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Fitness Basics

Fitness basics

Starting a fitness program may be one of the best things you can do for your health. After all, physical activity can reduce your risk of chronic disease, improve your balance and coordination, help you lose weight, and even boost your self-esteem. And you can reap these benefits regardless of your age, sex or physical ability.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that healthy adults include aerobic activity and strength training in their fitness plans, specifically:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity
  • Strength training exercises of all the major muscle groups at least twice a week

Regular exercise can help you control your weight, reduce your risk of heart disease and certain cancers, and strengthen your bones and muscles. But if you haven’t exercised for some time and you have health concerns, you may want to talk to your doctor before starting a new fitness routine.

When you’re designing your personal fitness program, consider your fitness goals. Think about your fitness likes and dislikes, and note your personal barriers to fitness. Then consider practical strategies for keeping your fitness program on track.

Starting a fitness program is an important decision, but it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming one. By planning carefully and pacing yourself, you can make fitness a healthy habit that lasts a lifetime.

Stretching and flexibility

Stretching is an important component of any exercise program. Most aerobic and strength training programs inherently cause your muscles to contract and tighten.

Stretching after you exercise helps optimize the range of motion about your joints and boosts circulation.

As a general rule, stretch your major muscle groups after you exercise. In some studies, stretching right before an athletic event has been shown to decrease athletic performance, especially before activities requiring ballistic movements, jumping or running.

Overall, however, stretching after exercise can help you to optimize your joint range of motion. If you don’t exercise regularly, you may want to stretch a few times a week after a brief warmup to maintain flexibility.

When you’re stretching, keep it gentle. Breathe freely as you hold each stretch for around 30 seconds. Try not to hold your breath. Don’t bounce or hold a painful stretch. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching. If you feel pain, you’ve gone too far.

Moving in sport- or activity-specific motion planes in gradually progressive speed (dynamic stretching) may be a helpful complement to static stretching and may help improve athletic performance.

Aerobic exercise

Regular aerobic exercise can help you live longer and healthier. After all, aerobic exercise can reduce health risks, keep excess pounds at bay, strengthen your heart and boost your mood. It can also reduce your risk of death from all causes.

Healthy adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity. That doesn’t have to be all at one time, though. For example, brisk walking for 30 minutes, five days a week meets the guidelines. Aerobic exercise can even be done in short blocks of time, such as several walk breaks spread throughout the day. Any activity is better than none at all.

Aim to reduce your time spent sitting, too. The more hours you sit each day, the higher your risk of dying of any cause, even if you achieve the recommended amount of daily physical activity.

Recent studies report significant health benefits from interval training, which means exercising at your near-maximal intensity for short periods. For example, you can sprint for 30 seconds and then walk for 60 seconds, and repeat this several times.

For many people, walking is a great choice for aerobic exercise. In fact, walking is one of the most natural forms of exercise. It’s safe, it’s simple, and all it takes to get started is a good pair of walking shoes and a commitment to include aerobic exercise in your daily routine.

Of course, there’s more to aerobic exercise than walking. Other popular choices include swimming, bicycling and jogging. Activities such as dancing and jumping rope count, too. Get creative.

Strength training

Strength training can help you tone your muscles and improve your appearance. With a regular strength training program, you can reduce your body fat, increase bone strength, increase your lean muscle mass and burn calories more efficiently.

Better yet, strength training doesn’t have to take as long as you might think. For most people, one set of strength exercises for all the major muscle groups performed to fatigue at the 12th to 15th repetition and performed at least two times a week is sufficient.

Strength training can be done at home or in the gym. Free weights and weight machines are popular strength training tools, but they’re not the only options.

You can do strength training with inexpensive resistance tubing or even your own body weight. With proper technique, you may enjoy noticeable improvements in your strength and stamina over time.

Sports nutrition

How much do you know about sports nutrition? What and when you eat can affect your performance and how you feel while you’re exercising. Brushing up on sports nutrition basics can help you make the most of your exercise routine.

Sports nutrition focuses on good eating habits all the time, but also may focus on carbohydrates. For example, athletes training for endurance events may eat more carbohydrates in their diets in the days before the event to boost their energy and performance. Protein for muscle repair and growth is another important aspect of sports nutrition.

Of course, sports nutrition goes beyond simply what you eat. When you eat is important, too. To maximize your workouts, coordinate your meals, snacks and drinks. Drink fluids such as water during and between meals.

Oct. 11, 2019


Step It Up! Get Active for Your Health

July 2021

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Get Active for Your Health

It’s easy to sit more than you should. Many people sit at desks during the day, where we’re inactive for long periods of time. Moving more and sitting less can have major health benefits. Getting regular physical activity is one of best things you can do for your health.

Experts recommend adults get at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate physical activity a week. That means doing activities that get your heart beating faster.

If you do more intense exercise like running, aim for at least 75 minutes a week. Adults should also do activities that strengthen their muscles twice a week.

But only about 20% of Americans meet these physical activity goals. The good news is that any physical activity is better than none. And getting active has both immediate and long-term benefits.

Benefits for Everyone

Physical activity has powerful benefits for almost everyone.

“If we could bottle up what physical activity does for us, we would probably have the most powerful pill ever developed,” says Dr. John Jakicic of the University of Pittsburgh. Jakicic is an expert on physical activity and weight control.

Physical activity can help you feel and function better. It can improve your sleep, energy level, and focus. It can help you stay at a healthy weight.

It also helps prevent many diseases, including heart and blood vessel disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and depression. Regular physical activity also helps those already diagnosed with these conditions. It can work immediately to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure.

“It’s been shown over many decades that physical activity is one of the most important actions that people of all ages can take to improve their health,” explains Dr. Kong Chen, an NIH expert who studies how the body uses energy.

For older adults, physical activity can lower the risk of falls. It also helps reduce injuries if you do fall. It reduces the risk of dementia and improves cognition, or your ability to learn, remember, and think. And staying fit enough to perform everyday tasks can help you live independently for longer.

Children benefit, too. Physical activity helps the body to grow and develop. Studies show that being active improves bone health for young children. It also improves brain function for older children. Experts recommend that kids ages six to 17 do one hour or more of physical activity daily.

Research shows that even pregnant women should be active. It lowers your risk of gaining too much weight during pregnancy. That can reduce your chances of developing diabetes from pregnancy. It also helps lessen symptoms of depression after giving birth.

In short, being physically active is recommended for nearly everyone.

How to Move More

Physical activity doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym. Getting more active can include simple things like carrying your groceries or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

“People mistakenly think that you have to do it a certain way,” says Jakicic. “That you have to get your heart rate into a certain zone, you have to work really, really hard, and you have to go to a special facility and wear special clothes.” But little choices to be more active can still have big effects.

Meeting the 150-minute goal may seem overwhelming. But you can start with a few minutes at a time.

“If time is a barrier, you can still gain benefits by breaking your exercise sessions into smaller periods of time,” says Jakicic.

For example, you could take three 10-minute walks throughout the day to meet a 30-minute goal.

Recent research suggests you can benefit from even a couple of minutes of activity. Every minute counts when it comes to movement.

A Step in the Right Direction

Walking is an easy way to get moving. But some places make that easier than others. Studies have found that your neighborhood can affect how active you are. Scientists have asked what makes a neighborhood “walkable.”

“We found that things like having destinations close by to where you live certainly encourages more walking,” says Dr. Brian Saelens of the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute. People are more likely to walk to a nearby store, for example.

Saelens’ team studies how environment influences physical activity and eating.

“Walkable neighborhoods also have more connected street networks,” he says, “so it’s easy to get from point A to point B without taking a long route around.”

His research also suggests that children are more physically active when they live near parks and playgrounds. Learn how to make your neighborhood healthier and safer.

Strategies to Get Moving

Knowing you should be more active and doing it are two different things. Studies have found that the approaches that work vary from person to person.

“One solution that may work for one person may not work for others,” notes Chen.

Some find that using wearable devices or phone apps to track progress can be motivating. Other people may benefit from joining a group that does physical activity together.

Making physical activity social can make it more fun and feel less like a chore. Try to find someone you enjoy being active with. That can be particularly important for kids, who are more likely to be active with others.

Parents also play a key role in keeping their kids active. “Parents need to model being active and provide opportunities for activity,” Saelens says. Ask your child to take a walk with you. Even if they don’t come, you’re modeling the behavior.

If low energy is keeping you from being active, schedule exercise for a time of day when you have the most energy. Tell yourself that physical activity will increase your energy level. It usually does.

So, find what works for you. It could be riding bikes with a friend, going out dancing, or taking a mid-day stroll.

“Any activity is better than no activity,” says Jakicic. “Don’t look for the magic bullet. Look for what works in your lifestyle, look for what works for you, and then try to build on that every day.”

For more tips on getting physical activity, see the Wise Choices box.


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4 Physical Activity Tips for Older Adults

Regular physical activity is great for your mental and physical health. It also helps you stay independent as you age.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that you aim to exercise at least 150 minutes every week at a moderate pace, or 75 at a more vigorous pace. The guidelines also recommend that older adults do muscle-strengthening activities at least 2 days a week.

Now sure how to get started? These tips can help.

1. Talk with your doctor. Almost anyone, at any age, can exercise safely. If you’re concerned about starting an exercise routine, talk with your doctor. Ask whether there are activities you should avoid and whether any health conditions you have might affect what exercises you can do safely.

2. Start gradually. Begin with low-intensity exercises like walking. Be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workout.

3. Develop a well-rounded routine. Include the four main types of exercise:

  • Endurance exercises increase your breathing and heart rate. Brisk walking is a good option.
  • Strength exercises, like lifting weights or using a resistance band, make your muscles stronger.
  • Balance exercises can help prevent falls. This includes standing on one foot.
  • Flexibility exercises, like yoga, stretch your muscles and help you stay limber and maintain mobility as you age.

4. Move throughout the day. Every day presents opportunities to move more. For example, use the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Or park far away from the grocery store entrance instead of in the closest spot.

Keep it Going! How to Stick with a Fitness Routine

Sticking to a fitness routine isn’t always easy with family, work, hobbies, and everything in between. These tips can help you get started and keep you moving, even when life gets busy.

Find an activity you like. Whether it’s walking, biking, or playing a recreational sport, the key to maintaining your exercise routine is doing something you find interesting and enjoyable.

Schedule a time for it. You are more likely to stick with an exercise routine if it is part of your day. Find a time that’s most convenient for you, whether it’s first thing in the morning or after work. If you don’t have 30 full minutes to dedicate to exercise, try to be active a few times throughout the day.

Get active with friends. A workout buddy can help keep you accountable and make exercise more fun. During social distancing you can do this by working out with someone in your household or with a friend or family member digitally.

Measure your progress. Keep track of how far you walked, how much weight you lifted, or how far you stretched. Measuring your progress and noting improvements will help you stay motivated.

Try something new! Exercise shouldn’t be boring. Trying a new exercise video or sport is one way to keep your exercise routine fresh.