5 Tips To Start Exercising Without Getting Hurt

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Updated 12/28/23 by Jordan Larson, PT

In this post, I will teach you how to start exercising again if it’s been awhile since you’ve done much body movement, and I’ll give you time-proven tips and principles to do so safely and effectively. Also, I’ve included a bonus section at the end outlining  best practices to create new habits, based on cutting-edge research.

This post will help you if your goal is to simply be able to do basic exercises to overcome an injury, to start a walking routine, take a pilates or yoga class without pulling a muscle or to get in shape and improve your fitness for things like pickle ball or any other sport.   

Here are the principles to use when just starting or increasing the intensity level of an exercise program or increasing your activity level: 

  1. Start super easy
  2. Stay super easy
  3. Think months not days 
  4. Consistency, not intensity 
  5. Don’t stop

There’s so much brain-trash we can have when it comes to exercising, brought on by outdated ideas from gym class, societal ideas or some coach from the past. It’s easy to make exercise too complicated and also too hard. Let’s make this smooth and easy… and effective!

Back in the day, I used to treat professional athletes, olympic athletes, professional dancers and college athletes, and the principles above were as true for them as they are for you. Yes, the time frames are different for fit people in their 20’s vs someone in their 50’s and up, but the manner in which the body gets stronger is the same.

Another big difference with young athletes is that they’ve been at it a long time already, and have built up a much higher tolerance for activity than you and I. So it LOOKS like they’re working super hard, but the relative intensity they’re working out at is actually lower than you think. In other words, the intensity they’re working out at FEELS to them approximately the same as when you and I are exercising at more mellow, correct intensity levels.  


1. Start super easy. 

Start any new exercise or increase in activity intensity at a level that feels super duper easy (another one of my technical terms). If your brain says, “This isn’t possibly aggressive enough to do any good,” then you’ve nailed it. Don’t let that “athlete brain” talk you into “pushing it” or tell you you’re doing too little.

Just start with something you KNOW you can do without being super sore or risking any kind of injury. Not sure how much to do? Start with less than you think and see how it goes. 

2. Stay super easy. 

Now that you’ve started way easy… stay at that intensity for a week. Avoid the temptation to rapidly increase the intensity. Ease up on the urge to immediately go further, faster, harder, heavier, etc. Try to not let your ego tell you about what you “used to be able to do.” So try the new super easy activity or exercise, then wait at least 24 hours and see you your body reacts.

Sometimes it even takes 48 hours to feel the result of a new activity level. If you’re good the next day, great, go ahead and do the same intensity level again. But consider a day of rest in between to avoid overworking your body. Once you’ve done the new exercise for a week or so – on most days of that week -THEN you know that intensity is OK for you.  

Feeling some general muscle soreness in the areas you worked is fine, but it shouldn’t feel like sharp pain, pain that keeps you up at night, burning pain or lingering pain at rest – any of these means you did something your body didn’t like. In those cases back off, modify it or skip it altogether. 

If you’re already having some issues and not sure how to do this, let us help you with some physical therapy here in Santa Maria- it’s why we’re here.

3. Think months, not days. 

When we start working out, we want to get “in shape” fast. We do a new exercise and then that night we look in the mirror to see if there are any new muscles that have appeared (at least that’s what I’ve done!).

It takes weeks, if not months to build a foundation of strength, fitness and mobility, not days.

When we try to increase activity levels thinking days, we over do it and can get hurt. The goal with moving your body is to move it so it’s healthy for you now, and continues to be healthy for you for the long term. We want to be feeling awesome when we’re in our 90’s.

This is not based on how fast you can increase – give it time, and let go of “results” for now, those will happen naturally as you continue to move your body. 

4. Consistency, not intensity

Sensing a theme here? We can learn from our elders. The secret of people in their 90’s (or any age, really) that are kicking butt is NOT that they’ve worked out hard. It’s because they don’t stop moving. I’ve worked with active people age 90+ for over 30 years and I always ask them their secrets. It’s simple. They move some part of their body, in some way, every day.

For some it’s old-school calisthenics, for some it’s walking, for some it’s stretching or yoga, for some it’s pool exercises.

They find something that agrees with them and that they at least like a little bit (hopefully more), and they do it like clockwork. Some days they do more, some days less. But it’s not about working out hard. They may build up to that, but the consistency is the important thing. And if you go out too hard, you get hurt – and then you have to stop moving, which messes up the whole consistency thing! And it’s the same even with younger athletes: consistency is king. 

5. Don’t stop

Human bodies are not maintenance-free machines, and they need some (intelligent) movement to keep them tuned up and doing well.  

I was just talking to one of my patients, who was not typically very active, but has been really working on overcoming a severe problem.

He’s seen that to overcome it, he has to do some body movement daily. And he made the comment, slightly incredulously, that “It takes me about 45 minutes to get all these exercises done!” And I get it, if you’re not used to moving your body, it feels like a big investment of your time if your mindset is that this is extra, or somehow outside “normal.”

He mentioned that he sees other people able to “just get up and go” in the morning, and feels like there’s something wrong with him that he has to do all these exercises. You can look at other people, but we really have no idea what they’re doing.

What matters is what YOU need to do for YOUR body, and there are many of us out there that need to do “our exercises” to get going and keep going to live the lives we want.

If we say we want an “active lifestyle,” then we actually have to be active, and moving your body every day is what that means. Stagnancy is the enemy.

If we want all the systems of the body to keep moving – blood FLOW, nerve CONDUCTION, liver FUNCTION, etc. – we need to keep the body moving. Find something you like, do it regularly, repeat. 

What we’re talking about here is also creating new HABITS of moving your body regularly. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines an easy and proven way to build good habits: 


The 4 phases of creating new habits that become effortless are: 

Cue – make it obvious. The classic example is putting your walking shoes on the floor right next to the bed so you see them first thing in the morning. Or a sticky note on the bathroom mirror that you can’t miss. 
Craving – make it attractive. For example, to get you on the stationary bike, save a favorite podcast or novel or Netflix show to enjoy as a secondary benefit while you ride. For me, it’s walking my dog, phone at home, and looking up into the trees and at any nature or animals I see, enjoying the experience and sensations of being outside. Find what YOU enjoy. 
Response – make it easy. Pretty much see my entire post above. 
Reward – make it satisfying. My wife (a Doctor of Physical Therapy), says that exercise should be of an intensity that “feels like a massage” – maybe a little “hurt so good” sensation, but no sharp pain, with movement that feels like it’s flushing in blood flow and toxins out of the body. The exercise, movements or activities you do should feel good to you, and be at least somewhat satisfying to both perform and complete. Otherwise you won’t keep doing them. 

Additionally, advice I give my clients which really helps them and which habit experts agree on are the following: 

Focus on trajectory over results – Just start. Start moving in some way and let the fact that you took some action be the goal, not how MUCH or LONG or even how effective it was. Those things will take care of themselves if you just start and move in a positive direction.

Decide WHEN and WHERE you will exercise – This helps increase the likelihood you’ll do it. Pick your high-energy times and an easy convenient location. But decide ahead of time so you can see it in your mind. 

Habit stacking – using the habits you already have in place to cue new habits you want to form. Do mini squats while you brush your teeth. Balance on one foot every time you wait for the microwave to ding. Engage your core every red stoplight.

True behavior change requires identity change – if you want to stop smoking, tell yourself “I’m not a smoker.” If you just try to say, I won’t smoke right now, it’s much weaker. It’s who you ARE, who you decide your identity is, that matters. So if you want to start exercising, say something like, “I’m someone who takes care of myself,” and the exercise will be a natural component of that identity. 

So there you go, 5 things to start exercising without getting hurt, and cutting edge advice on creating good habits – propel yourself through the stagnancy of inactivity and cultivate a lifestyle that YOU design and maintain, by moving your body and exercising in a way that feels good to you! 

I know that was a lot of info, and I know sometimes it doesn’t feel as simple as these things, but do your best, don’t force and see how it goes. 

As always, if you need some help, or if you’re injured or having a body issue that’s STOPPING you from doing what you want your body to do, that’s what we do and we’re happy to help any way we can!


Reach out with an email (click HERE)… or to inquire about a free telephone consultation click HERE – no obligation, just information. Or we’d love it if you gave us a call directly (805) 934-0663 – don’t wait, more time usually doesn’t help. 

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