Exercise lowers blood pressure, improves blood cholesterol, improves mood, and can even help alleviate depression. It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and possibly some cancers. Regular physical activity helps develop and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints. It reduces the risk of falls among older people and helps relieve arthritis pain. If that weren't enough, it helps you control your weight-and obesity itself raises the risk of chronic diseases. In sum, exercise can keep you younger than your years.
It's easy to get confused by the different guidelines about exercise from various agencies, expert groups, and health gurus. Do you need 30 or 60 minutes a day for health benefits? Every day or just most days? Does only intense exercise count? What about short bouts?
If you want specifics, these are the 2007 guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.
Do moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (good for the cardiovascular system) for 30 minutes five days a week or vigorous aerobic exercise for 20 minutes 3 days per week. For the average healthy adult, that's the minimum to maintain health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Working out more will increase the benefits. Moderate intensity means working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat, yet still being able to carry on a conversation. Brisk walking is the most practical, accessible moderate exercise as well as the safest. Vigorous exercise, which increases heart rate and sweating, includes running, basketball and singles tennis.
You can mix it up by combining moderate and vigorous activities during the week. For example, walk briskly for 30 minutes twice a week and jog at higher intensity for 20 minutes on two other days.
If you are sedentary and over 60, or are younger with a chronic condition such as arthritis or obesity, you can start with easier goals. You may need guidance from your doctor or a knowledgeable trainer.
You can get your exercise in shorter bouts (but at least 10 minutes long). Three 10 minute moderate bouts are just as good as a single 30-minute workout and may fit your schedule better.
The exercise recommended by the guidelines is IN ADDITION TO your regular daily physical activities that are of light intensity, such as casual walking. Activities such as rigorous house cleaning or gardening, however, do count as moderate-intensity aerobic exercise if done for at least 10 minutes
To lose weight or maintain weight loss, you should do 60 to 90 minutes of daily activity. Though the guidelines don't say this, to lose weight you must also control your calorie intake.
(adapted from the Welllness Letter February 2008)
Do strength training (8 to 10 different exercises) two or three times a week. This is especially important if you are over 65, since such exercise helps prevent loss of muscle and bone, and makes daily activities easier.
If you are over 65, also include flexibility training and, to help prevent falls, balance exercises. Whenever you work out, spend at least 10 minutes stretching your major muscle groups.(this is good advice for younger people too)
Even if you can't meet the guidelines, any amount of exercise, of any intensity, is better than none. Some studies have found that for sedentary people, even an hour or two of exercise a week can improve fitness somewhat. Find activities you enjoy, such as swimming, biking, or playing basketball or volleyball with your friends to keep it interesting. Often it helps to exercise with a friend or family member.