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Educator Robert M. Hutchins once said: "Whenever I feel like exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes." Comedienne Ellen DeGeneres opined: "I really don't think I need buns of steel. I'd be happy with buns of cinnamon." When asked her opinion on fitness, entertainment legend, Cher, quipped: "If it came in a bottle, everybody would have a great body."
It is generally accepted that physical activity is crucial to health and wellness, but ask the average person about his exercise habits, and you are likely to get some sort of humorous response or excuse about how hard it is. Conflicting messages in the media and society about the importance of exercise and how much we really need is a de-motivator for many people.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the first comprehensive guidelines on physical activity ever to be issued by the federal government. Developed by leading experts in the field of exercise science and public health, 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans offers guidance on the types and amounts of physical activity that provide substantial health benefits. Having such a set of guidelines helps to reduce the confusion and the question of who should exercise and how much.
The benefits of adequate physical activity include prevention of weight gain, weight loss when combined with diet, improved cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, reduced depression and better cognitive function. Exercise also can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol issues, metabolic syndrome and colon and breast cancers.
To achieve these benefits, adults should get at least two and a half hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. The total duration of activity recommended decreases if the activity is of a higher intensity. You can spread this time throughout the week, but at a minimum, you should be active at least 10 minutes each time you exercise.
Moderate aerobic exercise includes walking briskly (at least three miles per hour), water aerobics, bicycling (slower than 10 miles per hour), doubles tennis, ballroom dancing and gardening. Vigorous activity includes jogging, running, swimming laps, aerobic dancing, bicycling (10 miles per hour or faster), jumping rope, heavy gardening and hiking. A general rule of thumb is that one minute of vigorous activity counts as two minutes of moderate exercise.
You physical activity also should include muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups (legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulders and arms) performed on two or more days per week. There is no real recommendation for how long to do strength exercises, but the general thought is to do them to the point that it would be difficult to do another repetition without help.
If you are over age 65, the guidelines recommend you also include balance training in your routine. These exercises, such as backward and sideways walking, heel walking, toe walking, standing from a sitting position, yoga and tai chi, can reduce the risk of falls, which are a leading cause of disability in older adults. People with disabilities or chronic diseases should follow the same guidelines as all adults, but if this isn't possible, they should be as active as their abilities allow.
These recommendations should be seen as the minimum. If you increase your activity above this baseline, you will see additional and more extensive health benefits.
But you can't go instantly from zero to hero. If you are relatively inactive today, it may be unsafe to try to take on too much new activity too fast. Instead, work gradually toward these goals. Start with light to moderate activity, for short periods at a time and spread throughout the week. Then, gradually increase your activity over a period of weeks to months.
The next time someone offers you a witty excuse for why they don't exercise, you can call on the words of 19th century British Prime Minister, Edward Stanley, who said: "Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness."