What is exercise?
Exercise is any planned, structured and repetitive activity that works your body at a greater intensity than your usual level of daily movement. This means that when you exercise, such as play a team sport, jog, run or dance it raises your heart rate and works your muscles and this helps improve and maintain your physical fitness.
Why is exercise important?
Keeping physically active in our day to day lives is of course important but by adding some form of exercise to our routine we can achieve even greater benefits. That’s because exercise helps maintain body composition, keeps our bones strong, our muscles flexible and supports our cardio and respiratory fitness.
As we age, exercise helps prevent or reduce the risk of disease, lowers our chance of a fall, improves our mobility and keeps us able to do everyday tasks. For all ages, exercise improves mental well-being, strengthens social connections and improves how our brain’s work.
Discover our full range of health benefit guides including 10 benefits of walking and how to work out at home.
What are the different types of exercise and their benefits?
There are four main types of exercise, typically when we choose an exercise we focus on one type but by combining all four we can relieve boredom, reduce our risk of injury and build our all-round stamina, strength and mobility.
Typically described as ‘aerobic’, this activity improves our staying power, makes our breathing and heart rate more efficient and as a consequence benefits the heart, lungs and circulation. This form of exercise involves the movement of our large muscles such as those in our arms and legs, examples include brisk walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, tennis and cycling.
Also referred to as ‘resistance’ training, this activity maintains and develops muscle strength, it helps make every day activities like climbing the stairs or carrying heavy loads easier. Strength based exercise improves our balance and body composition, helping us maintain muscle and keep our bones strong. Performed using your own body weight, hand weights or resistance bands, the ideal is to exercise all major muscle groups at least twice per week. Examples include carrying heavy shopping bags, gripping a tennis ball, bicep curls, squats, sit ups and push ups.
Often overlooked maintaining, our balance is important as we age, lower body strength exercises like squats can help as well as tai chi, yoga, and simple movements such as balancing on one foot or repeatedly standing up from a seated position.
Stretching and flexibility
Over time our muscles shorten and tighten which means they don’t function as well, this can lead to muscle strains and tightness. Stretching muscles helps to keep them long and improves their range of motion, it also reduces the likelihood of injury. Moving more freely makes everyday tasks like tying your shoe lace or reaching a high shelf easier – in order to build flexibility try yoga or pilates.
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How much exercise should I do each day?
In order to stay healthy, the UK Government recommends that adults aim to be active every day, doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over the week, this can be achieved in a number of ways, including exercise. This weekly total can be broken down into shorter durations of say 20-30 minutes each day.
The intensity of the activity you choose can vary. Moderate-intensity activity, like brisk walking or cycling can make up the 150 minutes, alternatively you could choose 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, like running, or shorter durations of very vigorous intensity activity, such as sprinting or stair climbing or any combination of these.
On at least two days of the week guidelines suggest you also include strengthening activities such as resistance training or carrying heavy loads, this helps you develop or maintain strength in the major muscle groups and supports your bone health.
Check out the guidelines specific for your age group.
How do I know what intensity of exercise I am doing?
When you’re exercising try talking at the same time, if you’re breathing hard but can still have a conversation, this is moderate intensity – if you can only say a few words before taking your next breath, this is vigorous intensity.
What are the easiest ways to incorporate more exercise into my day?
Making exercise a habit is key to good health, pick a sport or activity you particularly enjoy, put a date in your diary and stick to it and find yourself a fitness buddy to improve your accountability. In addition to this, here are some practical ways to build more exercise into your day:
1. Take the stairs, not the lift
2. Walk to work or get off the bus one stop earlier
3. Put shopping in a basket not trolley
4. Introduce an extra brisk walk or jog, for example during your lunchbreak
5. Join a dance club or put your favourite playlist on and dance in your kitchen
6. Join a rambler’s group
7. Take up a new sport such as golf, badminton or tennis
8. Add a yoga or pilates class to your week
9. Join a team such as 5-a-side football, basketball or hockey
10. Subscribe to an online fitness platform or use workout videos
A word about…
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy we use when we are not sleeping, eating or doing structured exercise. It refers to the physical activity we do in our day to day lives like walking to work, cleaning the house, gardening and even fidgeting. These activities still have the ability to increase our calorie-burning potential so although they are not formal or structured they shouldn’t be overlooked because their cumulative effect can be very valuable.
Is exercise safe for everyone?
If you’re new to exercise speak with your GP or healthcare practitioner to ensure the exercise you propose is appropriate for you. This is especially relevant if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, an existing muscle injury, arthritis or joint issues and if you’re on prescribed medication or are pregnant.
When you do start exercising, start slowly – allow time to warm up and cool down with a gentle walk or stretching exercises at each session. When exercising you’re aiming for a pace you can continue without getting overly tired; as your stamina and strength improves you can gradually increase the amount of time you exercise and the intensity.
If you are new to exercise speak to your GP before starting to ensure your chosen activity is appropriate for you.
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Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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