A phone, headphones, green dumbbell weights and a pink workout towel are shown.
Journals and smartphones can help jumpstart your dive into a new workout routine, helping you commit for the long haul. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Everyone—even the most devoted athlete—has periods where they just can’t tackle a workout.

Maybe an injury or illness sidelines them. Maybe work or family obligations shove them off the fitness wagon. Or maybe they never even got on the wagon.

It can last weeks, months, even years.

But at some point, everyone has to commit—or recommit—to fitness.

Sometimes it’s preceded by a question: “Where do I start?”

The smart-aleck answer is “Anywhere,” and of course that’s true. Amid an American epidemic of inactivity, even a lap or two around the couch is a good way to kickstart a routine.

But experts say it’s better to come up with a get-back-in-shape strategy.

Without one, it’s much too easy to fall into one of two traps: over-extension or over-ambition.

Many people either dive in and do too much, then injure themselves only to give up. Or, they start a program they can’t stick with, which becomes demoralizing and discouraging.

Getting started

For the non-exerciser, current guidelines can seem extreme.

For substantial health benefits, adults should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, as well as 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.

At least twice a week they should do strength training that involves all major muscle groups.

About 80 percent of American adults don’t meet these guidelines.

But it is do-able.

Spectrum Health sports medicine specialists Matthew Axtman, DO, and James Lebolt, DO, can attest to it. They’ve worked with athletes and performers at all levels—so they’ve seen what it takes.

Dr. Axtman, a specialist in non-surgical orthopedics and sports medicine, and Dr. Lebolt, a specialist in surgical orthopedic sports medicine, offered their Top 10 tips for regaining your fitness groove.

1. Check your motivation

It’s hard—sometimes incredibly hard—to take those first steps.

To start, it helps to define why you want to get back in shape, Dr. Axtman said. As easy as it is to link fitness to short-term goals—losing 5 pounds, for example—it’s wise to look at the bigger picture.

“If I want to live a long life, one that is pain-free and high-quality, I need to exercise,” he said. “Working out has psychological benefits, too­. It reduces anxiety. It increases sleep. There are just so many benefits.”

2. Be a joiner

If past attempts at diving into gym culture haven’t worked out, consider giving it another try.

The explosion of fitness classes in the last decade means there’s likely something—group fitness, dance, cardio drumming, you name it—that catches your interest, Dr. Lebolt said.

“There are ropes, rowers and places you can bang on a tire with a sledgehammer,” he said. “And you’re doing it all with supervision to make sure you don’t hurt yourself. And you get the most out of the routine.”

3. Run the numbers

It’s easy to look at gym fees or the cost of a few sessions with a fitness professional as an extravagance.

“It’s going to cost some money. But in the long term, it’s going to decrease medical costs,” Dr. Axtman said.

4. Be open-minded

It’s OK to ease back into fitness by turning to activities and equipment you liked in the past—but don’t get stuck there. Something new may be even better.

Dr. Lebolt said it stunned him when he tried a yoga class. He loved it.

“It was one of the toughest workouts I’ve ever done,” he said. “So don’t let stereotypes keep you away from trying different types of exercise.”

5. Set a goal—in writing

Behavioral health goals mean more when they’re SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.

Saying “I’ll start walking again” is too vague.

“A better approach is to say, ‘I’m going to walk around the block every day this week,’” Dr. Axtman said. “Then the next week, you can add another block, building up until you’re conditioned.”

6. Redefine strength training

Weight-bearing exercise builds muscle mass, toughens bones and improves metabolism. But many people loathe traditional weightlifting.

You can skip it and instead try the many bodyweight exercise routines out there, both at gyms and on websites like YouTube.

Done properly, lightweight resistance bands can be as effective as dumbbells. They’re also affordable options.

7. Tap into tech

Consider adding a fitness tracker, or access the step counter built into most smartphones. Simple smartphone apps can put powerful workouts into your hand. Many of them are incredibly efficient.

One proven winner: Johnson & Johnson 7-Minute Workout, free wherever you buy apps. It uses a combination of 12 simple exercises to jumpstart your fitness level.

8. Lower your standards

People often want to pursue an ideal workout routine. Let’s say 30 minutes of cardio, 20 minutes of weights and 10 minutes of stretching.

But when life throws a curveball—a last-minute meeting, a family event—it just doesn’t seem worth it to do it halfway.

Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good. Any amount activity in a given day is better than skipping it entirely, Dr. Axtman said.

9. Buddy up

Dr. Lebolt likes his group workout because it gives him accountability.

“If I don’t show up, someone says, ‘Hey, where were you yesterday?’” he said.

Even for those who don’t think they’re competitive, research from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that competition, such as fitness challenges at work or on social media, is better than friendly support when it comes to inspiring exercise.

10. Notice the skip days

Take note of what it feels like when you’ve begun to skip workouts. You’ll probably want to get back in the gym or on the running trail in short order.

“Exercising is almost like a drug,” Dr. Axtman said. “It just becomes part of you and as basic as taking a drink of water or breathing air. It feels too good to skip.”