Fitness: Getting and Staying Active
What is fitness?
Fitness means being able to perform physical activity. It also means having the energy and strength to feel as good as possible. Getting more fit, even a little bit, can improve your health.
You don't have to be an athlete to be fit. A brisk half-hour walk every day can help you reach a good level of fitness. And if this is hard for you, you can work toward a level of fitness that helps you feel better and have more energy.
What are the benefits of fitness?
Fitness helps you feel better and have more energy for work and leisure time. You'll feel more able to do things like playing with your kids, gardening, dancing, or biking. Children and teens who are fit may have more energy and better focus at school.
When you stay active and fit, you burn more calories, even when you're at rest. Being fit lets you do more physical activity. And it lets you exercise harder without as much work. It can also help you manage your weight.
Improving your fitness is good for your heart, lungs, bones, muscles, and joints. And it lowers your risk for falls, heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers. If you already have one or more of these problems, getting more fit may help you control other health problems and make you feel better.
Being more fit also can help you to sleep better, handle stress better, and keep your mind sharp.
How much physical activity do you need for health-related fitness?
Experts say your goal should be one, or a combination, of these:
- Do some sort of moderate aerobic activity, like brisk walking, for at least 2½ hours each week. It is up to you how many days you want to exercise, but it is best to be active at least 3 days a week. Be active for at least 10 minutes at a time. For example, you could:
- Take a 10-minute walk 3 times a day. Do this 5 days a week.
- Take a half-hour walk 3 days a week. On the other 4 days take a 15-minute walk.
- Take a 45-minute walk every other day.
- Or do more vigorous activities, like running, for at least 1¼ hours a week. This activity makes you breathe harder and have a much faster heartbeat than when you are resting. You can spread out these 75 minutes any way you want to. It is better to be active at least 3 days a week for at least 10 minutes at a time. For example, you could:
- Run for 25 minutes 3 times a week.
- Run for 15 minutes 5 times a week.
Here's an easy way to tell if your exercise is moderate: You're at a moderate level of activity if you can talk but not sing during the activity. If you can't talk while you're doing the activity, you're working too hard.
Children as young as preschool age need activity. Encourage your child (age 6 to 17) to do moderate to vigorous activity at least 1 hour every day.
What types of physical activity improve fitness?
The activities you choose depend on which kind of fitness you want to improve. There are three different kinds of fitness:
- Aerobic fitness makes you breathe faster and makes your heart work harder for a while. Aerobic activities include walking, running, cycling, and swimming. Aerobic fitness is also called cardio or cardiovascular training.
- Muscle fitness (strength) means building stronger muscles and increasing how long you can use them. Activities like weight lifting and push-ups can improve your muscular fitness.
- Flexibility is the ability to move your joints and muscles through their full range of motion. Stretching is an exercise that helps you to be more flexible.
How can you be more physically active?
Moderate physical activity is safe for most people. But it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before becoming more active, especially if you haven't been very active or have health problems.
If you're ready to add more physical activity to your life, here are some tips to get you started:
- Make physical activity part of your regular day. Make a regular habit of using stairs, not elevators, and walking to do errands near your home.
- Start walking. Walking is a great fitness activity that most people can start doing. Make it a habit to take a daily walk with family members, friends, coworkers, or pets.
- Find an activity partner. This can make exercising more fun.
Find an activity that you enjoy, and stay with it. Vary it with other activities so you don't get bored.
- Use the Interactive Tool: How Many Calories Did You Burn? to find out how many calories you burn during exercise and daily activities.
One Woman's Story:
"I knew I needed to do something. I felt like all my muscles were starting to atrophy. Now I feel like I'm so much more toned. I'm not buff, but I'm toned. I can definitely feel the difference."— Kris
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
- Fitness: Adding More Activity to Your Life
- Fitness: Choosing Activities That Are Right for You
- Fitness: Increasing Core Stability
- Fitness: Making It a Habit
- Fitness: Staying Active When You Have Young Children
- Fitness: Using a Pedometer or Step Counter
- Fitness: Walking for Wellness
- Stress Management: Managing Your Time
Why Should You Be More Active?
No matter what your size or shape, being active:
- Makes you feel better.
- Helps you fall asleep and sleep well.
- Gives you more energy.
- Helps you think better and faster.
- Helps you handle stress.
- Makes you healthier.
- Helps you live longer.
Your health will thank you
The more active you are, the better your heart and lungs work. You're less likely to get many of the diseases that can shorten your life, including:
- Coronary artery disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Some cancers.
If you already have any of these problems, staying active may help you to have better control over them, feel better, and live longer.
Your body will thank you
Being fit includes keeping your muscles, bones, and joints as active and healthy as possible. You can:
- Make your muscles stronger. Lifting weights—even small ones—is a good way to do this. Weights also increase bone density, which is especially important for older adults.footnote 1
- Stay flexible and coordinated. Stretching will help you do this. As you become more flexible, you will find it easier to reach things on high shelves, look under a bed, or perhaps tie your shoes. You will also have a better sense of balance and coordination.
Your bathroom scale will thank you
Being more active burns calories. That can help you get to and stay at a healthy weight. Getting regular exercise:
- Helps your body burn more calories even when you're resting.
- May lower your percentage of body fat and increase muscle strength and tone.
To find out how many calories you burn during different activities, use this Interactive Tool: How Many Calories Did You Burn?
One Man's Story:
"My doctor said, 'It's about time you lose weight.' That's when I got my bike."— Bob
You'll thank yourself
The best thing about being active and fit is a better quality of life. You're able to do things you enjoy for longer periods of time, like playing with children, gardening, dancing, or walking.
What Does "Being Active" Really Mean?
You can be active by doing housework, mowing the lawn, walking, or joining a fitness class. It's important to be active in three areas: aerobic activity, muscle strength, and stretching.
Aerobic activity makes your heart and lungs work harder and builds up your endurance. It gets more oxygen to your muscles, which allows your muscles to work longer. Aerobic activities include walking, running, cycling, and swimming.
To get and stay healthy, experts say to do either of these:footnote 2
- Get moderate aerobic activity for at least 2½ hours a week.
- Get vigorous aerobic activity for at least 1¼ hours a week.
You can choose to do one or both types of activity. And it's fine to be active in several blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week. Do what works best for you. For example, you could do moderate activity for 45 minutes every other day. Or you could do 10 minutes 3 times a day, 5 days a week.
How hard to work
Moderate activity causes your heart and lungs to work harder. Here's an easy way to know if you're working hard enough to get the health benefits of moderate-level activity:
- If you can't talk and do your activity at the same time, you are exercising too hard.
- If you can sing while you do your activity, you may not be working hard enough.
- If you can talk but can't sing while you do your activity, you are doing fine.
Building stronger muscles is an important part of overall health. When your muscles are strong, you can carry heavy grocery bags more easily, pick up children without feeling as much strain, or do more downhill ski runs before you get too tired and have to stop.
Making your muscles stronger includes:
- Resistance training. This helps build muscles through regular use, especially when your muscles have to work against something.
- Strengthening your core. This helps build the muscles around your belly and back (trunk). This is called core stability. It can help you have better posture and balance, and help protect you from injury.
Experts advise people to do exercises to strengthen muscles at least 2 times a week. Be sure to work the major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.
Examples of resistance-training exercises include lifting weights, doing push-ups, or using elastic bands.
Stretching for flexibility
Flexibility means being able to move your joints and muscles through their full range of motion.
As you become more flexible, you will find it easier to reach things on high shelves, to look under a bed, or perhaps to tie your shoes. You will also have a better sense of balance and coordination.
To stay flexible, stretch all your major groups of muscles. These include the muscles of your arms, your back, your hips, the front and back of your thighs, and your calves.
As you get started with flexibility and stretching, begin slowly, and increase your efforts bit by bit. You can measure your progress with flexibility by noticing how much farther you can do each stretch. Can you stretch farther each day than you could when you started? If so, your flexibility is getting better.
Do your stretching and flexibility exercises in addition to your aerobic and strength-building exercises.
Becoming More Active
Are you ready?
Before you increase your activity, take a look at where you are now. Ask yourself these questions:
- What challenges get in my way? You may have barriers in your life that get in the way of becoming more active. These barriers may be a lack of time, fear of getting hurt, or having no one to exercise with.
- Is physical activity safe for me? For some people, some forms of physical activity might be unsafe. If you have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or any health concerns, talk to your doctor before you start any exercise or fitness program. Your doctor may want to help you build an exercise plan matched to your needs. You can find a way to be active safely.
Changing your thinking
If you need to make some lifestyle changes to become more active, you'll have more success if you first change the way you think about certain things:
- Don't compare yourself to others. Healthy bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. One person's choice of activity won't be right for another person. Some people use fitness to compete against others, while others use it to feel as good as possible.
- Think positive. You can help yourself succeed just by thinking that you can succeed. If you tell yourself negative things—"I can't do this. Why bother?"—change will be harder. But if you encourage yourself with thoughts like "I can do this," you can raise your odds of success.
Changing your habits
Making any kind of change in the way you live your daily life is like being on a path. The path leads to success. Here are steps you can use to change a habit by setting goals:
- Have your own reason for making a change. Know why it's important to you to meet your goals.
- Set goals. Include both long-term and short-term goals.
- Think about what might get in your way, and prepare for slip-ups.
- Get support from your family, your doctor, your friends—and from yourself.
- Measure improvements to your health. For example, keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar.
One Man's Story:
"My mantra is 'Find a way to exercise.' It has made all the difference in my life."— John
Turning physical activity into a habit
Most people don't think about being active or inactive as a habit. But it is. And habits are affected by many things, including our work schedule, our home life, and our social life. When something becomes a habit, we don't think about it much—we just do it, like brushing our teeth.
The key to staying active is to make fitness a habit—something that you just do.
It might take a long time for you to form a habit. So start small, and keep doing an activity until you no longer think about it as something "extra" that you have to do.
When you slip up, don't get mad at yourself or feel guilty. Figure out what happened and how to keep it from happening again. Get right back into your physical activity routine, and don't look back.
Maintaining the lifestyle
Many of the good things about being active, such as having more energy and being in a better mood, happen soon after you become more active. But some of the most important health benefits have to do with being active over many years. If you stop being active, you lose the fitness you achieved. Being consistent makes the most sense for your health.
To help make physical activity a long-term commitment:
- Set goals. Develop and follow a specific program.
- Make it a habit. Turn physical activity into a normal, pleasant, and routine part of your life.
- Get the support of friends and family.
- Expand your fitness activities through coaching, competition, and cross-training.
- Add variety to your fitness program. Change the place, activity, and time.
- Don't let reasons such as lack of time or bad weather slow you down.
- Schedule your activity for times that you're likely to keep doing it. If you don't have time for one 30-minute walk, break it up into three 10-minute walks.
Finding what works for you
When you have decided that you want to get fit, you will want to plan a physical activity routine. Although most people think of classes and specific activities (such as jogging or tennis) as the way to fitness, there are many ways you can work physical activity into your life.
One Woman's Story:
"I realized that I had put myself on the back burner for too long and it was time for me to make time for myself, even if it was just a few minutes a day. I wrote myself a note and taped it to my bathroom mirror. It said, 'I will take a 10-minute walk during my morning coffee break every day this week.' " — Shellie
Fitness classes or groups provide a consistent approach to an activity. Local gyms, schools, and churches may sponsor a regular fitness group. Teams also provide a consistent approach to fitness but are more competitive. Many communities have physical activity programs to help adults and children get fit. They often are found within social agencies and schools.
Structured fitness has the advantage of:
- Being held at the same time and place, which may be easier for some people to schedule.
- Having a social atmosphere.
- Providing support and "healthy" peer pressure to show up and participate.
- Sometimes being led by a certified fitness professional.
Many people find an activity they enjoy, and then they create their own fitness program. Self-directed fitness gives you:
- Flexibility as to the time and place.
- The ability to try different types of exercises.
For this to be effective, you must set up a regular schedule and stay with it.
Fitness within your day
You can use "everyday" activities for fitness, as long as you do them regularly. This includes:
- Daily aerobic activity, such as raking leaves, mowing the lawn, or doing housework.
- Muscle-building exercises, such as scrubbing the bathtub, washing walls, tilling the garden, or pulling weeds.
- An outdoor interest or hobby that promotes walking or another type of exercise. For example, bird watching may require a lot of walking, and trail building may require both walking and strength to clear paths.
Preparing for slip-ups
It's perfectly normal to try to change a habit, go along fine for a while, and then have a setback. Lots of people try and try again before they reach their goals.
What are the things that might cause a setback for you? If you have tried to make changes in your activity level before, think about what helped you and what got in your way.
By thinking about these barriers now, you can plan ahead for how to deal with them if they happen.
Here's one person's list of barriers to taking a brisk 30-minute walk every day, along with some possible solutions:
"I might be too busy."
"I might get bored."
"It might rain."
Use a personal action plan to write down your barriers and backup plans.
Can You Be Physically Active As You Get Older?
It's never too late to start getting active. You can benefit from physical activity even if you think of yourself as "elderly" or you already have conditions such as arthritis or heart disease. Being more active will help you feel better and may even help you live longer.
If you haven't been active for a long time, you may have no idea where to start. The important thing is to take that first step—and make that first step a small one.
If you're an older adult and are starting activity, be sure to:
- Start safely. Talk to your doctor before you start, and don't overdo it.
- Keep the benefits in mind. Activity and exercise can strengthen your heart and give you more energy, make falls less likely, and help you sleep at night. It can improve blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Know when to stop. Stop your activity if you are panting or are very short of breath or have pain in your chest. If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911 right away. Symptoms include pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in your chest, back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.
For more information, see:
- Physical Activity as You Get Older.
- Becoming More Active.
Preventing Injury and Illness
Physical activity is good for your health, but you can hurt yourself if you don't do it right. Always keep safety in mind.
- Learn about the risks of any new activity you begin. Take lessons if you need to know how to do exercises with proper form and technique to avoid injury.
- Wear clothing that is right for your activity and the weather. Wear shoes that have good support for your feet.
- Always use the safety gear that goes with your chosen activity, like helmets and knee pads. Learn about the proper fit of that gear.
- Start each activity session slowly. Then work up to your normal level.
- Pay attention to pain and tiredness. They are your body's way of telling you to slow down. Muscle soreness is common when you try a new activity, but pain can mean you're injured. If you are very tired, you may be doing too much too soon.
Watch out for these injuries and illnesses as you exercise:
- Overuse injuries can happen when you use a certain joint over and over without giving it time to recover. Tennis elbow is an example of an overuse injury.
- Dehydration . You can lose too much water through sweating if you don't replace it by drinking fluids as you exercise. Follow these guidelines to avoid dehydration when you exercise.
- Heat exhaustion , heatstroke, or dehydration may be caused by exercising in heat and humidity.
Overhydration during exercise is rare. But it is a medical emergency when it happens. When you do strenuous exercise for a long time, such as distance running, you lose water. You can also lose electrolytes, which are minerals your body needs. If you drink lots of water but you don't replace the electrolytes, you can become overhydrated. Symptoms include:
- Feeling bloated (your watchband may feel tight).
- Feeling sick to your stomach.
- Feeling confused.
- Exercise-induced asthma can occur even if you don't have asthma at any other time.
- Overtraining is rare, but it can make you tired and grouchy, as well as raising your risk for injury and illness.
- Heart attack is rare, but be aware of the symptoms. They include pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in your chest, back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2004). Strength training among adults aged 65 or older. MMWR, 53(2): 25–28.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/default.aspx.
Current as of: May 12, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health
Current as of: May 12, 2021