The Exercise Habit


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How much exercise do I need?

Talk to your family doctor about how much exercise is right for you. A good goal for many people is to work up to exercising 5 times a week for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. If 30 to 60 minutes at a time sounds difficult to fit into a busy schedule, you can split up your physical activity into smaller chunks of time. Try exercising for 10 minutes at a time throughout your day. Remember: exercise has so many health benefits that any amount is better than none.

Sneak exercise into your day

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Go for a walk during your coffee break or lunch.
  • Walk part or all of the way to work.
  • Do housework at a brisk pace.
  • Work in your yard or garden.

How do I get started?

First, talk to your family doctor. This is especially important if you haven't been active, if you have any health problems, if you're pregnant, or if you’re an older adult.

Start out slowly and work up to your goal. Begin with a 5- to 10-minute period of light exercise or a brisk walk. Gradually increase the intensity and frequency of your activity.

How can I stick with an exercise program?

The following are some tips that will help you stick with an exercise program:

  • Choose an activity you like to do. Make sure it suits you physically, too. For example, if you have arthritic joints, swimming might be a good option.
  • Get a partner. Exercising with a friend or relative can make it more fun. An exercise partner can offer support and encouragement. Also, you will be less likely to skip a day of exercise if someone else is counting on you.
  • Vary your routine. You are less likely to get bored or injured if you have some variety in your exercise routine. Walk one day. Ride your bicycle the next. Consider activities like dancing and racquet sports, and even chores like vacuuming or mowing the lawn.
  • Choose a comfortable time of day. Don't work out too soon after eating or when it's very hot or cold outside. If you're too stiff to exercise in the morning, wait until later in the day.
  • Don't get discouraged. It can take weeks or months before you notice some of the benefits of exercise, such as weight loss.
  • Forget “no pain, no gain.” While a little soreness is normal after you first start exercising, pain isn't. Take a break if you are in pain or if you are injured.
  • Make exercise fun. Read, listen to music, or watch TV while you ride a stationary bicycle, for example. Find fun activities, like taking a walk through the zoo. Go dancing. Learn how to play a sport you enjoy.

Make exercise a habit

  • Ask your doctor to write a “prescription” for your exercise program that describes what type of exercise to do, how often to exercise, and for how long.
  • Stick to a regular time every day.
  • Sign a contract committing yourself to exercise.
  • Put “exercise appointments” on your calendar.
  • Keep a daily log or diary of your exercise activities.
  • Check your progress. Can you walk a certain distance faster now? Are you at your target heart rate?
  • Think about joining a health club or community center. The cost might give you an incentive to exercise on a regular basis.

How can I prevent injuries?

To avoid injuring yourself during exercise, don’t try to do too much too soon. Start with an activity that is fairly easy for you, such as walking. Do it for a few minutes a day, several times a day. Slowly increase the amount of time and the intensity of the activity. For example, increase your walking time and speed over several weeks.

Start every workout with a warm-up. This will make your muscles and joints more flexible. Spend 5 to 10 minutes doing some light stretching exercises and brisk walking. Do the same thing when you're done exercising until your heart rate returns to normal.

Pay attention to your body. Stop exercising if you feel very out of breath, dizzy, faint, or nauseous, or if you feel pain. Talk with your family doctor if you have questions or think you have injured yourself seriously.

Benefits of regular exercise

  • Reduces your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, and obesity
  • Keeps joints, tendons, and ligaments flexible, which makes it easier to move around
  • Reduces some effects of aging, especially the discomfort of osteoarthritis
  • Contributes to mental well-being
  • Helps relieve depression, stress, and anxiety
  • Increases your energy and endurance
  • Helps you sleep better
  • Helps you maintain a normal weight by increasing your metabolism (the rate you burn calories)

What is a target heart rate?

Measuring your heart rate (beats per minute) can tell you how hard your heart is working during an activity. You can check your heart rate by lightly pressing the tips of your first 2 fingers on the inside of your wrist to take your pulse. Count your pulse for 15 seconds, and multiply the number of beats by 4. To time the 15 seconds, use the timer function on your smartphone or a watch or clock with a second hand.

Most people will get the greatest benefit and lower their risks if they keep their heart rate between 50% and 85% of their maximum heart rate when exercising. To figure out your maximum heart rate, subtract your age (in years) from 220. This number is your maximum heart rate. To figure out your target heart rate range, multiply that number by 0.50 and 0.85.

For example, if you are 40 years of age, subtract 40 from 220 to get your maximum heart rate of 180 beats per minute (220 - 40 = 180). Then, multiply 180 by 0.50 and 0.85 to get your target heart rate range of 90 to 153 beats per minute (180 x 0.50 = 90 and 180 x 0.85 = 153).

When you first start an exercise program, aim for the lower end of your target heart rate range. As your exercise program progresses, you can gradually build up to a higher target heart rate.

If you are taking medicine to treat high blood pressure or you have a heart condition, talk to your family doctor to find out what your target heart rate should be.

What is aerobic exercise?

Aerobic exercise is the type that moves large muscle groups. It causes you to breathe more deeply and makes your heart work harder to pump blood. It is also called “cardio exercise.” It improves the health of your heart and lungs.

Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, hiking, running, aerobic dance, biking, rowing, swimming, and cross-country skiing.

What is weight-bearing exercise?

The term “weight-bearing” is used to describe exercises that work against the force of gravity. Weight-bearing exercise is important for building strong bones. Having strong bones helps prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures later in life.

Examples of weight-bearing exercise include walking, yoga, hiking, climbing stairs, playing tennis, dancing, and strength training.

What is strength training?

Strength training builds strength and muscles. It is also called “weight training.” Lifting weights is a strength-training exercise. Exercise machines can provide strength training. Push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and leg squats are also strength-training exercises. If you have high blood pressure or other health problems, talk to your family doctor before beginning strength training.  

What is the best type of exercise?

The best type of exercise is one that you will do on a regular basis. Walking is considered one of the best choices because it's easy, safe, and inexpensive. Brisk walking can burn as many calories as running, but it is less likely to cause injuries than running or jogging. Walking doesn't require training or special equipment, except for appropriate shoes. In addition, walking is an aerobic and weight-bearing exercise, so it is good for your heart and helps prevent osteoporosis.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 12/14
Created: 01/96

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