A Beginner’s Guide to Exercising at Home

You’re spending a lot of time at home. You’re assessing your health and your body and are unhappy with some aspect of it. The gyms in your area are closed. You’re trying to be financially sensible going forward. A confluence of events is nudging you with a pretty clear voice: how can I get in better shape while at home and without buying a bunch of stuff or online services?

If that sounds like you, this guide is for you. Let’s start from the top.

Figure out your goals.

The absolute first step you should take if you’re considering exercising at home is to ask yourself why you’re exercising. Why are you wanting to do this?

There are a lot of reasons for exercise.

“I want to lose fat.”
“I want to get stronger.”
“I want to not get out of breath doing ordinary things.”
“I want to be more flexible.”
“I want those after-exercise endorphins.”

Each of those options nudges you toward different approaches for exercise. Someone focused on becoming stronger isn’t going to want to do the same things as someone focused on being more flexible, for example.

Before you do anything else discussed below, spend some time figuring out the main reason you want to do this. If you’re going to exercise, what change are you wanting to see in yourself?

Exercising from home with minimal equipment and cost comes with a few considerations.

As we move forward from here, we’re going to make some minimal assumptions about what you have available to you. I’m going to assume the following.

First of all, I’m assuming you’re healthy enough for basic exercise. You are responsible for the state of your own health and you shouldn’t take on exercise if you’re not healthy enough to handle it. It’s your responsibility. If you’re unsure, talk to your doctor.

Second, I’m assuming you have reasonable internet access. You need enough reliable internet access to be able to at least watch low-quality streaming video for some exercises.

Third, I’m assuming you have adequate floor space to at least stretch out and move around a little bit. An area where you can lay down flat in any direction with a bit of breathing room on each side should be the minimum; a bit more is good, too.

Finally, I’m assuming you have a sturdy chair and perhaps a few other ordinary household odds and ends. I’m trying to avoid actual exercise equipment and instead focus on things you probably already have, like a chair. If you do come across something that requires things you don’t already have, then just skip that option.

Focus on doing things that don’t make you feel miserable.

Exercise, particularly if you’re not used to it, should push your body. It should feel like exertion and, for many, that’s not always a pleasant feeling. If exercise always felt better than sitting on the couch, everyone would exercise all the time.

You should strive to find activities that you relatively enjoy compared to other activities. Try out a few different things in each section and see which ones actually seem the most enjoyable for you.

Furthermore, you should strive to make a regular routine out of this so that you’re doing it every day or every other day. For example, many people who have two different exercise goals will do things that push one goal on one day, then do things that push the other goal the next day, and alternate back and forth. It is a good idea to give yourself some rest days, but that doesn’t mean you have to be sedentary on those days. Find other things to do and try to make exercise a daily or near-daily routine.

In fact, I find it useful to have a calendar in which I mark each successful day with a big fat X. That way, as I start to build a chain of consecutive days with Xs, I don’t want to break that chain. It becomes a really good psychological motivator.

Whenever you exercise, make sure that you have water available to drink and you’ve done some stretching at the start. Have a glass or a bottle of water nearby and start with some basic stretching and a little bit of varied gentle movement. This gets you started right and minimizes injury risk. This is a good startup to follow.

Also, remember that if the thing you’re trying is overwhelming you, back off. You don’t have to do it at the same pace as the video. You don’t have to do a full set. Slow down the video playback, or just stop for a bit and get a breather, or do things slower than the person in the video. If you’re trying to do a prescribed set and it’s making you feel utterly miserable, do half sets or quarter sets. If something feels like it might hurt, don’t do it. It’s all good. It’s all a step in the right direction.

Got it? Let’s dig in. Please note that, in most cases, I’m trying to select very beginner-friendly material, with options to migrate into something more difficult. In each section, you should find at least one thing that should be do-able even if you’re very new to exercise.

If you want to burn fat, you need to aim for burning lots of calories without simply eating more to compensate.

The simplest way to see that you’re burning plenty of calories is by choosing exercises that make you sweat. Sweating is your body’s response to heating up, which is what your body is doing as it burns through fuel — the food you’ve eaten and the fat you’ve stored. In short, if you’re sweating, you’re probably burning a little fat.

Of course, note that if you’re sweating, that means you’re losing water and a little salt from your body, so you should definitely be drinking water to replace what you lost.

You just need to make sure you’re not replacing that burnt fat by eating more to compensate. If you want to lose fat, you have to keep as much of an eye on your food intake as you do on your exercise (if not more). This doesn’t mean that you should be radically dieting, but it does mean that you should nudge yourself toward eating healthier foods and in a reasonable quantity. Choose to put more fruits and vegetables on your plate. Minimize snacks. Don’t go back for seconds unless you really feel hungry.

OK, so what kinds of fat-burning exercise can you easily do at home? Here are some options that I particularly like, all of them free.

Walk at Home is a really good place to start for beginners. This is almost exactly what you’re imagining — it’s an exercise  that’s routine-oriented around walking in place at home. There’s a lot of focus on changing pace, changing your step pattern and doing high steps. Some of them are really easy, while others are surprisingly challenging. I recommend the Weekly Walks series to give you an idea of what the channel has to offer; start with the Monday walk.

Kickboxing for Beginners is a great way to make you sweat at home. Kickboxing is a spectacular way to get sweaty at home, and this is a nice low-impact way to get started with kickboxing. (My family does taekwondo, which actually has a fair amount in common with this, but requires some hands-on instruction.) Mostly, kickboxing at home without equipment involves punching at the air and kicking at the air, with lots of variation of kicks and punches with lots of movement mixed in. Thus, it’s easy to ramp up the difficulty as you get stronger.

If you’re intimidated by the thought of doing long exercise sessions at home, try using the Johnson & Johnson 7 Minute Workout app. It offers a bunch of seven-minute workout routines for different levels of fitness, and if you decide you want more, you can always do two or three in a row. Can you commit to just seven minutes a day? It’s a really good way to get into the routine of exercising at home while breaking a nice sweat.

If you want to get stronger, you need to do exercises that involve resistance — holding and lifting your body weight.

Bodyweight exercise helps you build muscle by taking advantage of the mass that we all have in the form of our own bodies. You simply find lots of ways to lift and hold your own weight by relying on different muscle groups and, over time, those muscles start to grow. I find that these exercises do make you somewhat sweaty and somewhat out of breath, but they’ll definitely make you a little sore the next day, which is a sure sign that you’re building muscle.

Bodyweight exercise won’t make you look like the Incredible Hulk — you’ll need freestanding weights for that. However, if you want to look more toned and build more practical strength while building some muscle, these exercises will hit the spot.

The Darebee workout of the day and daily challenge provides a really nice varied daily bodyweight exercise — it basically never needs equipment. These challenges come in a wide variety and almost always never target the same parts of the body on consecutive days so you can usually keep doing them, day after day. Darebee offers a number of different programs that can help with a specific area, if you’re interested in that (I’ll mention a few of these in other sections). If you’re a beginner and want a program suited for getting you up to speed, Darebee’s Foundation Light is a great place to start.

The Reddit.com/r/bodyweightfitness Recommended Routine is a really nice system of progression of bodyweight exercises. Progression just means that, over time, the exercises you do gradually become more difficult. You move from things like an inclined push-up to a push-up on the floor to a slightly more difficult push-up variant to even more difficult variants. It’s a great way to keep a bodyweight routine fresh while continuing to build strength as you go. (There are some aspects of this that require equipment, though not many; skip them or look at the presented alternatives.)

If you want a simpler system of progression, this poster provides a pretty good system. All you need to do is start at the top of each column (you’ll probably need to skip the “pull-up” column unless you have a pull-up bar) and do each exercise until you can do three sets of eight of them perfectly with a short rest in between the sets, then move down to the next one. Just go across the columns once a day. Use YouTube to find videos on how to do each one of these exercises properly before you try doing them on your own — just go to YouTube and search for each exercise individually and watch how it’s done properly. The exercise at the top of each column is quite simple; near the bottom, they’re extremely difficult.

If you want to not get out of breath, you need to do exercises that get you out of breath and improve cardiovascular fitness.

If you find yourself out of breath doing the things you want to be doing, then your aim should be to improve your cardiovascular health. What you want to aim for are exercises that get you out of breath and raise your heart rate to an elevated but safe level. You want to get a little winded regularly because when you do, you’ll gradually get more and more fit and you’ll find it’s harder to get yourself winded.

Here are some great resources for people who want to get cardio exercise at home.

This is the best free beginner cardio routine I’ve found on YouTube. If you’re just getting started with this kind of exercise, do this routine and use it to assess where you’re at. If you find it’s too difficult, do what you can and take some breaks. If you find it’s challenging, do it as a daily routine for a while until it begins to feel easy, then look for more challenging stuff. If you find it easy, move onto the more challenging options below. This routine does use bottled water as light weights during portions of the routine; just look for a pair household items that weigh 1 to 3 pounds each and use those instead.

This list of 33 cardio-focused bodyweight exercises is a great resource to start with. Just go through the list and aim to do each one for, say, 30 seconds, with enough of a break in between each one so that you feel comfortable and not overwhelmed (try 30 seconds at first, or a minute if that’s not long enough). You will be panting by the end of it! If you want to increase the intensity, aim to cut down the break between each exercise or do each exercise for a little longer.

If you like to mix dance and fitness, I recommend The Fitness Marshall. While this YouTube channel does have some paid content, much of it is free and it offers a ton of good cardio-oriented fitness routines that mix dance and exercise. This really isn’t my thing as I might be the least rhythmic person in existence, but the resources here are upbeat, entertaining, and highly recommended.

As an aside, if you happen to have a jump rope, jump roping is probably my favorite cardio activity to do alone. Not only does it get me sweating and panting, but it forces me to be more rhythmic with my movements. If you have a jump rope and adequate space, this is a great 10-minute beginner routine with a jump rope.

If you want to get more flexible, you need to aim for stretching and balance exercises.

Many people simply want to be more flexible and have better balance, or want to improve those areas along with other goals. If this sounds like you, I highly recommend getting into a daily routine of yoga and/or stretching, and thankfully there are tons of great routines online for this.

My favorite free resource for beginning yoga (and even for more experienced folks) is Yoga with Adriene. She strikes a wonderful accessible tone for people who are new to yoga without being unhelpful to those who have some yoga experience, and the approach she uses works well for everyone. Of particular note is her list of yoga videos for beginners, as well as her 30 Days of Yoga series. (If you want to try yoga but feel more comfortable with a male instructor, check out this 28-day yoga series from Breathe and Flow.) Yoga is a very good way to improve flexibility and posture while getting a surprisingly good workout.

If you’re looking for a good daily stretching routine, this 20-minute full-body flexibility routine from Tom Merrick is something I’ve done many times — it’s great! I love doing this in the morning not too long after I wake up, and I do it almost every morning when I rise significantly ahead of others in my household. Stretching at the start of the day leaves me feeling limber. This is a really, really good routine for that, though some parts might be challenging for beginners.

If you want to feel the endorphins from exercise, you need to do moderate-intensity exercise over a longer period of time, 30 minutes or more.

If your goal is to really feel the endorphins from exercise and enjoy that good feeling you get from exercise and after exercise, you should be aiming for longer exercise sessions of moderate intensity. For most people, endorphins really don’t kick in until you reach 30 or 40 minutes of exercise (something I’ve noticed many times when I start feeling good after doing moderate exercise for a while and feel great afterward.)

If this sounds like your goal, I would suggest picking a secondary fitness goal and dive into the resources focused on that specific goal, except aim to do those exercises at a moderate pace for at least 30 to 40 minutes, rather than a more intense pace for a shorter period of time. Push yourself so that you’re sweaty and feeling exerted, but not exhausted before you get to that 30-minute mark.

Remember, the key to any kind of fitness is to find something you actually want to do consistently, and then actually doing it.

You should try lots of things suggested in this article and see which ones click with you and which ones don’t. You should even try out some of the suggestions for areas that don’t perfectly match your goals, as all of these exercises will help you no matter what your goals are.

Good luck!

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