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Basics of keeping fit for a healthy body

by Duke University Medicine

One of the most important things people can do for their health is to engage in regular physical activity. A life that includes exercise is one with less likelihood of serious physical and mental ailments. The benefits are wide-ranging, from stronger bones, greater lung power, and a healthier heart to a lower cancer risk, a sharper brain, and a happier spirit.

Unfortunately, not everyone is active enough to reap these rewards. But a reasonably modest change in behavior can make a big difference, bringing benefits within reach. Most of us could improve our health significantly by making room in our lives for a half-hour of exercise most days of the week. And the exercise doesn't have to be intense—it can be a simple 30-minute walk at a moderate pace.

Why is physical activity important?

Studies show that people who stay physically active enjoy a higher quality of life overall than those with sedentary lifestyles and reap numerous benefits that include:

  • Stronger ability to stave off illnesses such as diabetes
  • Quicker recovery from illnesses, injuries, and surgeries—and a more positive outlook during recovery
  • Reduced risk of many cancers, including breast and colon cancer
  • Improved overall cardiovascular health due to increased strength and resiliency in the heart muscle, arteries, and blood vessels
  • Higher levels of high-density lipoproteins ("good cholesterol")
  • More efficient metabolism
  • Decreased depression, anxiety, and stress
  • Improved mental ability. Studies suggest that people who start exercising in their 60s can significantly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's in their 70s; the risk drops even further if they start exercising in their 40s or 50s
  • Improved confidence and a feeling of independence

What types of exercise—and how much of them—does my body need?

There are three primary categories of exercise:

  • Activities that promote cardiovascular health (aerobic)
  • Activities that build strength
  • Activities that increase flexibility and balance

Which activities you should perform, and how often and with what intensity, depend upon your medical issues, overall health, goals, and even your age. Everyone needs to take care of the heart, so aerobic exercise of some kind is good for all ages. And maintaining strength in other muscles is an important safeguard against injury throughout life. The physical abilities in the third category, flexibility and balance, are ones we often take for granted in young adulthood—we don't seem to have to work on them consciously. Later in life, as the joints tend to stiffen and the possible consequences of falling become more dire, it is important to practice movements that make your body supple and steady.

For people under 65
1. Cardiovascular exercise
Moderate level (walking, swimming, running, or biking, for example, at a pace that makes you break a sweat but still allows you to have a conversation) for 30 minutes, five days a week
OR
Intense level (walking, swimming, running, or biking, for example, at a faster pace) for 20 minutes, three days a week

2. Strength-building exercise (lunges, heel lifts, curls, presses, and shrugs, for example, using leg and arm weights)
Moderate level (eight to 10 exercises, each one repeated eight to 12 times, using light weights) two nonconsecutive days a week
OR
Intense level (more repetitions of each movement, using heavier weights) two nonconsecutive days a week

For people 65 and older
1. Cardiovascular exercise
Moderate level (walking, gardening, or housework, for example, at a pace that is demanding but still allows you to converse—a level 6 on a scale of 10) for 30 minutes, five days a week
OR
Intense level (tennis, dancing, or speed or hill walking, for example) for 20 minutes, three days a week

2. Strength-building exercise (lunges, heel lifts, curls, presses, and shrugs, for example, using leg and arm weights)
Moderate exercise (eight to 10 exercises, each one repeated 10-15 times, using light weights) two or three days a week

3. Balance and flexibility
Exercises such as reaching up, twisting your upper body, standing on one foot, and rolling your neck and shoulders. It's important to do these exercises slowly and gently. They can be done at any time, but it's good idea to do some stretching every day. Balance-promoting activities are especially important for people prone to falls.

Create a plan for physical activity
Seniors and people suffering from chronic health conditions should work with their healthcare providers to develop a plan that will minimize risks and meet their individual needs.