Increased physical activity can lead to a longer life and improved health. Exercise helps prevent heart disease and many other health problems. Exercise builds strength, gives you more energy and can help you reduce stress. It is also a good way to curb your appetite and burn calories.

What kinds of activity should I do?

Exercises that increase your heart rate and move large muscles (such as the muscles in your legs and arms) are best. Choose an activity that you enjoy and that you can start slowly and increase gradually as you become used to it.

To get the health benefits of physical activity, do a combination of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

  • Aerobic (“air-OH-bik”) activities make you breathe harder and cause your heart to beat faster. Walking fast is an example of aerobic activity.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities make your muscles stronger. Muscle-strengthening activities include lifting weights and using exercise bands.

How long should I exercise?

Start off exercising 3 or more times a week for 20 minutes or more, and work up to at least 30 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week. This can include several short bouts of activity in a day. Exercising during a lunch break or on your way to do errands may help you add physical activity to a busy schedule. Exercising with a friend or a family member can help make it fun, and having a partner to encourage you can help you stick to it.

The best exercise is the one that you will do on a regular basis. 

How can I prevent injuries?

The safest way to keep from injuring yourself during exercise is to avoid trying to do too much too soon.

Start every workout with a warm-up. This will make your muscles and joints more flexible. Spend 5 to 10 minutes doing some light calisthenics and stretching exercises, and perhaps brisk walking. Do the same thing when you're done working out until your heart rate returns to normal.

Pay attention to your body. Stop exercising if you feel very out of breath, dizzy, faint, nauseous or have pain.Contact your physician if these problems persist.

How hard should I exercise?

Small amounts of exercise are better than none at all. Start with an activity you can do comfortably. As you become more used to exercising, try to keep your heart rate at about 60% to 85% of your "maximum heart rate."

Max heart rate calc

To figure out your target heart rate, subtract your age (in years) from 220. This is your maximum heart rate. Now, to calculate your target heart rate, multiply that number by 0.60 or 0.85.

The chart to the left shows the target heart rates for people of different ages. When you're just beginning an exercise program, shoot for the lower target heart rate (60%). As your fitness improves, you can exercise harder to get your heart rate closer to the top number (85%).

Benefits of regular exercise

  • Reduces your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes and obesity
  • Keeps joints, tendons and ligaments flexible, which makes it easier to move around
  • Reduces some of the effects of aging
  • Contributes to your mental well-being and helps treat depression
  • Helps relieve stress and anxiety
  • Increases your energy and endurance
  • Helps you sleep better
  • Helps you maintain a normal weight by increasing your metabolism (the rate you burn calories)

Tips for starting exercise

Start by talking with your family doctor. This is especially important if you haven't been active, if you have any health problems or if you're pregnant or elderly.

Start out slowly. If you've been inactive for years, you can't run a marathon after only 2 weeks of training.

Here are some tips that will help you start and stick with an exercise program:

  • Choose something you like to do. Make sure it suits you physically, too. For instance, swimming is easier on arthritic joints.
  • Get a partner. Exercising with a friend or relative can make it more fun.
  • Vary your routine. You may be less likely to get bored or injured if you change your exercise routine. Walk one day. Bicycle the next. Consider activities like dancing and racquet sports, and even chores like vacuuming or mowing the lawn.
  • Choose a comfortable time of day. Don't work out too soon after eating or when it's too hot or cold outside. Wait until later in the day if you're too stiff in the morning.
  • Don't get discouraged. It can take weeks or months before you notice some of the changes from exercise, such as weight loss.
  • Forget "no pain, no gain." While a little soreness is normal after you first start exercising, pain isn't. Take a break if you hurt or if you are injured.
  • Make exercise fun. Read, listen to music or watch TV while riding a stationary bicycle, for example. Find fun things to do, like taking a walk through the zoo. Go dancing. Learn how to play a sport you enjoy, such as tennis.
  • Sneak Exercise into your daily activities.  Take the stairs instead of the Elevator.  Go for a walk during your lunch break.  
  • Challenge Yourself. See how high you can raise your physical activity level in a safe an appropriate manner.

Last updated May 9, 2012.

References: AAFP & NHIC

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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