How to Exercise Safely and Effectively

See also: Top Tips for Exercising on a Budget

Our page on The Importance of Exercise explains that exercising is important for both mental and physical health. However, what you do and how you do it also matter, because you will get different benefits from different types and intensities of exercise. Our page on Types of Exercise explains about different types of exercise, and provides some tips for getting started.

This page provides some tips about how to exercise safely and effectively. It gives ideas about how to exercise in a way that meets your fitness or other goals for exercising, without too much risk of injury.


It is important to remember that any sport is inherently risky. Some require more skill or technique than others, and the risk of injury may be greater.

If in doubt, you should consult a professional coach or trainer before starting any sport. If you have any health conditions, it is also a good idea to consult your doctor.

Top Tips for Safe and Effective Exercise

1. Start slowly, and build up over time

This is perhaps the most crucial tip of all. You cannot (safely) simply launch into a full exercise programme from nothing. You will almost certainly injure yourself, even if you don’t put yourself off exercising for life.

You need to start slowly, and build up over time.

This is especially true if you are overweight, because exercise will put a lot of strain on your heart and other muscles.

Start with gentle exercise such as walking, and build up to longer walks, and then runs. The same goes for swimming or cycling: go slowly and gently at first, and build up both length and intensity. It will take several months to work up to a full exercise programme from nothing.

TOP TIP! Follow a tailored programme

If you have never exercised before, it may be helpful to follow a tailored programme such as ‘Couch to 5K’. This is an app designed for beginner runners, to help them go from ‘no exercise’ to ‘running five kilometres (5k)’. The app sets out a plan for your exercise sessions, to take you safely from nothing to running without overdoing it.

If you use an app like Garmin Connect or similar fitness tracker apps, they can provide training programmes and plans for other scenarios, such as ‘Run 10k within x months’. These plans are designed to give you the maximum chance to achieve your goal from your current situation.

2. Don’t overdo it

This is an extension of the first tip: don’t try to do too much, even when you are fit.

It is very easy to get sucked into doing a lot of exercise. It feels good when you exercise, because your body releases endorphins (feel-good chemicals). You can start to get ‘hooked’ on the high from them, and want more and more.

However, it is still possible to overdo the exercise.

Take your time, and don’t do too much. If you do a really hard session one day, then take it easier the next. After a race, have a day off to recover. Over-exercising can put a serious strain on your body, and that is when you start to develop injuries.

3. Give your body time to recover between training sessions

This brings us to the third tip: recovery time.

Recovery time is the time that it will take your body to fully recover from your training session. It will vary with your general fitness, the intensity of the session, and what you have done before.

The general rule is that you need to give your body time to recover. You should be thinking in terms of having at least one or two full days off a week, and alternating between harder and lighter training sessions.

Recovery time on fitness trackers

Fitness trackers often give a ‘recovery time’: the time that it will take you to recover from a training session.

Unfortunately, wrist-based heart-rate monitors, such as the ones used in fitness watches, are notoriously inaccurate. A recovery time based on a wrist-based monitor is therefore also likely to be moderately inaccurate.

You should therefore take any precise times with a pinch of salt.

However, that doesn’t mean that some recovery time is not important!

It is also important to listen to your body. If you do a hard session one day, and you find that you are particularly tired the next day, or you start your session and find that you just don’t feel right, then stop, go a bit slower or do a bit less. Your body is telling you that you have not fully recovered from the previous day.

There are times when you might want to ignore that. Sometimes your training programme calls for ‘exercising tired’ as a way to push yourself further. However, it is still important not to overdo it. Just going gently may be enough.

Of course there are times when your body is just being a bit lazy.

If you haven’t done any hard training and you’re still finding it hard to get going, that might be a good time to give your body a firm talking-to, and push on.

4. It is worth getting some coaching to improve technique

This is true both when you start exercising, and periodically as a way to improve your technique.

When you start exercising, it is a good idea to get some coaching straight away, especially if you start a new sport. This will ensure that you don’t immediately develop bad habits that could take years to undo. It will also give you the best chance of getting going without injuring yourself.

Almost every sport requires some technique—and coaching can ensure that you develop those. There may also be safety issues that you need to understand, and that coaching will highlight.

Even when you are more experienced, coaching gives you another set of eyes on your technique, and some new ideas for your exercise regime. It is easy to get into a rut with your training, and some coaching can help you break out of that, and kickstart further development.

We can all develop bad habits over time, and coaching can help to iron those out.

5. You get what you train for—so think about what you want to achieve

How you train or exercise will be reflected in the outcomes that you achieve. It follows that you should train for what you want to achieve.

If you wish to increase your stamina and cardiac fitness, it is no good doing weight training or yoga. They simply will not have the desired effect. However, almost any type of cardiac training (and for more about the different forms of exercise, see our page Types of Exercise) will improve your general fitness.

Having said that, training in one sport is not necessarily directly translatable into another. Swimming, for example, will improve your cardiac fitness—but you may still struggle to run. You cannot expect to be able to run 10k without any specific training, simply because you swim regularly.

You also cannot expect to be able to sprint when your training has specifically focused on endurance—or vice versa.

You therefore need to consider what you want to achieve through exercise—and tailor your training programme to meet those objectives.

TOP TIP! Coaching can help here too!

A coach or personal trainer can help you to design an exercise regime that will help you to achieve your objectives. If you don’t know where to start—a session with a trainer might just help!

6. Vary your training sessions to make them more effective

Try doing different sports (cross-training) or different types of session to vary your routine.

For example, if you do two or three sessions of exercise each week, then do two in your main sport, and one in a different sport. In the two sessions of your main sport, do a steady-state session in one, and intervals in the other (see box).

Intervals vs. steady-state training

What do we mean by intervals and steady-state training?

  • Steady-state training is when you complete the whole session at more or less the same pace. The classic example is going for a run.

  • Interval training is when you vary the intensity or speed of your session between high-speed/intensity and lower speed/intensity. For example, you might do ten bursts of three minutes’ high intensity, with two minutes at low intensity in between each one. Your ‘recovery’ between high intensity efforts can be designed to be either full or partial, which will have different effects on your fitness. Hill runs are also a form of interval training.

Interval training is considered extremely effective, because it allows you to get the same intensity of exercise over a shorter period. However, to build really good cardiovascular fitness, you will need to add some longer sessions at steady state too.

This variation will have several effects.

  • First, it stops you getting bored, because your sessions are always slightly different.

  • Second, varying your training sessions will give different parts of your body and metabolism a workout. This will give other muscles and systems a chance to recover, which is more effective.

  • Third, varying your sessions will allow you to train for different results at (more or less) the same time. You can train to develop both high intensity and a lower-intensity but longer-lasting effort, for example. This will allow you to keep going over time, but sprint or put in more effort to overtake someone or go up a hill, say. It therefore makes your fitness regime more flexible.

The Bottom Line

How you exercise is as important as the type of exercise that you choose.

Take time to understand the issues here, as a way to avoid injuries and problems further down the line.