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The Benefits of Physical Activity

Staying Active: Introduction

Although there are no sure-fire recipes for good health, the mixture of healthy eating and regular exercise comes quite close…..

Here is what regular physical activity can do for you:

  • Improves your chances of living longer and living healthier
  • Helps protect you from developing heart disease and stroke or its precursors, high blood pressure and undesirable cholesterol levels
  • Helps protect you from developing certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer and possibly lung and endometrial (uterine lining) cancer
  • Helps prevent type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Helps prevent the loss of bone
  • Reduces the risk of falling and improves cognitive function among older adults
  • Relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety and improves mood
  • Prevents weight gain, promotes weight loss (when combined with a lower-energy diet) and helps keep weight off after weight loss
  • Improves heart-lung and muscle fitness
  • Improves sleep

The Risk of Inactivity

If exercise and regular physical activity benefit the body, a sedentary lifestyle does the opposite, increasing the chances of becoming overweight and developing a number of chronic diseases.

The Nurses’ Health Study, is one of many, many studies to find a strong link between television watching and obesity. Researchers followed more than 50,000 middle-aged women for six years, surveying their diet and activity habits. They found that for every two hours the women spent watching television each day, they had a 23 percent higher risk of becoming obese and 14 percent higher risk of developing diabetes.

In sum, a morning jog or brisk lunchtime walk brings many health benefits—but these may not entirely make up for a day spent in front of the computer or an evening in front of the television set. So as you plan your daily activity routine, remember that cutting down on “sit time” may be just as important as increasing “fit time.”

Physical Activity Guidelines: How Much Exercise Do You Need?

If you don't currently exercise and aren't very active during the day, any increase in exercise or physical activity is good for you.

Aerobic physical activity—any activity that causes a noticeable increase in your heart rate—is especially beneficial for disease prevention.

Some studies show that walking briskly for even one to two hours a week (15 to 20 minutes a day) starts to decrease the chances of having a heart attack or stroke, developing diabetes, or dying prematurely.

Healthy adults should get a minimum of 2 ½ hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or get a minimum of 1 ¼ hours per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a combination of the two. To lower your risk of injury, it’s best to spread out your activity over a few days in of the week.

You can combine moderate and vigorous exercise over the course of the week—say, by doing 20 to 25 minutes of more vigorous intensity activity on two days, and then doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on two days. It’s fine to break up your activity into smaller bursts, as long as you sustain the activity for at least 10 minutes. Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days for the week. Children should get at least 1 hour or more a day of physical activity in age-appropriate activities.

Exercise Intensity: What’s Moderate, What’s Vigorous?

Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is any activity that causes a slight but noticeable increase in breathing and heart rate. One way to gauge moderate activity is with the "talk test"—exercising hard enough to break a sweat but not so hard you can't comfortably carry on a conversation. Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity causes more rapid breathing and a greater increase in heart rate, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation—with shorter sentences. 

Walking—and Bicycling—Your Way to Health

Walking is an ideal exercise for many people—it doesn't require any special equipment, can be done any time, any place and is generally very safe.

Though walking has health benefits at any pace, brisk walking is more beneficial than slow walking for weight control. Brisk walking may be challenging for some people, and bicycling (even on an exercise bike) may be a more comfortable option.

More Activity Equals More Benefit

Keep in mind that 2-1/2 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week is an excellent starting point, not an upper limit. Exercising longer, harder, or both can bring even greater health benefits. Also bear in mind that your 2-1/2 hours of activity should be in addition to the light activity that is part of everyday living. But moderate and vigorous lifestyle activities—dancing, mowing the lawn with a push mower, chopping wood, housework and so on—can count toward your weekly total, if they are sustained for at least 10 minutes.

Exercise for Weight Loss and Maintenance

If you’re looking to avoid “middle-aged spread,” physical activity is important, as is watching what you eat. There is no hard and fast rule as to how much activity you will need to keep your weight steady. Some people may need more than 2-1/2 hours of moderate intensity activity a week to stay at a stable weight, as well as to lose weight or keep off weight they have lost.

Start Slow, Increase as Your Fitness Grows

The problem with guidelines is that they try to cover as many people as possible. In other words, they aren't right for everyone. How much exercise you need depends on your genes, your diet, how much muscle and fat you carry on your frame, how fit you are and your capacity for exercise.

A study of more 7,000 men who graduated from Harvard before 1950 suggests that older people, those who are out of shape, or those with disabilities may get as much benefit from 30 minutes of slower walking or other exercise as younger, more fit people get from the same amount of more-intense activity.

In other words, if an exercise or physical activity feels hard, then it is probably doing your heart—and the rest of you—some good, even if it doesn't fall into the "moderate" category.

If you are currently not active at all, it may be daunting to start out with 30 minutes a day of activity, five days a week. So start with a shorter, less-intense bout of activity, and gradually increase over time until you can reach or exceed this goal. This "start slow, build up over time" advice for physical activity applies to everyone, but it's especially true for older adults, since starting slowly can help lower the risk of injury—and can make exercise more enjoyable.

The Bottom Line: Move More, Sit Less

Exercise is one of those rare things where the hype actually meets reality. Next to not smoking, getting regular physical activity is arguably the best thing you can do for your health. Any amount of exercise is better than none. The more you get, though, the better. And remember: Cutting back on television-watching and other sedentary pastimes is just as important as becoming more active.

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