New Year new you? How to get fit and strong without the gym

"Getting started is the most difficult point for anyone", Seiler stresses.
"Getting started is the most difficult point for anyone", Seiler stresses. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Niki Bezzant for RNZ

Gyms can be intimidating places, especially if you haven't exercised in a while, or if you're not as fit, toned and young as their advertisements suggest.

On the other hand, we all know the benefits of regular exercise, and the benefits of the type of exercise the gym enables: strength or weight training.

So what to do? Is it possible to get fitter and stronger without setting foot on a gym floor?

Kyra Seiler is an Auckland personal trainer who specialises in high-intensity strength training. Surprisingly, she says it is absolutely possible to gain fitness and strength at home with minimal equipment.

"You don't need to have a gym at home to achieve strength; to help you with mental health, flexibility… everything can be done with your own body weight", she says.

"It's just a matter of finding a little space. And you know, by doing a workout in a space that's one metre by one metre, you can definitely achieve that."

Personal trainer Kyra Seiler smiles
Personal trainer Kyra Seiler Photo credit: Supplied

Start small

If you're coming back to exercise after a break - or you've never done it but you'd like to establish a regular exercise habit - the key is to start with something achievable*.

"Getting started is the most difficult point for anyone", Seiler stresses.

"What I hear from a lot of people is, 'I start out with good intentions in January and then by the end of February it's all falling apart because it's just really hard to stay committed…' A lot of the time people do depend on willpower to get it done, but it's not long-lasting."

She says to form habits that actually stick, we are far better off starting small. At home, that might mean just 15 minutes of exercise, once a week.

"If you are looking to get stronger; have more mobility and just feel better, create a program that is body weight only, starting off with once a week; maybe twice a week. Try two exercises for the lower body, two exercises for the upper body, and maybe an ab exercise. A 15-minute workout. Try and commit to that once a week."

Once that's embedded, try doing the same workout twice a week.

"And then you can start looking at changing it around; maybe you add in a few other exercises to take it to 30 minutes."

Exercises she suggests as good starters: something for the legs, like squats, lunges or wall sits - the latter was shown in recent research to lower blood pressure. Working the legs is important, "because you use your legs every day - walking up stairs, walking down stairs; your legs help you catch yourself if you fall over."

Push-ups are another great all-rounder exercise for the upper body and core - and you do not have to start in a perfect plank position on your toes to benefit.

"You can start simply pushing up against the wall," Seiler says.

"Start with doing about 10 of those and then once you feel comfortable with 10, you can lower that down to maybe a chair. Then progress onto your knees on the floor, and then eventually you can lift your knees up."

A 'superman' is a good back exercise: "Lying face down, flat on the ground, lifting your hands up, lifting your legs up, and then just lowering that back to the ground in a nice slow and controlled manner - that helps strengthen the back."

Need help? There's lots of workout inspiration on YouTube, whether that's follow-along workouts and guides showing how to do various exercises in good form.

Focus on resistance training

"The number one thing I just want everyone to do is to try and do some sort of resistance training," Seiler says.

"The amount of research that's coming out now in terms of benefits for mental health, quality of life, reducing your risk of cancer and type two diabetes... strength training is being shown to be superior to cardiovascular training."

Resistance work is important as we age, particularly, since we tend to naturally lose muscle mass. This is known as sarcopenia and it's a major contributor to frailty and falls in old age, as well as general aches and pains and weight gain in midlife.

New Year new you? How to get fit and strong without the gym
Photo credit: Getty Images

Beyond aesthetics, Seiler reckons "the mental health benefits are probably the number one reason why people should try strength training - or just [any] exercise. The endorphin release from it; the serotonin and oxytocin [feel-good chemicals].

"People don't realise that you can get that with just a basic 10-minute workout or even a five-minute workout. Just jump on the floor, do a few sit-ups, maybe do a few pushups. You instantly feel better from it. When I'm feeling stressed… as funny as it sounds, I just do 10 pushups and I feel better."

Add cardio

Cardiovascular health is improved by exercise that gets the heart rate up. Again, that can be done with strength training if you keep your rest periods short. Another option is walking.

"You can walk 10 minutes, 20 minutes," Seiler says.

"Ideally you want to try and make it a little bit intense to get the benefit. You're not just going for a casual stroll."

"Another [good cardio exercise] is finding a flight of stairs. Just walk up that about five times. Another one that you can do now that summer's coming up is swimming. It's great, and low-impact for the knees. You don't have to swim laps and laps and laps. It can just be a 10- or 15-minute swim and whatever stroke you want to do. I think it's just about finding something that works for you. One type of exercise doesn't work for everyone."

Pick exercise you enjoy

If you do not enjoy your workouts, they're unlikely to become a habit.

"If you set yourself up to say, 'I'm going to do burpees; I'm going to do jump squats; I'm going to do push-ups three times a week.' but you actually hate those exercises, you're not going to do it", Seiler says.

Take any injuries or restrictions into account when figuring out what exercises your body will enjoy before settling on a programme, she says.

Woman and her Labrador puppy running on the sand on a Queensland beach.
Photo credit: Getty Images

"It's finding exercises, experimenting with a few and then putting that all together."

There is a line between enjoyment and the effectiveness that comes from a challenging exercise, though. Ideally, we should be doing exercises we enjoy, to the point of momentary muscular failure.

"That's when you can't complete a repetition in good form", explains Seiler. Evidence shows that failure means more muscle activation and increases in muscle strength over time.

Step it up

Once you are comfortable with your regular exercise routine, try increasing the intensity.

"The next step can just be a simple progression, such as adding some resistance into the exercise", Seiler says.

"If you're finding that, for example, with body weight squats, you're doing about 25 repetitions, and you're kind of getting bored with that, you can purchase some dumbbells [available from most big-box retailers]. It doesn't have to be heavy dumbbells. Start squatting with those."

Changing the timing in your exercise is another way to increase intensity - slowing down a squat to 10 seconds down, 10 seconds up, for example, will increase the time that the muscle fibre is under tension, which will help you get stronger.

Adding variety at this point can be an intensity-builder too. Once you've mastered a lunge, try a Bulgarian split squat or a Russian lunge, where the back foot is propped up on a chair or bench.

Consider your why

At first, most people want to exercise because they want to look better, but Seiler says there are far deeper reasons to move that are probably going to be far more motivating long-term.

"Exercise has so many benefits," she says.

"Everyone thinks that by doing strength training, by going for a walk, by going for a swim… the first thing people think about is gaining muscle, or having that so-called 'toned' appearance. But there's so many underlying benefits such as reducing cancer, reducing type two diabetes, reducing cholesterol, reducing blood pressure, increasing your BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). That's associated with memory, learning and focus, so it actually makes you smarter by exercising."

Decreased levels of BDNF are also associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

When motivation wanes, thinking of those external factors can get you back up on your feet.

"Being fitter is just one goal," Seiler says.

"There's another goal of feeling better mentally. Or it could be you're doing it for family reasons - I actually want to be healthier for my partner. I want to be healthier for my kids. I want to get strong so when I'm older I can still play with them. There's a whole bunch of other goals rather than just gaining muscle. And the list of benefits goes on and on and on."

*If you have any health concerns, injuries or medical conditions, make sure you get the all-clear from your doctor before starting any exercise programme.