The volume and contradictory nature of information about when to work out, what to eat before and after exercise and which exercises are most effective is maddening. I'm not naturally inclined to exercise, so wading through that mass of information to form my now-effective workout routine was a process. At the end of it all, I've realized there are really only two rules you need to know.
1. Have a balanced workout
Include cardio, weight training and flexibility. Do not skip any of them. If you do any one of these more than the other, your body will not reach its peak performance for whatever level of exercise you're doing. Weight training was the most intimidating to me. Women shouldn't be afraid of bulking up, because they don't have enough testosterone for this to happen. Five pound weights are heavy enough to tone you without destroying you, and you will see results even if you're only lifting them for 10 minutes before you jump in the shower each morning. Weight training even proved the most rewarding of the three because you see results within two weeks (and also lose it just as fast, so keep it up). To see different exercises that qualify as cardio, weight training and flexibility, open another tab and do a quick search or look in your favorite magazine.
2. The best exercise to do is one you like. You may already be doing it
In each of the three areas of exercise, there are activities you will enjoy and that are probably already a part of your life. An effective and productive routine can be as simple as stretching in the morning after you get up, taking a substantial walk (your heart rate should be up), and moving things around your apartment (or lugging and holding kids).
Eventually, you may want to build on these two principles with new challenges to keep your body improving. Do the research and be wise. Keep in mind that every trainer and dietician is going to have a different - even radically different - idea of how someone should maintain her body and health. Really, there is no one great set of truths, and the reason there is such varying advice is that everyone is different, and no one thing works for everyone. Some of the most important principles I found in further challenging myself are these:
Spot reduction does not exist
While you can, and absolutely should, target different muscle groups on different days, you cannotdo only ab workouts and get better abs faster. Your body works as a whole system, and you will drop your total body fat percentage, not lose fat in only one place. If you target one muscle group instead of doing a balanced workout, you are only retarding your growth and fatiguing your muscles. The best way to slim down is to do a variety of exercises for different groups, known as a total body workout. If someone has a flat tummy or toned shoulders, it's because of their hard work and body type, not because of spot reduction.
Don't be afraid to join a gym or a class
Find one in your time and monetary budgets. Physically going to the gym creates a mental space for exercise in your mind. Having a designated place to go, especially one I paid hard-earned dollars to access, was what catapulted my success. Magazines and DVDs try to empower people with workouts they can do at home, but it's difficult for a lot of people because home can damper motivation. Plus, seeing an instructor in person will help you learn correct form, which is the secret to effective exercise. Instructors are the bottom line of what helped me change my life.
Don't get freaked out if you don't lose pounds fast
If you want to lose weight, you should plan to do it over the span of a year or more. It is more important to do habitual exercise of less intensity than to do an intense workout once a week. The consistency is what drops the weight - not the intensity. Your body will not let go of its safe-guard cushion if it doesn't feel it will continue getting exercise and appropriate amounts of nutritious food. As you work out, you will gain muscle and lose fat. Muscle is heavier than fat and people are often fooled into thinking they're not losing fat as their body makes the trade. There is no healthy way to lose weight without gaining muscle mass - accept and embrace this. Many people get discouraged when you see the first few pounds drop quickly, only to come to a screeching halt. This happens because your water weight burns right off, but when weight loss slows is when you're getting to the real progress. Water weight will always fluctuate. This is why it's easy to lose five pounds and hard to lose 10.
Leave your house
This seems like an obvious one, but being outside for even 10 minutes increases your happiness level. And physical health aside, a lot of people never get to do all the things they want to do in life because they never leave their living room. It's hard when you work or go to school all day already, but unless being on your feet is an occupation advantage, find something you enjoy and do it.