After time off from exercising, it's understandable if you're having a hard time getting motivated. You may even feel a bit bad, but I'm here to say it's important to go easy on yourself.

Even if you start ever so slowly, know that returning to a workout routine means you'll soon get those feel-good serotonin and dopamine boosts from exercising.

And let's face it, with so much time cooped up at home due to coronavirus lockdown measures, it's been all too easy for many of us to gain a couple of pounds or more. But if you join me, we can all be in this together.

Now let's think about the path to get back on track. While it might seem tempting to try to whip yourself back into shape by jumping into heavy weight training or intense cardio out of the gate, this cold-turkey approach will overstress your system — and you could easily hurt yourself by training too hard, too soon.

That's why I'm sharing a seven-part series of weekly articles to safely guide you back into an effective workout regimen that will set you up for long-term success. This first one sets the foundation by guiding you into a positive mindset and getting you moving in the right direction.

There will be plenty of time later in the series for intensive workouts, but for now, we're going to ease our way back.

So, whether you're reestablishing an exercise routine — or even starting for the first time — read on for an easy three-step process to get you on a consistent path.

Reconnect your mind and body

When getting back into an exercise regimen, it's natural to focus on how much better we want to make ourselves look, but let's stop for a moment and think about how physical activity will improve the way we feel. Any negativity we might be feeling about our bodies being "out of shape" actually stems more from our minds and bodies being out of sync.

Remember, physical activity produces those feel-good chemicals in our brains that reinforce our positive mind-body connection. Developing this mind-body connection gets you in a positive mindset and will help you establish a sense of control and respect for your body, paving a path for your exercise efforts that's sustainable — which, in turn, will lead to achieving your goals.

Step one: Mind your muscle movement

When trying to restore and strengthen this connection after being sedentary, I recommend practicing this progressive muscle contraction/relaxation daily for a week and then several times per week thereafter. This is best done lying down, but you can do it from almost any position as it relies on muscle contractions with very little to no movement.

Begin by focusing your attention in your body, on your breathing. During this exercise, your breath will serve as the link between your mind and muscles.

Inhale as you close your eyes tightly and tighten your jaw by clenching your teeth. Exhale as you release the tension, letting your eyes remain gently closed. Inhale fully into your rib cage and hold your breath, creating tension in your chest, upper back and neck. Exhale to release.

Inhale and squeeze your hands into fists, trying to make contact and create tension in all the muscles of your arms. Exhale to release.

Inhale to contract your glutes and pelvic floor muscles while tightening your abdomen as well. Exhale to release.

Inhale to curl your toes and create tension in all the muscles of your legs. Exhale to release.

Take five additional, long, deep breaths, while your mind rests in awareness of your body's state of total relaxation.

Breathe into good posture

The safety and efficacy of any exercise program is predicated on executing proper form. If your posture is poor and movement is restricted, it'll be difficult to perform almost any exercise safely. So, it's in your best interest to optimize your breathing before beginning or restarting an exercise program.

What does breathing have to do with posture and movement? The short answer is: everything. The shallow, upper-chest-oriented breathing pattern many of us have fallen into reduces the function of our diaphragm, requiring upper-body muscles to compensate as accessory breathing muscles that lift the rib cage during inhalation.

This creates painful, movement-limiting, chronic upper-body tension and poor posture. For more on the biomechanics of proper diaphragmatic breathing, check out my article "Breathe better to move better: Train to breathe like a pro athlete."

Step two: Move your ribs while breathing

Regularly practicing breathing better will decrease tension to restore mobility and establish good posture for proper exercise form. Here's a basic way to practice every day:

Sit comfortably in a chair with your hands resting on your legs. Close your eyes. Begin lengthening and deepening your inhalations and exhalations. As you breathe, concentrate on the movement of your rib cage.

Inhale, filling the lowest lobes of your lungs so that your lower ribs externally rotate and expand out to the sides. When you exhale, completely empty your lungs, using core muscles, almost like an abdominal crunch, to move your lower ribs in, back, and down toward your waist.

Repeat this for five to 10 breaths, practicing several times per day.

If you're having trouble getting your ribs to move, place your hands on your lower ribs while you breathe, so that you can guide them in and out under your fingers. You can also try the breathing bridge exercise featured in my recent article on exercises to offset too much sitting.

Walk your way to a healthy routine

When establishing an exercise routine, consistency is the key to long-term success. Ideally, exercising regularly needs to become a lifestyle habit akin to toothbrushing. Rather than diving head-first into an overwhelming workout that's too time-consuming and strenuous to sustain, begin by forging an easy-to-accomplish daily walking habit.

Because walking is so accessible, people often discount its benefits, making it one of the most underrated fat-burning, mind-body exercises.

Step three: Establish a walking habit

Start by walking just five to 10 minutes daily over the first few days while you figure out the best time and place for your walks. Once you've determined the logistics, begin adding a few minutes more to each walk. Ideally, you want to get up to about 20 to 30 minutes per day.

On days you can walk longer, that's great, but don't put pressure on yourself to do more, which could sabotage your daily habit. Likewise, on days you can only walk a few minutes — still do it.

Of course, if you walk outside, the weather won't always cooperate. On those days, a few sets of walking lunges inside or marching in place might be your only alternative (if you don't have access to a treadmill). The important thing is that you do something active during the time you would've normally walked. Don't break your habit!

Keep in mind that walking at a moderate-to-brisk pace can be very effective for fat burning.

This is especially true when in a fasted state (not having eaten in a few hours). When your stomach is empty and insulin levels are low, your body relies on fat as its primary energy source.

In terms of mind-body benefits, when you take your walks disconnected from your devices, it gives your mind a much-needed tech break, enabling you to tune into the sensations in your body. Even better, walk outside to gain the health benefits of green space and vitamin D.

Here are some additional ways to increase the health benefits of your walks.

Once you've established a daily walking habit, it creates a platform for sustainably expanding your exercise program.

This is especially true when in a fasted state (not having eaten in a few hours). When your stomach is empty and insulin levels are low, your body relies on fat as its primary energy source.

In terms of mind-body benefits, when you take your walks disconnected from your devices, it gives your mind a much-needed tech break, enabling you to tune into the sensations in your body. Even better, walk outside to gain the health benefits of green space and vitamin D.

Here are some additional ways to increase the health benefits of your walks.

Once you've established a daily walking habit, it creates a platform for sustainably expanding your exercise program.

Create a follow-through plan

After spending a couple weeks following the three-step plan above, you should feel confident in your mental and physical capacity to expand your exercise regimen. But to ensure long-term success, it's important to map out a logistical plan of where and when you'll be training to avoid unexpected hiccups that can quickly snowball into excuses not to work out.

When? Not having enough time is probably the most common excuse for skipping exercise. Don't let that be your excuse! If you can't find a dedicated 30- to 45-minute time slot at least three times per week, trade out your daily walking time on those days.

Where? Will you be returning to your old gym? If so, are you comfortable with the safety precautions they have in place to fight coronavirus? Is there potential for gym capacity limitations to impact your ability to work out during the time frame you've allocated?

If you're planning to work out at home, it's important to create a dedicated home workout space, so you don't run into issues like clutter or other family members needing the space.

Remember these three steps

Develop a strategy that helps you anticipate and deal with potential issues before they arise. And leverage the three-step process in this article to set your foundation:

1. Use the progressive muscle contraction/relaxation exercise to strengthen your mind-body connection.

2. Practice breathing with rib movement to create good posture.

3. Walk every day to establish a daily exercise habit.

Using the three steps above, you'll not only build a foundation for returning to regular exercise but forge a commitment to a healthier lifestyle that's built to last.

Look for next week's article to guide you through body-weight movements to restore strength and range of motion.

Dana Santas is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, registered yoga teacher and mind-body coach known as the Mobility Maker. Author of "Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief," she's the yoga coach for the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Lightning and others in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the Professional Golfers' Association and World Wrestling Entertainment.

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