Most of us know we need to be physically active to be healthy. It’s not new information, but it leaves us with many questions and many opinions. There’s plenty of information about physical activity, but sorting through it and figuring out what to do can be challenging, especially if you are what we call a “coach potato”, someone who’s physical exertion is very low.
Here are some important questions:
What exactly does being physically active mean?
Is this physical activity or ‘exercise’?
How much do we need versus what can we do to get by?
Do we need to do it all at once?
Is there an easy way to fit it into our day, because life is pretty hectic already?
So many questions…
Here’s what we can agree on—I’ll give it to you straight: The basic, scientifically grounded information on physical activity. Then, we’ll begin to figure out how to balance this with your day and your lifestyle. Whether you are trying to gain, lose, or maintain your weight, physical activity goes hand in hand with good nutrition and overall health.
Science tells us that when it comes down to our overall health, adults, regardless of age, need to do two key types of physical activities:
- Cardio or Aerobic?1 At a minimum, do moderately intense cardio activity for at least 30 minutes per day, most days of the week.
- Strength Training! At a minimum, 2 days per week.
I am going to introduce a couple of terms that you may be less familiar with in this context—moderately intense and vigorously intense. By understanding how much effort you need to exert, you can begin to choose what kind of activity fits your available time, life, and needs. Here are some tips and examples to help identify whether physical activity is moderately or vigorously intense.
Cardio—What’s Your Intensity?
Moderate: While performing the physical activity, if your heart is beating noticeably faster—it’s probably moderately intense: We need to do this level of activity for at least 30 minutes, most days of the week.
- walking briskly (a 15-minute mile)
- light yard work (raking/bagging leaves or using a lawn mower)
- light snow shoveling
- actively playing with children
- biking at a casual pace.
Vigorous: If you are breathing hard and fast and your heart rate is increased substantially during physical activity, it’s probably vigorously intense.
- swimming laps
- rollerblading/inline skating at a brisk pace
- cross-country skiing
- most competitive sports (football, basketball, or soccer)
- jumping rope.
You don’t have to do 30 minutes all at once…
To meet the goal of 30 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity, you don’t have to do all 30 minutes at once. Scientific evidence shows you get the same health benefits from breaking 30 minutes up into three 10-minute or two 15-minute intervals throughout the day, if this better fits your lifestyle. Daily activities like climbing several flights of stairs or parking farther away from store entrances are a good start. But if you don’t do that activity for at least 10 minutes at a time, it doesn’t help you meet the recommendation for 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity. In addition, for most people, greater health benefits can be obtained by engaging in physical activity of more vigorous intensity or of longer duration.
What’s in it for me?
Part of it comes down to: Feeling better! Looking better! Not so bad, right? In the big picture, it also comes down to good physical health. If that’s not enough, there’s also that sense of well-being you get from regular physical activity—a constructive way to deal with the demands of the day, relieve stress, and simply feel better about yourself. Many people say that exercising regularly helps them have more energy, sleep better, and they enjoy taking time to do something good for themselves.With most everything, extra work really does pay off! Physical activity is no exception, and the more active you are, the more you benefit. For example, you can further reduce your risk for many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancers, and osteoporosis, by doing more than the minimum 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week. Incorporating up to 60 minutes of cardio activity may also help you to prevent unhealthy weight gain or to manage your weight, if that is your goal.
Different intensities and types of exercise offer different benefits. Cardio or aerobic activities exercise your heart and increase your ability to be physically active for a longer period of time. This type of endurance makes it easier to carry out harder tasks for longer periods of time—whether it’s keeping up with your kids or grandchildren, or playing basketball with your co-workers. Strength training or resistance exercises also contribute to muscular endurance. Strength training is especially beneficial as we get older. As we age, we tend to lose bone and muscle mass, making it difficult to carry out everyday activities: getting in and out of a chair, carrying groceries or laundry, or just walking. Together, cardio and strength training work your whole body. Vigorous physical activity (for example, jogging or other aerobic exercises) provides greater health benefits for physical fitness than does moderate physical activity and burns more calories per unit of time. Aside from all the health benefits, what a bonus that it also seems to make us feel better about ourselves.
How do we fit this into our life?
A lot of people have shared their thoughts with me. Here’s some of their feedback on what works.
Buddy System: Some days it’s hard to talk yourself into an activity. Working with others who are going through the same thing can be motivating, especially when you promised that you would meet for a walk in the park, or a tennis match, or signed up to take a yoga class together.
The Great Outdoors: Opportunities for physical activity may be closer than you think. Take advantage of public parks and pools. There are millions of acres to explore—walk, hike, swim, kayak, canoe, and bike.
Enjoy What You Do: If aerobicizing in a room full of people isn’t your thing, why do it? There are hundreds of activities to choose from. Find something you like and chances are you will stick with it. The key is not to limit yourself. Don’t get discouraged. Pick a few activities to try out, rotate them, and slowly you will figure out what works best for you. Trying something new can be fun and give you more confidence to pursue other activities.
Best of all, no matter what your age, physical ability or limitations, or physical activity level, it’s never too late to start! Some form of physical activity is right for everyone.
Summing it up
Let’s summarize what we’ve learned about making physical activity part of a Healthier You:
- Be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day, most days of the week.
- All adults, regardless of age, need both cardio or aerobic, and strength training, for overall health.
- Cardio or Aerobic Activities: At a minimum, do at least 30 minutes of cardio or aerobic moderately intense activities (which can be performed in 10-minute intervals), most days of the week.
- Strength Training: Recommended at least 2 days per week. A goal, for example, might be 8 to 12 repetitions of 6 to 8 strength-training exercises.
- Increasing the intensity or the amount of time that you are physically active can have greater health benefits and may be needed to control body weight. About 60 minutes a day may be needed to prevent weight gain.
- At least 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity most days may be needed to prevent regaining weight for the formerly overweight or obese.