Let’s look at why exercise and physical activity are important and what the exercise guidelines are for Americans. I also discuss how we can make exercise a regular part of our lives.
What are the Benefits of Exercise?
Here’s a bullet point list summary of how exercise benefits our health and well being:1
Lower risk for
- Overall mortality (risk of death)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Type 2 diabetes
- High cholesterol or high triglycerides
- Cancer- including cancer of bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung and stomach
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Falls and injuries from falls in older adults
- Anxiety for those with and without anxiety disorders
- Depressed mood
- Bone health
- Mobility- the physical ability to move
- Overall quality of life
- Prevention of weight gain
- Weight loss for those who are overweight or obese
- Maintenance of weight loss
- Improvement in sleep quality
- Improved deep sleep
- Reduced time to fall asleep
- Reduced sleepiness during the day
- Reduced use of sleep medications
- Improved cognition, memory, executive functioning, attention, processing speed and the ability to remember and use information
Thanks to newer research, it is suggested that some of the benefits we receive from exercise are actually due to the positive changes in the gut microbiota that occur from exercising. In other words, exercise changes the composition of the bacteria in our GI tract, and these changes in bacteria support our health.2
How Much Exercise Do We Need?
Be sure to talk with your health care provider before starting a new exercise plan.
For those who are just starting out, it is good to start with a less challenging goal and to gradually work your way up to the recommendations listed below.
Cardiovascular/Aerobic Exercise Recommendations
For adults, it recommended to do at least 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise per week. Or if you are participating in vigorous exercise it is recommended you do at least 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2.5 hours each week.1 These recommendations are based on the fact that the most significant health benefits are seen when following these guidelines. See below for examples of moderate intensity and vigorous intensity activities.
Weight Resistance/Strength Training Recommendations
It is recommended that strength training exercises be done at least 2 days a week. Strength training should target all major muscle groups including the chest, back, legs, shoulders, arms (biceps and triceps), and core/abdominal muscles.
A good goal for strength training is to do 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of each strength training exercise at least 2 days a week. As strength increases you can increase weights and/or number of days you do strength training to further increase your muscle strength.1
Stretching and Flexibility
Stretching enables our joints to move with full range of motion. Therefore, stretching is beneficial to include in our exercise goals too. Time spent stretching is considered additional to time spent doing cardiovascular or strength training.
Exercise for Older Adults (65 years and older)
While aerobic and strength training goals are the same for older adults, goals should be adjusted based on each person’s ability to exercise and any chronic conditions that effect how they can participate in exercise.
For older adults, balance training can help prevent falls and injuries due to falls. Balance training activities include activities such as walking heel to toe, practicing going from sitting to standing, yoga, tai chi, knee lifts and using a wobble board. Additionally, maintaining leg, back and abdominal strength promotes balance. Balance training is beneficial when done three days a week. If balance is an issue, physical therapists can provide balance exercises specific to you and your needs.
Intensity of activity is determined by how much energy is required to do the activity and this is measured in METS (metabolic equivalent of task). METs basically compare how much energy is used during an activity to energy that is used while sitting. One met is the rate of energy usage while sitting.
Light-intensity activity is lighter activity that uses less than 3 METs. This includes things such as walking at a slow pace, doing household chores, cooking, stretching, fishing.
Moderate-intensity activity requires 3 to less than 6 METs. This includes activities such as walking at a quick pace, casual swimming or water aerobics, bike riding at a speed less than 10 mph, canoeing, playing tennis in pairs, volleyball, badminton, ball room dancing, vinyasa or power yoga, golfing when carrying your clubs, and gardening/yard work.
High-intensity activity uses 6 or more METs. This can be activities such as running, swimming laps, biking at 10 mph or faster, playing one on one tennis, vigorous dancing, carrying heavy items upstairs or uphill, propelling oneself in a wheelchair, jump rope, basketball, soccer, football, hockey, walking up hill, skiing, kick boxing, karate, high interval intensity training (HIIT) and other high intensity fitness classes.
I think a lot of people who don’t currently exercise feel intimidated by starting. Often, the picture they have in their minds of exercise is someone who is already fit. They might imagine a woman running like a pro athlete, or a very muscular dude lifting really heavy weights in the gym. This is not the reality for most people, even if they already exercise regularly.
Also, I think people tend to have a limited idea of what exercise is. While running, lifting weights and utilizing a gym membership are certainly great ways to exercise, there are so many more options! There are so many different ways to be active.
How to Make Exercise Enjoyable
Sticking to an exercise plan gets tricky when you don’t look forward to exercising. Here are some tips to help keep you interested in exercising.
Choose Something you Enjoy
If the traditional forms of exercise such as running or using weight machines are very uninteresting to you, you can choose physical activities that do sound fun and enjoyable. Take some time to brain storm, jot down activities you already enjoy. After you figure out what physical activities you enjoy, you can make an intentional plan to do them regularly.
Is there a sport you really enjoy playing? If you look around you will probably be able to find a sports league or park district group for adult sports. Be sure to find the right level of competitiveness that works for you. Some people find competition more motivating, but for others it may make them shy away from participating.
Don’t forget the option of forming your own sports teams. I know a group that comes together to play a game of softball every Sunday after church. There are also soccer leagues for adults, tennis lessons at park districts, and bowling leagues that get together.
Check out local resources for sports clubs near you. For example, those living in the Chicagoland area can find groups for various activities on this website Chicago Sport & Social Club. I love seeing all of the different groups that get together to do all kinds of activities!
Group Classes at Park District or Gym
If you find that you are less consistent exercising when you are on your own consider joining a group class. Exercising with others can be more fun and can also be encouraging when you see others trying to stay fit too. Completing a 6 or 8 weeks class adds to feelings of accomplishment, and paying up front for group classes may also add an extra degree of commitment. Some fun ideas for group classes include dance classes, yoga, stationary bike classes, Zumba, pilates, or group water aerobics.
Pick Something you can do With a Friend
Spending time with a friend while exercising together makes things feel less like work and more like fun. You can take a group class together but you can also plan something more simple like a walk, hiking together or going bike riding. These are some of my favorite ways to get exercise in.
Mix it up with Seasonal Activities
One way to avoid getting bored with your exercise plan is to try new activities and to also switch things up. One of the most natural ways to work in different activities is to rotate in seasonal activities. We already do this with the foods we eat and the house projects we do. The seasons dictate much of the activities gardeners and homesteaders do too. We can apply this same idea to our physical activities by adding in certain exercises that are traditionally done certain times of year. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Winter– Skiing, ice skating, ice hockey, snow boarding, snow shoeing, indoor basketball, indoor wall climbing
Spring– Gardening, hiking, going on walks around the neighborhood, golf, tennis, baseball
Summer– swimming at an outdoor pool, surfing or boogie boarding, paddle boarding canoeing, kayaking, beach volleyball, ultimate frisbee, disc golf
Fall– Gardening, horse back riding, hiking, football, lacrosse, soccer
Have you noticed that music makes exercise more enjoyable? I definitely have! There is research to back this up, which is really cool. A review of research studies was completed and researchers found that listening to music while exercising improves physical performance, decreases perceived exertion, and improves efficiency. Last but not least, music also increases enjoyment while exercising.3
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf
- Exercise and the Gut Microbiome: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms, , and Implications for Human Health. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-essr/Fulltext/2019/04000/Exercise_and_the_Gut_Microbiome__A_Review_of_the.4.aspx
- Effects of music in exercise and sport: A meta analytic review. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-75018-001?doi=1