Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to improve your health. When you increase your physical activity even a little, at any age, disease development and progression are slowed down. Exercise has the potential to reduce your risk for more than 25 chronic conditions, from heart disease to osteoporosis. But fewer and fewer of us are as active as we need to be to stay healthy. Only 5% of Canadian adults get the recommended amount of physical activity (at least 30 minutes, five or more days per week).
Inadequate exercise is an independent risk factor for a host of chronic health problems, especially cardiovascular disease (CVD). People who don’t exercise frequently have twice the risk for cardiovascular disease compared to those who are active. Lack of activity also contributes to the development of several key risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. In fact, the risk to your health from prolonged periods of inactivity is the same as having high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and regularly smoking.
Regular physical activity strongly supports the structure and function of your body, specifically the cardiovascular system. Brisk walking for 30 minutes a day, for example, can reduce your blood pressure by 5% or more, thereby decreasing cardiovascular risk as well. Physical activity also indirectly affects numerous other associated risk factors, including reduced LDL or “bad” cholesterol, better control of blood sugar and lowered blood pressure. Better yet, physical activity has been shown to boost your confidence, improve your ability to cope with stress, lower your heart rate and improve sleep.
It is never too late to get active. Regardless of your age, or the type and intensity of the activity, you can improve your overall health while significantly increasing your quality of life.
How Active Should I Be?
To promote and maintain your health, it is recommended you incorporate periods of at least 10 minutes of activity three times a day, for a total of 30 minutes. Doing more than this will provide even greater health benefits. You can add physical activity to all areas of your life: to chores, errands, your daily commute, and work. If you have multiple chronic conditions, try to be as physically active as your abilities and conditions allow.
What Activity Works Best?
Your body will attain higher levels of fitness if you incorporate three types of activity into your weekly routine: aerobic exercise, weight training, and stretching (or flexibility training).
- Aerobic activities such as walking, running or swimming are the most important for heart health, involving continuous movement of the large muscle groups to increase the strength of your heart and lungs, while also burning fat and building muscle mass.
- Resistance training, such as using weights or exercise bands, builds muscle mass and strengthens bones, while contributing to the health of the cardiovascular system.
- Flexibility or stretching reduces muscle tension and lowers your risk for injury.
Learn how to build your own exercise routine using the three key types of activity.
How Do I Get Started?
When beginning an exercise routine, it is important to start slowly, and then gradually increase the intensity over time. If your exercise program is too easy, you won’t get the desired benefit. If it’s too difficult, you’re likely to get frustrated and quit. Striking the right balance of intensity is key. An exercise program that’s both safe and fun is one you’ll stick with.
What Should I Watch For?
Although exercise is extremely beneficial to your health, you have to be careful not to overdo it. Listen to your body. If you experience any unusual effects, stop exercising and rest until they subside. If symptoms persist, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
If you have had health issues that limit your physical ability, make sure you follow your doctor’s exercise instructions. Seek help if you experience any of the following:
- Pain, discomfort, tightness in the chest, neck, jaw, arms, or other areas
- Shortness of breath at rest or with extremely mild activity
- Dizziness, fainting, or weakness
- Ankle swelling
- Palpitations or abnormal heart rate (feeling that your heart is racing)
- Pain or muscle cramping
- Heart murmur
- Unusual fatigue or shortness of breath with usual activities7
How Can I Keep My Motivation High?
Any increase in physical activity will yield a variety of health benefits. However, you must exercise on a regular basis to both achieve and maintain any real results. Keep in mind that when you stop exercising, the gains you’ve made are quickly lost, typically within a few weeks.
Strive to incorporate activities that fit into your daily life, like cycling or walking to work. The exercise routine you choose is more likely to become a part of your everyday life if it’s something you truly enjoy. Here are more ways to make exercise a normal part of your routine.
- Choose an activity that you enjoy and that fits with your lifestyle.
- Exercise with a buddy or develop a support system with friends and family that will hold you accountable.1
- Set realistic goals or objectives you would like to achieve, and talk openly about them with important people in your life.
- Reward yourself when you have achieved your goals.
- Remember to take note of your progress. Consider the effort rather than the result.
- Keep a Physical Activity Log (pdf). This way you can see your progress and keep track of how you are feeling.
- As your fitness improves, so too will your perceived level of effort. The decreased effort you’ll feel over time is a measure of your improvement.
- Be prepared for lapses. Knowing they will happen can circumvent guilt. Simply return to your routine and keep going.
- Exercise at the same time every day — eventually it will become routine. Choosing an early start time or treating exercise like an “appointment” prevents other commitments from getting in the way.
- Place home exercise equipment in a pleasant and easily accessible location.
Where Can I Get Help Getting Started?
Talk to your doctor about getting active. Use our web resources to help you build your own program, or talk to the experts at these programs and facilities. They can help you get moving and stay active.
Heart Wise Exercise Programs
- 2009 Tracking Heart Disease and Stroke in Canada. Public Health Agency of Canada.
- Knowler WC, Barrett-Connor E. Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with lifestyle intervention or metformin. New England Journal of Medicine. 2002; 346 (6): 393-403.
- Heart and Stroke Foundation
- Statistics Canada
- Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2009
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)