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Search Health Information    Fitness: Getting and Staying Active

Fitness: Getting and Staying Active

Topic Overview

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. You can spread out these 150 minutes any way you like. For example, you could:
    • Take a half-hour walk 3 days a week, and 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. Again, you can spread out these 75 minutes any way you like. For example, you could:
    • Run for 25 minutes 3 times a week.
    • Run for 15 minutes 5 times a week.

Children need more activity. Encourage your child (age 6 to 17) to do moderate to vigorous activity at least 1 hour every day.

Here's an easy way to tell if your exercise is moderate: If you can't talk while you're doing the activity, you're working too hard. You're at a moderate level of activity if you can talk but not sing during the activity.

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 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.
Picture of a woman

One Woman's Story:

Kris, 56

"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

Read more about Kris and how she has worked physical activity into her life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about fitness:

Getting fit:

Staying fit:

Health Tools Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Actionsets help people take an active role in managing a health condition. Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.
  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

Interactive tools help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more. Interactive tools are designed to help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more.
  Interactive Tool: Do Your BMI and Waist Size Increase Your Health Risks?
  Interactive Tool: How Many Calories Did You Burn?
  Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?

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.

Fitness benefits everyone. Learn about fitness in children and teens, in older adults, and during pregnancy.

Your health will thank you

The more active you are, the better your heart works. 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. 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?

Picture of an older man

One Man's Story:

Bob, 79

"My doctor said, 'It's about time you lose weight.' That's when I got my bike."— Bob

Read more about Bob and how he became more active.

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?

Being active means allowing your body to "practice" breathing, using your muscles, and stretching. The more practice your body gets, the better it works.

It's important to be active in three areas: aerobic activity, muscle strength, and stretching.

Aerobic activity

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: 2

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.

Another way to see how hard you exercise is to find your target heart rate. As a guideline, use the Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate? and learn to take your pulse .

Stronger muscles

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.
    Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Increasing Core Stability

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 exercises that strengthen muscles include lifting weights and resistance training.

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 (What is a PDF document?) matched to your needs. You can find a way to be active safely.
    Planning to Be More Active When You Have Chronic Disease (What is a PDF document?)

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:

  1. Have your own reason for making a change. Know why it's important to you to meet your goals.
  2. Set goals. Include both long-term and short-term goals.
  3. Think about what might get in your way, and prepare for slip-ups.
  4. Get support from your family, your doctor, your friends—and from yourself.
  5. Measure improvements to your health. For example, keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar.
Picture of a man smiling

One Man's Story:

John, 54

"My mantra is 'Find a way to exercise.' It has made all the difference in my life."— John

Read more about John and how he became more active.

Staying Active

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.

Experts say it takes about 3 months of repetition to form a habit. For some people, even 3 months isn't enough. 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.

Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Making It a Habit

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.
Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Staying Active When You Have Young Children
Click here to view an Actionset. Stress Management: Managing Your Time
Quick Tips: Having Enough Energy to Stay Active
Quick Tips: Staying Active in Cold Weather
Quick Tips: Staying Active in Hot Weather

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.

Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Adding More Activity to Your Life
Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Choosing Activities That Are Right for You
Picture of a woman

One Woman's Story:

Shellie, 39

"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

Read more about Shellie and how she became more active.

Structured fitness

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.
Self-directed fitness

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:

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:

Overcoming barriers

Barriers

Solutions

"I might be too busy."

  • My backup plan will be to break my usual 30-minute walk into two 15-minute walks or three 10-minute walks.
  • I will promise to meet my friend or neighbor every day for a walk.

"I might get bored."

  • I'll listen to music or podcasts while I walk.
  • I'll get my neighbor to walk with me.

"It might rain."

  • I'll buy a good rain jacket.
  • My backup plan will be to use an exercise DVD or a treadmill in front of my TV when the weather's bad.

Use a personal action plan (What is a PDF document?) to write down your barriers and backup plans.

Physical Activity 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.

For more information, see:

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.
    Quick Tips: Staying Active in Hot Weather
  • Overhydration during exercise is unusual, but it is a medical emergency when it happens. You can become overhydrated from drinking too much fluid. This is rare, but it can happen to people who do strenuous exercise for a long time, such as long-distance runners. 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 , such as chest pain and pressure, shortness of breath, and nausea and vomiting.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—Be Active Your Way: A Guide for Adults
P.O. Box 1133
Washington, DC 20013-1133
 
Phone: 1-800-336-4797
(301) 565-4167
Email: info@nhic.org
Web Address: www.health.gov/paguidelines/adultguide/default.aspx
 

The Department of Health and Human Services is the United States government's main agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services. On this National Health Information website you will find a link to "Be Active Your Way: A Guide for Adults." This guide provides the basic information in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. And it gives examples of physical activity to help you get started.


American College of Sports Medicine: Exercise Is Medicine Public Action Guide
American College of Sports Medicine
401 West Michigan Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202-3233
 
Phone: (317) 637-9200, ext. 127 or 133
Email: EIM@acsm.org
Web Address: www.exerciseismedicine.org/public.htm
 

On this American College of Sports Medicine website you will find a link to the "Public Action Guide," a tool for using exercise to help prevent or manage many health problems. The goal of Exercise Is Medicine is to make physical activity and exercise a standard part of disease prevention and treatment in the United States.


American Heart Association (AHA)
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX  75231
Phone: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721)
Web Address: www.heart.org
 

Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Physical Activity
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA  30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
TDD: 1-888-232-6348
Web Address: www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity
 

This website has information about physical activity for all ages, including expert guidelines, overcoming barriers to getting and staying active, health benefits, and more.


Healthfinder.gov: Nutrition and Fitness
P.O. Box 1133
Washington, DC  20013-1133
Phone: 1-800-336-4797
(301) 565-4167
Email: info@nhic.org
Web Address: http://healthfinder.gov
 

HealthierUS.gov provides information on physical activity, diet, disease prevention, and making healthy choices.


Shape Up America!
P.O. Box 15009 Native Dancer Road
North Potomac, MD  20878
Phone: (240) 715-3900
Email: info@shapeup.org
Web Address: www.shapeup.org
 

Shape Up America! is a national coalition of industry and medical experts in nutrition and fitness. Its goals are to make Americans more aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and to provide information about how to lose weight and stay fit. The organization has published several booklets on weight loss and diet, which can be ordered from the Web site.


References

Citations

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2004). Strength training among adults aged 65 or older. MMWR, 53(2): 25–28.
  2. 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.

Other Works Consulted

  • Ainsworth BE, et al. (2011). Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide. Columbia, SC: Prevention Research Center, Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina. Available online: http://prevention.sph.sc.edu/tools/compendium.htm.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2008). Bright Futures: Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children, and Adolescents, 3rd ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • American College of Sports Medicine (2006). Prevention of cold injuries during exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38(11): 2012–2029.
  • American College of Sports Medicine (2007). Exertional heat illness during training and competition. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(3): 556–572.
  • American College of Sports Medicine, et al. (2009). Position stand: Exercise and physical activity for older adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(7): 1510–1530.
  • Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Building muscular strength and endurance. Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 111–137. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Improving flexibility. Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 151–164. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Increasing cardiorespiratory endurance. Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 75–97. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Bravata DM, et al. (2007). Using pedometers to increase physical activity and improve health. JAMA, 298(19): 2296–2304.
  • Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, Council on School Health (2006, reaffirmed 2010). Active healthy living: Prevention of childhood obesity through increased physical activity. Pediatrics, 117(5): 1834–1842.
  • Gahagan S (2011). Overweight and obesity. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 179–188. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Haskell WL, et al. (2007). Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116(9): 1081–1093.
  • Murphy NA, et al. (2008). American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report: Promoting the participation of children with disabilities in sports, recreation, and physical activities. Pediatrics, 121(5): 1057–1061.
  • National Institute on Aging (2009). Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide From the National Institute on Aging. Available online:
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2010). Heat: A major killer. Available online: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/heat/index.shtml.
  • Rice RG and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2008). Medical conditions affecting sports participation. Pediatrics, 121 (4): 841–848.
  • 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.
  • Williams MA, et al. (2007). Resistance exercise in individuals with and without cardiovascular disease: 2007 update: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association Council on Clinical Cardiology and Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism. Circulation, 116(5): 572–584.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Heather Chambliss, PhD - Exercise Science
Last Revised October 25, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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