Going straight from food-scoffing layabout to gym junkie doesn't, and shouldn't, happen overnight. Experts say the slowly, slowly approach works best, and that you should check your individual condition before jumping headlong into a major exercise regimen that may do more harm than good - or worse, put you off for life. Also, having a plan that helps you deal with lapses and motivation triggers should help keep you on track. Behaviour modification counsellor Debbie Lovell says it's important to be realistic at the beginning. 'There's a basic human drive to minimise pain and maximise pleasure, and the popular New Year lose weight, get fit, get healthier resolutions fly in the face of this,' says Lovell. 'But if the challenge of behaviour change is underestimated, the list of resolutions can read more like a fantastical, whimsical wish-list.' As with any goals, these resolutions must be realistic, Lovell says, and if they involve 'battling against basic drives, thought has to be given to the strategies that may facilitate change'. Lovell suggests identifying significant reasons for change as the starting point by asking, 'Why do I want to change?' in order to describe what needs to be changed and then moving on to the 'how'. For goals to be effective, they cannot be broad and vague. They need to be narrowed to something specific and measurable, and have certain characteristics, she adds. 'Stating the desire to get healthier should be modified to specific cardiac risk factors such as lowering blood pressure or cholesterol levels,' she says. 'The goal must be realistic and achievable. Consideration may need to be given to factors such as genetic predisposition or life stage, as well as time availability.' According to Lovell, having clearer goals also affects how much real control a person has over the outcome. It is also often recommended that people visit their doctor for a physical examination before embarking on an exercise regime. Eugene Kwan, a family practitioner, says this usually applies to men over the age of 45 and women over 55, those who lead a sedentary lifestyle or have been physically inactive for a while, those with a history of high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, a family history of heart disease and anyone who smokes. A consultation would include 'blood pressure readings, which should be below 125/80. High blood pressure equates to above 140/90 and if it's persistently high, doctors usually recommend two things: a low salt diet and exercise,' Kwan explains. He says high blood pressure increases the risk of heart and kidney disease, damage to the eyes, and stroke, which can result in brain damage. Conversely, 'low blood pressure is not so much of an issue, unless the patient is symptomatic - fainting spells or dizziness. Exercise helps this as well.' Basic cardiorespiratory tests may be conducted to gauge whether the patient develops shortness of breath on exertion such as walking or going upstairs, or suffers any chest pain which may indicate cardiorespiratory malfunction. Height and weight measurements are recorded and body mass index (the level of fat in the body), waist circumference and the patient's hip to waist ratio are also measured. 'Depending on the results of those preliminary findings, there may be a recommendation for extra tests such as an ECG and blood tests,' Kwan says. However, Gabriel Lam, master trainer at the Asian Academy for Sports and Fitness Professionals and Figure Fitness, says not everybody needs to visit a doctor before beginning an exercise programme. 'If someone has an exercise history and they've simply lapsed and are now returning to the gym, a health screen test by a personal trainer would be adequate,' Lam says. Typically, these tests include questions covering personal and family history of heart disease, blood pressure, high cholesterol, respiratory ailments and diabetes, while the trainer will also take the client's blood pressure and do a body composition reading. 'If the trainer picks up any irregularities, or has any cause for concern, they would always recommend the client visits his or her doctor for a fuller physical examination,' says Lam. 'However, it's mostly a simple case of exercise programme adjustment.' He explains that this involves reducing the intensity and/or duration of workouts as well as more careful monitoring of heart rates. Regardless of exercise history, Lam recommends that everyone should begin by booking a few sessions with a personal trainer. 'Even if someone has exercised a lot in the past, the way they exercise now will be different because of changes in their body and fitness levels. Just because they could lift 20kg in a chest press two years ago doesn't mean they can today,' he says. 'Research shows that it takes just two weeks for muscle to deteriorate and for muscle ability to decline. Over time, the body goes through alignment changes and if the correct form is not applied in training, pain and injury will result.' For safety reasons, trainers often begin cardio workouts slowly and resistance workouts with low weights. 'It's a gradual build-up as muscles, joints and co-ordination all need to be trained. Nowadays, it's all about functional training; there's very little isolation work but rather compound and super sets to increase strength, in conjunction with interval cardio work to improve heart and lung health. Exercise performance is not a straight upward graph.' Beginners may start by working out once a week in the first week, increasing to twice a week in the second and third weeks, and exercising on alternate days after that. Those considered of intermediate fitness, who may be returning to exercise, can aim for alternate days from the start, training different body parts each day. Lovell also says that another characteristic of good goal setting when it comes to exercise is 'proximity'. 'An ideal goal involves a short time frame between starting the behaviour change and reaching the goal. This may require larger goals to be broken down into several stages,' she says. That's when motivation comes into it. This is, however, highly individual, says Lovell. For some, a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment reinforces the changed behaviour, while, for others, more subtle drives, such as a desire for praise and approval, may work better. 'If praise and approval from others is a motivating influence, then exercising or dieting within a support system such as with a spouse, friend, personal trainer or group becomes important. 'Conversely, perceived judgment or criticism from others can de-motivate. In this case, a more private environment can be a critical factor to success.' In other words, take a look at what your motivating factors are for changing your behaviour before paying for something that you won't stick to. Of course, lapses are inevitable and it's important to recognise this as natural and not to view them as failures or a reason to abandon the goal. The experts agree that before starting any exercise programme, learning from previous experiences is important. 'Often, people apply the same solution to the same problem,' says Lovell. 'If it didn't work the first time it's likely that it'll need some tweaking this time. Identify and list facilitating and restrictive influences, what worked and what didn't, and why it worked or didn't.' Lovell adds that new strategies need to be tested out, so build this into your plan. Give yourself the first few months of the year to see what influences your behaviour, adapt strategies accordingly and review and modify goals regularly. And be prepared to rewrite your New Year's resolution once you are better informed. 'An individual needs to spotlight their own chain of events before any guidelines can be laid down,' Lovell says.