Physical Activity

It’s All About Moving!

I believe that each of us, despite whatever interests or physical limitations we have, can learn to enjoy regular physical activity. The trick is to discover exercise that we enjoy doing, can make time for, and can perform without pain.

Regular physical activity is an efficient way to burn calories. That helps us lose weight and maintain the weight loss. Exercise also has other important benefits. It improves:

  • Bone density and muscle strength
  • Stress management
  • Mental health
  • Sleep patterns
  • Blood glucose control
  • Blood pressure control
  • Blood lipid control (triglycerides, HDLs)
  • Energy level

If you have tried to start an exercise program in the past and have failed, then it is probably time to revisit your approach. The goal of this article is to help you find ways to include regular physical activity in your daily life.

Exercise Goals

For general health and reducing the risk of disease, most public health agencies recommend that individuals engage in moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes a day for 5 or more days a week. To lose weight and keep it off, the National Institute of Health and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend 60 minutes or more of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week. Their detailed booklet, “Aim for a Healthy Weight”, is available free of charge, and serves as a good resource on exercise, nutrition, and weight control.

Use MyNetDiary to help you plan and track your activity. Be sure to take advantage of the section, “My Weekly Exercise Plan,” to plan calorie loss from exercise. For effective weight loss, you can create a calorie deficit by simply decreasing the intake of food calories and increasing calorie burning from exercise. Although you can lose weight simply by eating fewer calories, exercising will help you maintain muscle mass while providing health benefits as well.


There are three general types of physical activities. Ideally, we should include a combination of all three in our exercise program:

Aerobic Activity: Uses large muscle groups that increase use of oxygen. Strengthens the heart and burns lots of calories. Examples of this type of activity include brisk walking, bicycling, running, jogging, and stair climbing.

Resistance Training: Strength training that enables muscles to grow, while also improving bone density, torso strength, and balance. Examples of this type of activity include pushups, weight lifting, sit-ups, and lunges.

Flexibility & Body Conditioning: Muscle stretching and lengthening exercises. Also improves balance, strength, flexibility, and breathing through specific types of movements. Examples include yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and stretching.

To reduce risk of injury, include a 5-minute warm up and cool down for moderate and vigorous intensity exercises. Ideally, stretch gently before — and more actively after — exercising. Abdominal exercises are especially important for those of you with chronic back pain. Please see a physical therapist for exercises to help you learn how to develop “core strength” so that you can do more moderate and vigorous activities with less risk of back pain or pain flare ups.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that men over 40 and women over 50 seek the advice of a physician before starting any exercise program. The AHA also recommends this screening checklist, for those of you with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, arrhythmic heartbeat, pain of any sort, pregnancy, or shortness of breath.

Getting Started

Many people make the mistake of doing too much, too soon. Think of “FIT” to help you make changes in activity level so that you can progress without setbacks:

Frequency: Days per week
Intensity: Exertion, or how hard your body is working
Time: Number of minutes per activity

Try to change one of these factors at a time rather than changing all three at once. This will help reduce your risk of injury as you get started in a more active lifestyle.

Does it matter if you exercise only one day per week for a long period of time versus 5 days a week or more for shorter periods of time? Yes, it does matter. Every time you exercise, your body gets certain health benefits — not just calorie burning. Exercising daily (or most days of the week) will help you manage your blood lipids (cholesterol), blood glucose, blood pressure, stress level, depression, and could help you sleep more soundly. As well, exercising more frequently means that the duration of each session is 30 to 60 minutes — this could reduce the risk of certain overuse injuries with exercise.

If you are fit enough to engage in higher intensity exercise for a longer duration, then you might find a three-day-a-week schedule more manageable, if you are very busy. However, if you are exercising primarily for weight control, note that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Institute of Medicine recommend 60 minutes of DAILY moderate physical activity to achieve a healthful BMI (body mass index).

Intensity of activity is related to oxygen consumption, which is in turn, is related to calorie expenditure. All activities will burn calories, but higher intensity activities will burn more calories per unit of time than will lower intensity exercises. For instance, if I window shop for 1 hour, I will only burn about 150 calories. If I walk briskly and continuously, I will burn about 250 calories. Over the course of one month, I will lose 1 lb more by walking briskly than I would by window shopping.

Moderate-intensity exercise will allow you to carry on a conversation, but will be too exerting to allow you to sing. Your heart rate,, will rise to about 50% - 70% of its maximal rate giving the perception that you are exerting yourself “somewhat hard.” Maximal heart rate can be estimated by subtracting your age in years from 220. For example, if I am 47 years old, then my estimated maximal heart rate is 173 beats per minute (BPM). Moderate-intensity exercise will raise my heart rate to 90 BPM — 120 BPM. If you would like to learn how to take your own pulse, click on this link provided by the Centers for Disease Control.
With vigorous exercise, you might have difficulty talking. Your heart rate will rise to 70% - 85% of its maximal rate giving the perception that you are working “very hard” and have to push yourself to continue. Unless you are very fit and have been exercising regularly, do not jump into a program that requires vigorous-intensity activity. You are more likely to get injured and sidelined than if you simply start with a program of moderate-intensity exercise. See the chart below for examples of exercise at both levels of intensity.

Moderate Intensity Vigorous Intensity
Ballroom dancing Basketball
Bicycling (less than 10 mph) Bicycling (faster than 10 mph)
General gardening/yard work Heavy yard work (e.g. chopping wood)
Golf (with walking and carrying clubs) Jogging/running
Hiking Jumping rope
Tennis (doubles) Swimming
Walking briskly (3.5 mph) Walking very quickly (4.5 mph — just before a jog)
Water aerobics Regular aerobics
Weight lifting (lighter weights) Weight lifting (heavy weights)

Some ordinary chores can actually be quite demanding. Many can be counted as moderate-intensity exercise. These include car washing and waxing, washing windows or floors, pushing a baby stroller, or raking leaves. More vigorous chores include shoveling snow, stair-climbing with heavy loads, and any other work that requires carrying heavy weights while walking or climbing. Chopping wood is an especially good exercise!

It is a common misconception that people think they shouldn't bother with exercise unless they can devote at least 30 consecutive minutes to the task. Not so. All moderate-intensity or higher intensity activities count towards your 30-minute daily goal. If you have time for a 10-minute brisk walk after lunch, then take it and count it towards that 30-minute goal. Many people who work long hours and have long car commutes will want to take advantage of short breaks to do this.

For those of you with pain or joint problems, exercising in 10-minute or 15-minute sessions might be the key to sustaining regular activity most days of the week.

More on Walking

Walking is one of the best exercises for the human body. It does not require specialized equipment other than comfortable walking shoes or sneakers and socks, and, best of all, it's free! Be sure to follow the FIT principle if you are just starting a walking program. For example, start walking 2 days per week at a pace that allows you to talk easily and that lasts for about 10 minutes. Gradually increase frequency, intensity, and duration of activity so that you are eventually able to walk 5 days a week for 30 minutes at a brisk pace (e.g., 3.5 mph for one mile in 15 minutes).

Walking in water is a great way to get exercise if you have joint problems. If you do not live by the beach, then this requires access to a pool. Many pools now have “river walks” — pool areas designed for water walking. For those who cannot swim, these pools provide a great workout.

Getting regular physical activity can be a huge challenge. See the table below for tips on how to overcome those barriers.

Boredom Make exercise social — include friends, family, or neighbors.
Exercise to music or listen to a podcast or books on tape.
Mix up your routine. Walk a couple times, go dancing once a week, or ride your bicycle at other times during the week.


Seek help from a physical therapist for appropriate exercises if you have chronic pain.
Seek help from a certified personal trainer to develop an exercise plan that includes aerobic activity, strength training, and stretching to reduce risk of pain or re-injury.
Be sure to warm up and cool down.

Need for Immediate Reward

Learn to pay attention to how you feel after exercise. Do you feel more calm or relaxed? Are you less likely to get a headache? Do you feel less depressed? More energized?
Notice your body weight — easier to lose weight when you include exercise, isn't it?
Do you notice that your body shape is more attractive?
Noticing these beneficial side effects will motivate you to exercise when you're just not in the mood for it.

Lack of time

This is really about prioritizing how you spend your time. Believing that your health is just as important as money, security, and taking care of others will help you find the time to exercise.

More Online Resources


Closing Notes

Sometimes people are surprised that I consider physical activity as important as a healthy diet to maximize health and reduce risk of disease. Our bodies are meant to move! When we have no physical activity, the most perfect diet in the world will not be enough to maintain health. Please do what you can to include regular physical activity in your daily life. You're worth it.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE
Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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