Fit for a 5K? You can do it

Q: "Some of the healthiest people I know are runners. I've never been much of an exerciser, but I've decided that I want to be more like them. To get myself motivated, I've committed to running a 5K three months from now. What's your advice for going from zero to 5K in 12 weeks?"

Answer provided by James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic – Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

Congratulations! Making the decision to become more active is one of the healthiest things you can do. Your commitment shows that your mind is in the right place. The question now is how to get your heart and the rest of your body there with you.

First, I'd advise a quick visit with your doctor – especially if you are older or you have risk factors for heart disease. You'll be increasing your activity level significantly in a short period of time, so it's important to make sure that your doctor knows what you're up to and has no concerns regarding your health.

Once you have the green light, the first step is simply to take the first step. Today. Step out for a walk. See if you can go for about 20 minutes at a moderate pace. If that feels good, take another walk two days later. This time, try to add a few one-minute intervals of slow, gentle jogging, alternating with walking. So far, so good? Over the next 12 weeks, continue that pattern, increasing your pace and distance and gradually tipping the balance so that you are jogging more than walking, and finally running the full distance.

Here is an example of a 12-week training schedule that will take you through that progression. While this schedule can be tweaked to fit your fitness level, a good training program should incorporate the following:

Warming up: This means taking the first few minutes of each training session to walk slowly, warm up your muscles and mentally prepare yourself for the more vigorous part of the workout.

Intervals: Alternating between a moderate pace and a faster pace is called interval training. Adding quick intervals of more intense activity is a great way to burn extra calories, improve fitness and speed up your average pace. If you find it too strenuous to add jogging intervals right away, just add intervals of faster walking until you can work your way up to jogging.

Days off: Days off are important for muscle recovery, but the "off" days in your training program are not for lounging on the couch. The more active you can be every day, the better shape you'll be in to handle the training days. Even if you can't fit in 30 minutes of activity on your off days, try to do something active. Walk a few laps around your work environment, go out dancing, practice yoga, take a bike ride, do some strength training – whatever you enjoy that helps you work toward your overall fitness goals.

As you start your new, active life, consider three more pieces of advice:

Listen to your body: Since this is new to you, pay close attention to how your body feels, and don't push it beyond what feels safe. Introducing activity into your life can sometimes bring on fatigue, muscle aches, elevated heart rate and shortness of breath, especially when you are increasing the intensity of your activity. These are normal up to a point – but more severe symptoms should be reported to your health care provider. If you experience sharp muscle pains, chest pain, dizziness, or an irregular or accelerated heart rate that doesn't go back to normal, take it easy until you can get it checked out.

Pace yourself: If 20 minutes of walking is more than you can handle, slow down – you don't need to prove that you can do a 5K on the first day. The idea is to build your fitness and endurance over the next several months. Start at a pace that you can comfortably sustain for 20 minutes, and build from there. If 20 minutes is too long at any pace, read through the training schedule and make sure it's really appropriate for you. Not everyone needs to run a 5K to improve their fitness. If the best you can do today is to walk for five minutes, and three months from now you're able to walk an entire 5K, that's an outstanding achievement. Your personal finish line is entirely relative to where you started.

Focus beyond the finish line: Once you've completed the 5K, remember that your ultimate goal was to get fit – not just for a race, but for life. If having that 5K on the calendar kept you motivated, sign up for another one, or set a new fitness goal. The best goals are SMART – that is, specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based. Whatever your goals, keep challenging yourself, stay active, and find new ways to make yourself one of the healthiest people you know.