Creating an activity plan

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Now that you know how to set some SMART goals, you can start to implement them for your physical activity levels.

When creating a new activity program, it’s important to understand the following concepts.

Tolerance: This is the amount of time that you can do an activity until your body first tells you to stop. We also refer to this as the “comfortably uncomfortable” point. This means that when you notice that your body is starting to reach its limit, note the activity time and stop. Don’t keep pushing yourself past this limit.

Baseline: The level of activity you do when you start. Your baseline is the intensity and length of time that you use the first time you do an activity. It is half of your tolerance level.

Time level: The amount of time that you plan to do an activity. You will start with your baseline, and slowly increase your time level for that activity. You decide when to increase your time level and by how much.

Your baselines, tolerances and time levels will change for each activity.

How to find your tolerance level

Let’s say one of your chosen activities is walking. To find your tolerance level, simply time yourself as you start walking. When you notice any pain or other discomfort, stop walking, stop the timer and record how much time passed.

One tolerance timing is unlikely to tell the whole story, so your goal is to get your average tolerance from a few timings. Complete at least two tolerance timings at first; four timings are usually even better.

Timing Time
Tolerance 12 minutes 30 seconds
Tolerance 21 minute 10 seconds
Tolerance 32 minutes 40 seconds
Tolerance 42 minutes 0 seconds

To get your average tolerance, add up all the tolerance timings and divide them by the number of times you measured. In this example, the different times above add up to 8 minutes 20 seconds. When you divide this by four, your average tolerance level is 2 minutes 5 sec.

When you are starting an activity, it's a good idea to round down the average tolerance, to 2 minutes in this case.

Average tolerance for walking = 2 minutes

How to find your baseline

Finding your baseline activity level helps you understand your starting point as you being working towards the recommended activity level. It also helps you set realistic goals and measure your progress accurately.  

Your baseline is half of your average tolerance. In the example above, the average tolerance is 2 minutes, so the baseline for walking (for your first time) is 1 minute.

Baseline for walking = 1 minute

The baseline activity level is calculated on an individual basis, meaning that it will be different for everyone. It’s okay if your baseline seems quite low – if your pain is very severe, gentle walking for a short time might be your baseline.

Using baseline and tolerance to create your activity plan

An activity plan should see you gradually increasing your activities, no matter where your baseline falls. Generally, people should increase their activity by about 10-15% each week.

Using the times listed above, someone with a goal to walk for 20 minutes at a time, for example, would start by walking for 1 minute without rest. Each week or so, they would gently increase their baseline until they reach their ultimate goal. So, the following week, they would walk for 1 min and 10 seconds before resting and continue from there.

However, exactly how you increase your activity depends a bit on the activity and a bit on you. Start by finding an activity that you enjoy, and then talk with your healthcare team about setting a realistic goal for you. Start very slowly and do a little more each week, but just a little, to achieve your goal. Over time, you will increase your tolerance to activity. You may worry that you're not ready to increase your activity level, but when you add a little bit each week, and keep at that level, your muscles will respond and get stronger.

Assessing the impact of activity on your pain

Gradual increases in activity are so important because they help you build up to recommended physical activity levels safely, without too much pain.

It is important to track your pain level so you know how exercise affects it. On a scale of 0 to 10 (where 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain), your pain should not increase by more than 2 points during exercise. This increase in pain happens because of the sensitivity of your nerves to movement.

Your pain should return to base level shortly afterwards (within 24 hours). For example, if your pain is at 5 before you start exercising, it can go up to 7 during exercise, but it should come back to 5 when you finish. Having this scale in mind will help you keep within your limits and capabilities at all times.

You may also feel an increase in muscle aches the day after you've been vigorously active. This is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and usually only occurs when you move. This pain is not harmful and usually settles in a day or two. In fact, it settles more quickly if you move regularly during the day. You may also find that passive therapies such as hot or cold packs after exercise can help you recover more quickly.

If you’re not comfortable starting an exercise program on your own, speak to your healthcare team. A healthcare professional such as a physiotherapist​ can help you to choose the activities that are right for you.

Last updated: May 2nd 2016