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Healthy or fit?

The type, amount, and intensity of the activities you choose depend upon whether your goal is basic good health (a reduced risk of chronic illness) or "fitness" (strong, toned muscles and flexible joints as well as the aerobic conditioning needed to be healthy).

Getting healthy

Aerobic exercise protects you from illness in several ways. It reduces the risk of diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It also promotes weight loss, decreased blood pressure, a healthy ratio of "good" to "bad" cholesterol, lower triglyceride counts, and improved glucose tolerance.

Data from Duke University's "Studies of a Targeted Risk Reduction Intervention Through Defined Exercise" showed that a modest amount of moderate exercise—as opposed to a large amount of vigorous activity—is the best way to significantly lower the level of triglycerides, which are a key blood marker linked to higher risk of heart disease and diabetes.

STRRIDE also showed that as little as two weeks of inactivity raises a number of risk factors for heart disease, from weight gain to elevated cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

To be healthy, you should get moderate aerobic exercise for a total of 30 minutes most days of the week, according to the U.S. surgeon general. Aerobic exercise is activity such as walking, swimming, or biking that builds your heart and lung power.

Increasing the intensity and frequency of your exercise will increase the health benefits.

Getting fit

Exercising for fitness means that in addition to conditioning the heart, lungs, and circulatory system, you work all the major muscles of the body. The goals are to build strength and endurance, so that you can lift heavier objects as well as using the muscles for longer periods of time before they get too fatigued. You also work on flexibility, making sure that your joints can move and your body doesn't stiffen up.

To achieve the overall objective of fitness—being strong, supple, and healthy—the following types and minimal amounts of exercise are recommended:

  • Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for a total of 30 minutes at least three days a week
  • Eight to 10 different strength-building activities that work all the major muscle groups, two to three times a week
  • Stretching of the major muscle groups at least five minutes after each exercise session, when the body temperature and muscles are warm