How to be active for health

You have probably heard by now that physical activity is good for you. If you are having trouble getting started, use this information about the types of activity you need to do, as well as how much you need to do. You will also find tips for all types of women.

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Benefits of physical activity

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans state that an active lifestyle can lower your risk of early death from a variety of causes. There is strong evidence that regular physical activity can also lower your risk of:

Regular activity can help prevent unhealthy weight gain and also help with weight loss, when combined with lower calorie intake. It can also improve your cardiorespiratory (heart, lungs, and blood vessels) and muscular fitness. For older adults, activity can improve mental function. Physical activity may also help:

  • Improve functional health for older adults
  • Reduce waistline size
  • Lower risk of hip fracture
  • Lower risk of lung cancer
  • Lower risk of endometrial cancer
  • Maintain weight after weight loss
  • Increase bone density
  • Improve sleep quality

How much physical activity should I do?

Health benefits are gained by doing the following each week:

  • 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or
  • 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or
  • A combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity and
  • Muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days

You can gain even more benefits by boosting activity to 5 hours of moderate intensity or 2 hours and 30 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week.

Aerobic activity

Aerobic activity involves moving the large muscles in your arms, legs, and hips over and over again. During aerobic activity, you breathe faster and more deeply, and your heart beats faster. If your breathing and heart rate increase to a moderate degree, your activity is considered moderate intensity. An example would be walking on a level surface at a brisk pace (about 3 to 4 miles per hour). If your breathing increases so much that it is difficult to carry on a conversation, your activity is considered vigorous intensity. An example would be jogging.

Do at least 10 minutes of aerobic activity at a time. It is best to spread it throughout the week. This physical activity should be in addition to your routine activities of daily living, such as cooking or walking a short distance such as from the parking lot to your office.

If you have not been physically active for a long time, you need to start slowly and then work your way up as you become more fit. For example, if you do not feel up to walking for 30 minutes, try walking for 10 minutes. Then increase your walking time by 5 minutes each week until you reach 30 minutes.

Below are some moderate and vigorous physical activities that you might consider:

Moderate and vigorous physical activities
  Moderate activities Vigorous activities
Leisure activities Walking at a brisk pace, ballroom dancing, leisurely bicycling, roller skating, canoeing Jogging, running, bicycling fast or uphill, jumping rope, swimming continuous laps
Sports Golfing, softball, badminton, downhill skiing, Frisbee playing Singles tennis, beach volleyball on sand, basketball game, soccer, cross-country skiing
Home activities Pushing a power lawn mower, gardening, raking leaves, shoveling light snow, moderate housework, hand washing/waxing a car, actively playing with children, riding a stationary bike Pushing a hand mower, heavy or rapid shoveling (more than 10 pounds per minute), carrying items weighing 25 pounds or more up a flight of stairs
Occupational activity Maid service, waiting tables, feeding or grooming farm animals, manually milking cows, picking fruits or vegetables, walking while carrying a mailbag Teaching an aerobic dance class, heavy farm work

For more examples of activities that are considered "moderate-intensity" and "vigorous-intensity," check out General Physical Activities Defined By Level of Intensity (PDF, 65 KB).

Muscle-strengthening activities

Another type of physical activity that you should do on a regular basis is strength training. Muscle-strengthening activities increase the strength and endurance of your muscles. Examples of these activities include working out with weight machines and free weights.

You do not need to invest in a gym membership or buy expensive home gym equipment to do muscle-strengthening activities. Hand, wrist, and ankle weights are less costly options. Also, homemade weights, such as plastic soft drink bottles filled with sand or water, may work just as well. You can also use your own body weight, doing activities such as push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. You could also buy a resistance band at a sporting-goods store. It looks like a giant rubber band, and stretching it helps build muscle.

You should try to do muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days each week. Allow one day in between sessions to avoid excess strain on your muscles and joints. During each session, repeat each activity 8–12 times.

Being active at any size

Very large people can face special challenges in trying to be physically active. You may not be able to bend or move in the same way that other people can. It may be hard to find clothes and equipment for exercising. You may feel self-conscious being active around other people. Facing these challenges is hard, but it can be done!

Activities such as swimming or exercising while seated put less stress on your joints because your legs are not supporting the weight of your body. If your feet or joints hurt when you stand, these non-weight-bearing activities may be best for you. Ask your doctor for help in coming up with a physical activity plan that's right for you.

Remember that physical activity does not have to be hard or boring to be good for you. Anything that gets you moving around — even for only a few minutes a day — is a healthy start to getting more fit. If you commit to being physically active on a regular basis, your body will thank you because it can make a big difference to your health.

Even if you are not physically active enough to lose weight, you will still lower your risk of getting many diseases by being active. And if you do lose weight, you'll get even more health benefits!

Losing weight and keeping it off

If you want to lose a substantial (more than 5 percent of body weight) amount of weight, you need a high amount of physical activity unless you also lower calorie intake. This is also the case if you are trying to keep the weight off. Many people need to do more than 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week to meet weight-control goals.

Physical activity for women with disabilities

A disability may make it harder to stay active, but it shouldn't stop you. In most cases, people with disabilities can improve their flexibility, mobility, and coordination by becoming physically active. Even though you have a disability, you should still aim to meet the physical activity goals listed above.

Talk to your health care provider about your personal needs. For more information, visit our Illnesses and disabilities section.

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