Transformation: How To Take Them From Sedentary To Active

Of course, you will want to use your own creativity and special interests, as well as the unique characteristics of your market, to build the right kind of programming for the inactive population in your area. However, there are basic elements you can use as a foundation to create a strong, successful program.

To help you integrate components that will ensure an effective class or program, I am going to outline fundamentals learned from over a decade of experience designing exercise programs specifically for the average sedentary adult.

At the South Shore YMCA in Boston, we train as many as 500 formerly inactive adults in a year. Our participants respond well to a basic training program (20 to 25 minutes of strength exercise and 20 to 25 minutes of endurance exercise three days a week), using standard training principles. We incorporate several educational and motivational teaching techniques to enhance member satisfaction and adherence.

After an eight-week training program, participants complete an anonymous, written questionnaire regarding their exercise experiences. The average rating has been 4.9 out of 5.0. Although some individuals drop out, about 95 percent of those who finish the program continue to exercise on a regular basis. In our experience, eight weeks of carefully designed exercise is sufficient to change the lifestyle patterns of previously sedentary adults.

How You Can Do It

To develop your program, you need to concentrate on three key aspects: motivational approach, exercise methods and teaching methods. I will begin by briefly describing our approach to motivation, then discuss endurance and strength training exercise methods and, finally, offer tips on successful teaching methods. While I will speak from my experience with one kind of program, keep in mind that you are free to take these ideas and create your own unique offering.

1, 2, 3 . . . Get Motivated!

At South Shore YMCA, we use the “awareness, attention, achievement” approach to get and keep our new exercisers. You can probably come up with your own strategies for making this three-step approach work, but the following ideas have worked for us.

Step One:

Exercise Awareness

To us, this means, “Get the word out!” To introduce the benefits of exercise to people in our surrounding communities, we use television segments; radio shows; business newsletters; and presentations at schools, hospitals, churches, senior centers and service clubs. However, our regular “Keeping Fit” newspaper column – presently in its 14th year – is far and away our most effective tool for reaching and teaching the sedentary population.

The majority of our weekly exercise articles are directed toward the inactive market, including youth, adults, seniors, overweight persons and weekend athletes (golfers, skiers, etc.) Each article presents about 700 to 800 words of basic exercise information, typically emphasizing training benefits, principles, and options for nonexercising individuals.

Step Two:

Exercise Attention

Awareness is a good starting point, but it is rarely sufficient in itself. Unfortunately, most nonexercisers have difficulty sticking with a home-based exercise program. They purchase equipment and learn how to use it, but they seldom adhere to a regular workout schedule on their own.

Those who try a commercial health clubs are likely to be intimidated by better-conditional exercise enthusiasts, who tend to dominate typical fitness centers. This appears true for males and females, young and old. People quickly get the impression they are too unfit to be seen in a fitness facility!

For those reasons, we have tried to develop more homogeneous exercise programs in less threatening exercise environments and attentive exercise instructors. We have found that people who perceive themselves as unfit prefer to train with similar individuals in small, closely supervised classes. Our fitness programs are more likely to fill up when we offer specific classes for specific groups. Examples include exercise programs designed for:

  • preteens
  • teens
  • adults
  • seniors
  • overweight persons
  • golfers
  • skiers
  • runners

We have provided these programs in our large (4,000-square-foot) exercise facility and our small (400-square-foot) research room. Without question, unfit participants feel much more comfortable in the small training center, which is limited to class members. We can run our small, homogeneous exercise classes all day long in the research center.

We take a personal approach with each new exercise group, beginning with an orientation slide show and an informative tour through out fitness testing and training facilities. We then offer individual fitness assessments, followed by careful instruction on the strength and endurance equipment.

After trying various student-teaching ratios, we have settled on six-person classes with two attentive instructors. During the first few training sessions, we try to provide one-to-one instruction. Once the class is comfortable with our exercise environment, we cut back to two instructors for six people.

Each class is scheduled for one hour, with about 20 to 25 minutes of strength exercise and 20 to 25 minutes of endurance exercise. Typically, three individuals strength train while the other three endurance train. Due to the small dimensions of the research center, one instructor can attend sufficiently to each participant without appearing overbearing.

Step Three:

Exercise Achievement

While some people frequent the exercise facility primarily to interact socially, very few formerly inactive adults continue a regular exercise program unless they are achieving their desired results. In general, our program participants want to look, feel and function better. Specifically, they want to improve muscular strength, as evidenced by training with heavier weight loads on the Nautilus machines, and increase cardiovascular endurance, as demonstrated by completing longer exercise bouts on the treadmills and cycles.

We typically see an 8-pound improvement in body composition (three pounds more muscle and 5 pounds less fat) over the two-month training period (Westcott 1993).

We take a two-pronged approach to achieving our participation objectives. The first relates to exercise methods, and the second to teaching methods. Both are of utmost importance when working with unfit individuals.

What To Teach

Now let’s review suggested exercise methods for the inactive, including program design for endurance and strength training. The following are recommendations, based on our program, in the areas of exercise type, frequency, intensity and duration.

Endurance Training For The New Exerciser

Exercise Type: We start unfit or obese participants on cycles, because the equipment supports their body weight. This permits the target muscles to work only against a controllable external resistance. We prefer to begin with recumbent cycling because it offers built-in back support and enhanced cardiovascular efficiency. By keeping the legs higher and moving horizontally, recumbent cycling facilities blood return to the heart and places less stress on the circulatory system.

We then move to upright cycling, which is somewhat more demanding but still provides body weight support. We follow this with treadmill walking, a body weight exercise that provides a largely horizontal movement pattern. Of course, increasing the incline or speed can add a more vertical component, making the exercise progressively more difficult.

For those able to work at higher aerobic levels, we introduce stair stepping and stair climbing machines, in that order. Although stair climbing requires greater effort, both activities involve body weight exercise and a vertical movement pattern. Because lifting the body mass repeatedly is a demanding physical activity, stair climbing is typically the final step in our exercise progression. How soon we introduce clients to each new phase depends on the individual. An average progression includes several weeks in each phase.

We have recently introduced the skating machine, with positive responses from most participants. Although training on this machine undoubtedly requires more coordination than stair stepping or stair climbing, it provides lateral movement and addresses different muscle groups (hip abductors and adductors) than the other exercise modes.

Frequency. The majority of our exercise classes train three days per week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We encourage those classes that meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays to perform an additional aerobic session on Saturday or Sunday.

Intensity. Depending on the individual’s general health, fitness level and medical limitations, we recommend a target heart rate range of 60 to 75 percent of the age-predicted maximum heart rate. We also use the Borg scale of perceived exertion and do not allow participants to exceed the moderately hard level (RPE: of 14). Of course, we abide by whatever guidelines a physician has indicated with respect to the exercise program.

Duration. For some of our beginning exercisers, the walk from the parking lot is about all the endurance activity they can handle. It is therefore not unusual for us to start a deconditioned participant with less than five minutes of continuous aerobic activity, and that at a very low effort level. We progressively increase duration to 25 minutes.

Once a participant can sustain 25 minutes of endurance exercise, we gradually increase intensity, often through interval training. For example, someone who can cycle for 25 minutes at 75 watts may next alternate four minutes at 75 watts with one minute at 100 watts, then progress to alternating three minutes at 75 watts with two minutes at 100 watts, and so on until he or she can perform all 25 minutes at 100 watts.

Strength Training For The New Exerciser

Exercise Type: Our goal is to perform a specific strength exercise for the following major muscle groups.

  • quadriceps
  • hamstrings
  • gluteals
  • pectoralis major
  • latissimus dorsi
  • deltoids
  • biceps
  • triceps
  • erector spinae
  • abdominals
  • neck flexors
  • neck extensors

To target these muscle, our program typically incorporates the following machines:

  • leg extension
  • seated leg curl
  • leg press
  • double chest
  • super pull-over
  • lateral raise
  • biceps
  • triceps
  • low back
  • abdominals
  • four-way neck

We usually introduce four machines during each of the first three instructional sessions. The teaching and training order is leg exercises, followed by upper-body exercises, followed by midsection and neck exercises.

Frequency. Although we recommend three strength workouts per week on nonconsecutive days, we have attained excellent results with two training sessions per week. Studies (Braith et al. 1989, Westcott, in press) have shown that two-weekly sessions produce about 75 to 85 percent as much muscle development as three sessions, and therefore represent an effective exercise protocol for previously inactive participants.

Sets. Due to time limitation, our program participants perform only one set of each exercise. In addition to being time efficient, single-set training may be as effective as multiple-set training. Studies by Starkey et al, (1994) and Westcott (1995) have revealed similar strength gains from one and three exercise sets. Our members typically increase their muscle strength by over 50 percent and their lean (muscle) weight by about three pounds after eight weeks of single-set strength training.

Resistance. After an introductory period, we work with approximately 75 percent of maximum resistance for each strength exercise. This method provides a safe and productive training workload (Westcott 1995).

Repetitions. Research (Westcott 1995) reveals that most people can complete eight to 12 repetitions with 75 percent of their maximum resistance. At a controlled movement speed (about six seconds per repetition), participants experience approximately 50 to 70 seconds of continuous muscle tension. This represents a productive anaerobic work effort for the target muscles and provides an effective stimulus for strength development.

Progression. While there is no set procedure for progressively increasing exercise resistance, we use a simple system based on the 5 percent rule. That is, whenever a trainee can complete 12 repetitions in good form, we increase the resistance by 5 percent or less.

Speed. We use six-second repetitions – two seconds for the lifting phase and four for the lowering phase. Although this training speed has produced excellent results, my research (1994) has shown equivalent strength gains from four-and-eight-second repetitions. With respect to training speed, the most important factor is to teach the trainee to control each lifting and lowering movement, so he or she could theoretically stop a movement at any point. Otherwise, momentum may play a larger role than muscle, in which case the training effect is reduced and injury risk increases.

Range. Jones et al. (1988) demonstrated that functional strength gains occur only in the movement range trained. Because we want our participants to develop full-range strength, we train them with full-range movements within their ability to perform these without discomfort or difficulty.

Technique. In addition to training participants to control movement speed and move through their full range, we insist they not hold either their breath or the resistance. In other words, we make sure trainees demonstrate continuous breathing and continuous movement through each exercise set. Breath holding and isometric contractions may occlude blood flow and raise blood pressure to unsafe levels.

How To Teach: Creating The Dialogue

Most exercise enthusiasts are self-motivated and require little more than good instruction to initiate a regular training program. However, the typical sedentary individual needs both education and motivation to become an exercise participant. We strive to provide a positive, productive exercise experience for our new members. The following 10 teaching guidelines have proven helpful in this regard; they will take you through a useful “dialogue” with the new exerciser.

1. Clear Training Objectives. Let trainees know specifically what you expect them to accomplish during the workout. Example: “Jim, this is exactly what I want you to do today.”

2. Concise Instruction/Precise Demonstration. Tell and show participants precisely how to perform the exercises. Example, “Jim, this is exactly how I want you to perform the leg extension exercise.”

3. Attentive Supervision. Many inactive individuals lack confidence in their physical ability and are reticent to perform exercise without supervision. Observe them carefully. Observation is a motivating factor for most new exercisers. Example: “Jim, I’ll watch as you perform your leg extension repetitions.”

4. Appropriate Assistance. To assure proper exercise performance, it is often necessary to provide some form of manual assistance. This may mean assisting participants onto a machine, helping them fasten a seat belt or guiding them through an exercise movement. Example: “Jim, I’ll guide you through the first repetition to establish the proper exercise form.”

5. One Task At A Time. Projecting a series of performance tasks may be confusing to new exercisers. Give one directive at a time to increase the probability that they will successfully complete each task. Example: “Jim, all I want you to do is exhale as you lift the weight.

6. Gradual Progression. Progress slowly when teaching people with little exercise experience. Don’t introduce a follow-up task until the first task has been mastered. Example, “Okay, Jim, this time I want you to inhale as you lower the weight.”

7. Positive Reinforcement. Most new exercisers experience uncertainty over their training efforts. Positive comments, personal compliments or pats on the shoulder are simple reinforcers. Example: “Good job, Jim. You are making excellent progress.”

8. Specific Feedback. Positive reinforcement is more meaningful when it is coupled with specific feedback. Giving a reason for your positive comment increases its value as an educational and motivational tool. Example: “Good job, Jim. You performed every repetition through the full movement range.”

9. Careful Questioning. New participants may not volunteer information that could be useful in their program design, so ask how they are responding to the exercise experience. Example: “Jim, tell me where you feel the effort in this exercise.”

10. Pre-and Postexercise Dialogue. Try to sandwich the exercise experience between an arriving and a departing dialogue. A couple of minutes before and after each workout to obtain the participants’ perspectives is time well spent. Example, “Jim, thanks for a exercising with us today. It think you did a great job, but I would like to hear your impressions of the workout.”

Transforming The Inactive.

Generally speaking, fitness professionals have not so far had a major impact on the majority of Americans who are essentially non-exercisers. However, through our efforts at the Y, we have discovered it is possible to create successful programming for new exercisers.

You can use your expertise and imagination to effectively reach out to this unique group. You are likely to find – as we have – that little can compare with the satisfaction of helping inactive clients transform themselves into regular exercisers.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is a former member of the IDEA advisory board and the 1993 recipient of the IDEA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Reproduced with permission from IDEA: The Health and Fitness Source, (800) 999-4332, website

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021