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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.
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.
Experts say your goal should be one, or a combination, of these:
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.
The activities you choose depend on which kind of fitness you want to improve. There are three different kinds of fitness:
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:
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
Read more about Kris and how she has worked physical activity into her life.
Learning about fitness:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
No matter what your size or shape, being active:
Fitness benefits everyone. Learn about fitness in children and teens, in older adults, and during pregnancy.
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:
If you already have any of these problems, staying active may help you to have better control over them, feel better, and live longer.
Being fit includes keeping your muscles, bones, and joints as active and healthy as possible. You can:
Being more active burns calories. That can help you get to and stay at a healthy weight. Getting regular exercise:
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
Read more about Bob and how he became more active.
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.
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: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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Before you increase your activity, take a look at where you are now. Ask yourself these questions:
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:
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:
"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.
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.
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:
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.
"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.
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:
Many people find an activity they enjoy, and then they create their own fitness program. Self-directed fitness gives you:
For this to be effective, you must set up a regular schedule and stay with it.
You can use "everyday" activities for fitness, as long as you do them regularly. This includes:
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(What is a PDF document?) to write down your barriers and backup plans.
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:
For more information, see:
Physical activity is good for your health, but you can hurt yourself if you don't do it right. Always keep safety in mind.
Watch out for these injuries and illnesses as you exercise:
CitationsCenters 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.Other Works ConsultedAinsworth 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 (2011). Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide From the National Institute on Aging. Available online: http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/exercise-physical-activity-your-everyday-guide-national-institute-aging-1.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.
Last Revised: September 26, 2013
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Heather Chambliss, PhD - Exercise Science
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