developing healthy habits, and getting support from your community, you’ll be able to get back into a routine. Pretty soon, you might realize you’re even stronger than you were before.

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