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Haven’t exercised in ages? How to bounce back without injury

Two years ago, you were running four times a week or playing mixed netball with your friends, or maybe even going to the gym consistently. These days, things are a little different and maybe you haven’t worked out or run around in quite a while.

If this description sounds like you and you’re thinking about getting back into physical activity, there are probably some things you should know before you attempt a spur-of-the-moment 10km run or marathon.

Dr Lyndell Bruce, from Deakin’s Centre for Sport Research, gives her expert advice for those looking to return to exercise after a period of inactivity.

Why are exercise routines so tough?

If you’ve ever struggled to get into a new exercise routine, you’re not alone. Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic 21-days to form a routine – it differs from person to person. However, once you’re in the groove, you might find it relatively easy to keep up with a regular pattern, whether it’s your weekly yoga class or footy training session, or simply a run around the park every few days.

Unfortunately, it is incredibly easy to drop an exercise routine and become blocked by the mental barrier that stands between you and regular physical activity.

‘Reasons that people lose routine can include injury, perceived lack of time, loss of motivation, and other external obstacles such as a lockdown,’ Dr Bruce says.

‘For some, not exercising becomes a routine in of itself and that can be difficult to break out of. For others, serious injury or a perceived lack of gains or success can create a difficult mental barrier to finding motivation to return to exercise.’

What happens if you don’t exercise for a long time?

Although many of us may be guilty of putting exercise on the backburner and prioritising everything except going to the gym or having a run in the park, Dr Bruce says there can be some serious consequences if we don’t look after our bodies.

‘Long periods of inactivity can lead to several serious conditions such as an increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease,’ she says.

‘Inactivity can also lead to other poor habits such as poor nutritional intake, increased levels of sitting which studies have shown to be potentially dangerous, increased screen time which, in turn, can negatively impact sleep. It can all become quite a vicious cycle.’

However, Dr Bruce points out, returning to exercise and regular physical activity can counter all of those risks and encourage an overall healthier lifestyle.

‘Getting back into exercise will reduce the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease as well as improve mental health,’ she says.

‘If you’re exercising, you’ll be more inclined to get up from extended sitting , eat healthier, and have improved sleep better as you will have increased levels of fatigue from exercise.’

'For some, not exercising becomes a routine in of itself and that can be difficult to break out of.'

Dr Lyndell Bruce,
School of Exercise and Nutritional Science, Deakin University

How should you approach getting back into physical activity?

If you’re one of the many currently sitting on the sidelines, maybe it’s time to take the plunge and start exercising again.

Of course, what you should do when attempting to get back into the swing of things all depends on what you have done prior and how long you’ve been out of the game. But Dr Bruce recommends starting out with some low-intensity activities and slowly working your way up.

‘If you start with low intensity and find something you enjoy, whether it be by yourself or with a team, it will increase your motivation and make you more inclined to continue the activity,’ she explains.

‘You could start by walking, or doing yoga or Pilates, and gradually building up your intensity. There are so many options to choose from and the right one for you is the one that you’re comfortable with and enjoy.’

Dr Bruce also recommends monitoring your exercise through a wearable device or through a tool called Session RPE which helps you rank an activity from zero to 10 (with 10 being the highest and most intense). You then multiply that ranking by the number of minutes you spend on the exercise.

For example, you could do a level four activity for 20 minutes and have a session score of 80, or you could do a level 10 activity for eight minutes and come out with the same score.

It’s an effective way to monitor your activity levels and make sure you’re not going from zero to 1000 in a day.

When you start out, it’s better to keep the intensity levels lower and gradually build up to higher intensity sessions.

Wherever you’re at, Dr Bruce says it’s important to avoid setting yourself up for failure. No matter what the goal is, you’ll be rewarded with some benefits.

‘It’s just a matter of getting out and having a go,’ she says. ‘Set some realistic expectations and find what works for you.’

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Dr Lyndell Bruce
Dr Lyndell Bruce

Senior Lecturer, School of Exercise and Nutritional Science, Deakin University

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