Top 7 Components a Healthy Exercise Program

There is a seemingly endless variety of exercise programs available to you and choosing just one can be overwhelming. Bookshelves are full of them. Infomercials run all night long. Type in “exercise program” into Google and you’ll get 102 million results.

Formulating your own exercise plan can be equally intimidating, especially if you have never created one before. But if you follow these guidelines, crafting an individualized exercise program that is safe and effective can be simple.

1) Perform cardiovascular exercise 3-5 times per week, for at least 30 minutes each time

If you are just starting to get back into cardiovascular shape, it is important that you start slow. You need to build a base and work up from there. All too often, I see patients come into my office injured because they decided they wanted to get back into shape – and they tried to do it all in one day. Trying to make up for lost time and going at it too hard right way sets you up for injury. If you injure yourself, then you will be sidelined for at least a couple weeks while you are healing and that will be more time lost before you can get back on your program.

Even if you manage not to hurt yourself by attempting to go 0 to 60 in your first workout, most likely you will have a miserable experience with it. Then you might dread doing the second workout and try to find an excuse not to do it at all. Then you skip the third workout and pretty soon, you have ditched the entire exercise program and you are right back where you started.

I saw this first hand when I started working out at CrossFit. If you are not familiar with it, CrossFit is a workout style that is a blend of Olympic weight lifting, plyometrics, running, pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups and lots more. It is such an extremely rigorous workout routine that it’s even used by Navy Seal recruits to get into shape for their Seal training.

One of the guys that started the “Ramp Up” program with me had a really tough first week with it. He was 100 pounds overweight. He hadn’t worked out at all in over a year because he had been dealing with some tremendously stressful issues in both his personal and financial life. He lived in the neighborhood and after seeing the people doing CrossFit at this gym, he was convinced that that was what he needed to kick-start him back into a healthier lifestyle.

But CrossFit is NOT a workout for beginners. It is a very intense, advanced workout. Even the professional triathletes who I worked out with there were getting their butts kicked by the routine. But this guy tried really hard the first day and tried to hang with us as best he could. The second workout, he spent the whole time complaining to the instructor about it. Then he didn’t show up for the third workout and I never saw him again after that.

Now, there is nothing wrong with CrossFit as an exercise program. The problem wasn’t CrossFit. CrossFit is not for everyone, but for the people it is right for, they absolutely love it and they get amazing results from it.

And the reason he quit wasn’t because he didn’t have enough willpower or discipline. He quit because CrossFit was not right for him at that time. It was not right for him because he didn’t like the way it made his body feel. I believe he made the right choice by not continuing. It was just too extreme for him at that point in his fitness.

So if you are new again to exercising, I recommend starting off with a super easy workout to begin with. Do not start off at the intensity level you remember yourself doing the last time you worked out. That might have been a long time ago – weeks, months maybe even years ago. Your body is not ready for that, at least not yet.

Begin with a walk, a jog or a ride that seems ridiculously easy for you to do. At the end of it, you might not really even feel like you worked out at all. That’s OK. These first workouts are as much about building the mental habit of exercising as they are about building your physical base.

Start out by doing 2-3 workouts a week for 20-30 minutes each. As you get in better shape over the first few weeks, then you can increase your intensity level or the length of time of your workouts. Eventually you will build up to 3-5 workouts a week, for 30-40 or even 60 minutes each.

Laying a solid foundation of strength and stamina in the first few weeks is what your powerful health and wellness is going to be built upon. You will get back to your former workout intensity soon enough. But remember: all processes take time. So give yourself time – time for your muscles and tendons, time for your joints and ligaments, time for your heart and your lungs to adapt and strengthen.

If you have already been exercising regularly and you want to go to higher level, use this same approach. Increase your time and/or distances only 10% each week and gauge how your body is responding to those new workout demands. Even if you are already very physically fit, increasing your workout intensity and duration is a stress on your body and it needs time to adapt to it.

2) Perform strength building exercises 2-3 per week

While you might do cardio more often during the week, you can get all the muscle toning and bone density benefits you desire by doing strength building exercise just 2 or maybe 3 times a week.

Whether you prefer to use machines, free weights, resistance bands, yoga, or plyometrics, be sure to concentrate on your “core”. Your core consists of your shoulders, your back, your abdominals and your hips. They are your foundation that allows you to move powerfully and confidently throughout your day.

Exercise a specific set of muscle groups on one day and then rest them for at least a few days before working them out again. For example, if on one day you workout your legs and back, concentrate the next workout on your arms and abdominals.

It is important to understand that how you lift weights will depend on what you want to gain out of it.

If you want to build muscle strength and put on muscle mass, lifting heavier weights and doing just a few repetitions in each set will optimize this for you. More weight and less reps is the rule of thumb if you are looking to put on weight and bulk up. When you are lifting heavy weights, be sure to give yourself plenty of recovery time to allow those muscles to repair, adapt and grow. You are literally tearing the muscle fiber with this type of lifting and so they need time to heal and recover. This also requires you to pay close attention to your nutrition during this time as well. It is vital to proper muscle building that you get enough of the right foods and nutrients to support your muscle’s health.

But if your aim is to slim down, tone up, develop core strength and to loose weight without bulking up, weight lifting is still for you. You just do it in a different way: lower weight and higher reps. Lifting lighter weights and doing a higher number of repetitions builds muscle strength and builds lean muscle mass which gives you a more toned, slimmer look. During the night, our muscles use 25% of the calories consumed during sleeping. That means the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn…even while sleeping! Choose a weight that you can do 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions.

If you are new to strength training, hiring a personal trainer for even just a few sessions is a worthwhile investment, even if you will primarily be working out at home. The trainer’s job here will be to familiarize you with the equipment you will be using and teaching you how to use it properly so you don’t hurt yourself. This will set you up with a plan that will be easy and enjoyable for you to follow. Ask friends, family or someone at the gym for a recommendation in your local area. Once you have the basics down, you will be set up to be able to do it yourself. You may find yourself though, booking some more appointments with that trainer months down the road because you have outgrown the first set of exercises and want to learn more.

Regardless of the type of strength building exercise you do, be sure you give your muscle groups plenty of rest, at least 48 hours, between workouts so they can recover properly. Also, don’t forget to stretch your muscles afterwards. Your muscles with thank you for lengthening them after doing all of that work contracting them.

3) Stretch your body for at least 5-10 minutes everyday

Stretching your body every day will greatly help your workouts. Just like with any exercise though, you should start slow to build your flexibility. If you stretch too far to where it hurts, your body will respond to that pain by tightening up that area to protect it from injury. Ease into it, little by little, day by day, and in a few short weeks, you will be enjoying the benefits of a flexible and supple body.

All of the major muscle groups should be stretched everyday. Concentrate on your calves, your hamstrings, your quads, your hip flexors, your lower back, your shoulders and your chest. Hold each stretch for at least 15-20 seconds (count it out to yourself – 15-20 seconds longer than you think when you are stretching a tight area of your body). This will give the muscle enough time to release its tension.

Yoga is the most common practice most people turn to when they think of stretching their bodies, and for good reason. Yoga has been around for thousands of years and has added just as many years to the lives of the people who practice it.

But what many people don’t know is that there are dozens of styles of yoga. Each one is different and it is important for you to find the style that best suits you and your needs. Ashtanga yoga is a “power yoga” style, a workout oriented style that builds strength and endurance along with flexibility. Bikram yoga or “hot yoga” is another style where you do your poses in a room that is 100 degrees or more. The heat helps to increase flexibility as well as sweat out toxins to detoxify your body. Iyengar yoga is a less vigorous form that usually utilizes bands and blocks to support you in the poses. Hatha yoga is even gentler and is a relaxation-oriented style. And there are many, many others.

So if you are drawn to yoga and want to start a practice, in almost every town you will find many classes available to you. I recommend trying out a bunch of different studios and styles to find the one you like the best before committing to one particular one. Even a different instructor teaching the same type of class will create a difference experience. Taking the time to search out the perfect style and place that works for you is well worth the time, effort and money.

If you prefer to stretch at home, you may want to try this simple, easy yet powerful movement routine called “The Linden”. It requires only five minutes to do, moves all of the major joints of the body and stretches all of the major muscle groups.

I put this routine together years ago after a pivotal conversation I had with one of my patients. He came to me for help with his posture and with his voice, which he had noticed had become more and more hoarse in the last few years. He was 93 years old at the time. He didn’t suffer from the chronic pain, arthritis, dementia, memory loss or other typical problems associated with old age. He was vibrant and alive and 93 years young.

He told me that his doctor back in the 1950’s had told him that it was important to exercise and stretch everyday. So from that day on, he walked everyday and performed a regular set of stretches every morning when he woke up – everyday for 50 years! It is my wish for all of us to show that kind of commitment and discipline.

He showed me the series of stretches he had been doing all these years. Plus, he was able to explain to me the benefit of each one for the particular part of the body he was moving. It was fantastic to see how engaged he was with this series.

With a few modifications and some additions, this routine is now given to you. As you might have guessed, I named it after my 93-year-old patient who inspired it, Linden. If it helped contribute to the wonderful, vibrant attitude, the health and the smile that Linden brought with him to every visit in my office, then I know can help you as well.

4) “No pain, no gain leaves a lot of overachievers injured”

Pain is a signal to you from your body. It is telling you to pay attention. The pain might be telling you that something is wrong or that something needs to change. It might be telling you that you need to stop doing something. It might be telling you that you need to start doing something else.

So if you are experiencing pain because of your workouts, pay attention to it! “No pain, no gain leaves a lot of overachievers injured.”

If you are new to exercise or it has been a long time since you have exercised regularly, it is wise to consult your doctor before begin any program. This is especially true if you have heart disease, diabetes or any other chronic health problem. Exercise is beneficial for all people and can help you to improve that chronic condition, but exercise does place a stress on the body. So let your doctor know what you would like to do and work with him or her in starting your exercise program safely.

5) Get plenty of rest

Some people are surprised at how tired they are when they start a new exercise program and think that something is wrong with them or that they are doing their program incorrectly. It is normal for the body to need more sleep when it is stressed. Your exercise program is a positive stress on your body, but nevertheless, it is a new stress.

Some 90% of our healing is done while we are asleep. Pay attention to how you feel and rest if you are tired. Once you get in the rhythm of your new exercise routine though, your energy levels will go back up and will even increase. You can look forward to this in the future but for now, get the extra sleep and rest your body needs during this time.

It is also important to give yourself a week of recovery every 6-8 weeks of an exercise program. You can either give yourself the week off completely or just do very minimal workouts during this week. You will surprise yourself how much stronger you will feel after a week of recovery when you get back into your training program.

6) Drink plenty of water

The importance of hydration will be covered in great depth in the Eat Well section, but for now, be sure you are drinking plenty of water while you are working out.

You need to replace the water you loose through your sweat otherwise you can get dehydrated. A good rule of thumb is to drink 12-20 ounces of water for every hour you are exercising. Obviously if you are doing higher intensity workouts such as running sprints, biking hills or doing P90x, you will want to take in more water than this. With less intense workouts such as walking, light jogging or yoga, keep to the 12-20 ounces per hour and you will adequately replenish what you loose in sweating.

7) Continue to eat healthy, nutritious foods

Many people exercise solely with the intention to lose weight. Despite all of the other healthy benefits of exercise, some people are only focused on one thing: burning calories. That goal is fine, but unfortunately another dangerous practice can go along with this mentality as well. A calorie conscious exerciser may also stop eating as much food as they really should now that they are working out.

They may skip meals or only eat snacks instead of meals to limit their caloric intake. Their thinking being that any calorie they eat at the table is just another calorie they have to burn in the gym.

Another common exercise/eating pitfall is created by the scale. Imagine you have started exercising again. You are burning lots of calories and you are being careful to eat the same as you did before, if not even better than before. But the number on the scale isn’t changing. So in frustration, you reduce the amount of calories you eat and maybe even start exercising more. Or you might even give up exercising all together because you feel it is not working to help you loose weight. You figure that since the scale isn’t moving, then you might as well just eat the same and not do all of that sweating and panting stuff.

What you might not know is when you begin to work out, not only are you burning calories which hopefully is burning them from fat, but you are also building muscle at the same time. So while the weight on the scale might say the same number as before, now more of you is muscle and less of you is fat. The scale says isn’t always a good judge of whether or not the exercise program is working for you or not. Measuring your body fat percentage before and after might be a better way for you to judge the progress. But the simplest way though is to go by the way your clothes feel on you. Are you fitting better into those jeans that used to be so tight? Do your shirts button up easier and fit differently on you now?

The increased demands that exercise places on your body require food and nutrients to handle. The calories you take in give your body the energy it needs to repair and recover properly so it is important not to starve yourself. You will feel more tired, more sore and more irritable if you do. Plus, you will be counteracting the efforts you are trying to make.

The fact is, when you stop eating and keep exercising, your body goes into starvation mode and it stores more fat. When you exercise in this panic mode, biochemically your body first mobilizes sugars stored in your liver and in your muscles for fuel to do your workout. Then it starts breaking down your muscles. Only as a last resort does your body then start using fat stores as energy. So limiting your food intake while trying to loose fat actually sabotages your body’s ability to do so. Eating sensibly including lots of fruits and veggies with all of their nutrients and anti-oxidants will help you to become healthy and lean rather than starving yourself into sickness.


*Exerpted from the Being Well Lifestyles Home Study Course by Dr. Jay Warren.

Drawing on over two decades of experience as a hands-on holistic practitioner, Dr. Jay Warren is a primary healthcare provider and licensed chiropractor in the San Diego area. He has spent tens of thousands of clinical hours helping his patients achieve their optimal health potential through holistic approaches bolstered by years of personal experimentation, education and research. Dr. Jay creates customized plans integrating exercise, nutrition and stress management strategies to overcome a myriad of health challenges. For more information, email or visit

About the Author

Dr. Jay Warren has been a prenatal and pediatric chiropractor for 17 years. He is also the Wellness Care Coordinator at the CAP Wellness Center in San Diego, CA where 90% of his practice is pregnant or postpartum women and babies under one year old. Dr. Jay is a proud member of the ICPA and APPPAH (the Association or Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health) and the host of the podcast “Healthy Births, Happy Babies” in iTunes. His online program, “Connecting with Baby” guides pregnant women through processes to strengthen maternal bonding for a happier pregnancy, gentler birth and easier post-partum experience. Dr. Jay is also the proud father of his 3 year old son, Niko who keeps him very busy (and happy) outside of the office.