Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to achieve optimal health. Individuals who are physically active for about seven hours per week lower the risk of dying early by 40 percent compared to those who are active for less than thirty minutes per week. Improving your overall fitness involves sticking with an exercise program on a regular basis. If you are nervous or unsure about becoming more active, the good news is that moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, is safe for most people. Also, the health advantages of becoming active far outweigh the risks. Physical activity not only helps to maintain your weight, it also provides a wealth of benefits—physical, mental, and emotional.
Getting the recommended amount of physical activity each week, about 150 minutes of moderate, aerobic exercise, such as power walking or bicycling, does not require joining a gym, or taking expensive, complicated classes. If you can’t commit to a formal workout four to five days per week, you can become more active in simple ways—by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, by walking more instead of driving, by going out dancing with your friends, or by doing your household chores at a faster pace. It is not necessary to perform at the level of a professional dancer or athlete, or to work out for several hours every day, to see real gains from exercise. Even slightly increased activity can lead to physical benefits, such as:
- Longer life. A regular exercise program can reduce your risk of dying early from heart disease, certain cancers, and other leading causes of death.
- Healthier weight. Exercise, along with a healthy, balanced eating plan, can help you lose extra weight, maintain weight loss, or prevent excessive weight gain.
- Cardiovascular disease prevention. Being active boosts HDL cholesterol and decreases unhealthy triglycerides, which reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
- Management of chronic conditions. A regular routine can help to prevent or manage a wide range of conditions and concerns, such as metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, arthritis, and certain types of cancer.
- Energy boosts. Regular physical activity can improve muscle tone and strength and provide a boost to your cardiovascular system. When the heart and lungs work more efficiently, you have more energy.
- Strong bones. Research shows that aerobic activity and strength training can slow the loss of bone density that typically accompanies aging.
Mental and Emotional Benefits
The benefits of an exercise program are not just physical, they are mental and emotional as well. Anyone who has gone for a walk to clear their head knows the mental benefits of exercise firsthand. Also, you do not have to be a marathoner on a “runner’s high” to enjoy the emotional benefits of becoming active. The mental and emotional benefits of physical activity include:
- Mood improvement. Aerobic activity, strength-training, and more contemplative activities such as yoga, all help break cycles of worry, absorption, and distraction, effectively draining tension from the body.
- Reduced risk of depression, or limited symptoms of it. Some people have called exercise “nature’s antidepressant,” and studies have shown that physical activity reduces the risk of and helps people cope with the symptoms of depression.
- Cognitive skills retention. Regular physical activity can help people maintain thinking, learning, and judgement as they age.
- Better sleep. A good night’s sleep is essential for clear thinking, and regular exercise promotes healthy, sound sleep. It can also help you fall asleep faster and deepen your rest.
Changing to a More Active Lifestyle
A physically active lifestyle yields so many health benefits that it is recommended for everyone. Change is not always easy, but even small changes such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking farther away from a store to add a bit more walking into your day can lead to a more active lifestyle and set you on the road to optimal health. When people go one step further by walking or biking on a regular basis, or becoming active by growing and maintaining a garden, they do more than promote their own health—they safeguard the health of the planet, too.
As you change to a more active lifestyle, select an activity that you can integrate into your schedule smoothly, so you can maintain it. For example, instead of making time to get coffee with friends, you might suggest a walk, rollerblading, or going for a swim in the campus pool. Also, find an activity that you will be motivated to do. Some people decide to participate in team sports, such as local soccer or softball leagues, because they enjoy being active with others or like knowing that a team relies on them. Others prefer to take a class, such as spinning or yoga, that is led by an instructor who will motivate them. Still others prefer more solitary pursuits, such as taking a jog alone in their neighborhood. No matter what your preference, you are more likely to stick to a workout program if you enjoy it.
- Physical Activity and Health: The Benefits of Physical Activity. CDC.org. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health/index.html. Last updated February 16, 2011. ↵