Trailer for The Weight of the Nation
What is Physical Activity?
Physical activity is any body movement that increases your heart beat, causes you to breathe harder, and requires more energy than you use while resting. Exercise is any structured physical activity you do specifically to improve health or fitness.
What are the Benefits of Physical Activity?18
Practically all people, including older Americans and people with disabilities or health problems, can benefit from being physically active. In general, the benefits far outweigh the risks and can be achieved with as little as 75 minutes of physical activity each week, but more is even better.
In children and adolescents, regular physical activity can lead to:
- Healthier body weight
- Improved heart, lung, and blood vessel function
- Stronger bones and muscles
- Improved mental well-being
In adults, regular physical activity can lead to all of the above as well as:
- Lower risk of dying early from any cause
- Lower risk of developing diseases like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and colon and breast cancer
- Help support weight loss and prevent weight gain
- Prevent falls and reduce the risk of breaking a hip
- Make it easier to perform daily activities
- Improve mental function
- Improve sleep
What Types of Physical Activity are Important?
There are three main types of physical activity that improve your health: aerobic activity, muscle-strengthening activity, and bone-strengthening activity. Many activities fit into more than one of these categories.
Aerobic activity is also called "endurance activity" or "cardio." It includes activity where you move your large muscles (arms and legs), increase your heart beat, and breathe harder. Aerobic activities make your heart and cardiovascular system stronger.
Examples: brisk walking, running, bicycling, jumping rope, and swimming
Muscle-strengthening activity includes any physical activity that pushes your muscles and makes them stronger.
Examples: lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push-ups or sit-ups, heavy gardening (i.e., digging, shoveling), and some forms of yoga
Bone-strengthening activity is any physical activity that puts stress on the bones and makes them stronger. These activities can also be aerobic and muscle-strengthening.
Examples: brisk walking, jumping jacks, running, and lifting weights
How Hard Should I Push Myself?
When you think about physical activity, it's important to consider "intensity," or how hard you're pushing your body.
One way to think about intensity is to ask how much your heart rate and breathing increase. Checking your pulse can help you measure changes in your heart rate. The CDC provides information about how to measure your heart rate and how to understand your measurement here.
You can also rate intensity of an activity on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is sitting and 10 is working as hard as you can. The same activity might have different levels of intensity for different people. For example, brisk walking might be a light or moderate activity for someone who is already active, but more intense and considered a vigorous activity for someone who is just getting started with a physical activity routine.
Another way to think about intensity is to consider the amount of energy (calories) used by the body. Different types of activities burn different amounts of calories. Your body weight affects how many calories you burn.
|Calories / 30 minutes of activity15||150 lb. adult||200 lb. adult|
|Running (5 MPH)||300||375|
|Walking (3.5 MPH)||150||190|
The terms "moderate" and "vigorous" activity describe the intensity of exercise. Activities that are moderate-vigorous do the most to improve your health.
- Any physical activity that raises your heart rate and causes you to break a sweat.
- You should be able to talk while doing a moderate intensity activity.
- On a 10-point intensity scale, this is a 5 or 6.
Examples: brisk walking, water aerobics, riding a bike on level ground or with few hills, playing doubles tennis, or pushing a lawn mower
- Any physical activity that increases your heart rate even higher and causes you to breathe hard.
- At this level, you won't be able to say more than a few words without taking a breath.
- On a 10-point intensity scale, this is a 7 or 8.
Examples: jogging or running, swimming laps, riding a bike fast or on hills, playing singles tennis, or playing basketball
What are the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans?
The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans are recommendations for people ages 6 years and older. They were developed by scientists and other experts to help Americans improve their health. The guidelines are different for adults and children:
Adults should be as active as they can. Some activity is always better than none. For health benefits, adults should try to do moderate intensity aerobic activity for at least two and a half hours each week.
- This means an average of 30 minutes, 5 days a week. You can choose to spread out activity over the week in whatever way works best for you.
- If you choose to do vigorous-intensity physical activities, the recommendation is to get 75 minutes of activity each week.
- You can also choose to do a mix of moderate and vigorous activity.
- Adults should also try to do muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days each week.
More activity can lead to even more benefits. In fact, there is no known "ceiling" for the benefits of increasing physical activity. You can find more information on these recommendations in the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Children and Adolescents:
For children and adolescents, physical activity should add up to 60 minutes or more each day. Most of this should be moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Each week should also include:
- Three days of vigorous-intensity physical activity, like soccer, basketball, running, or swimming
- Three days of muscle and bone-strengthening activities, like gymnastics or climbing on a jungle gym
How Can I Keep Myself on Track?
Finding physical activities you enjoy is an important first step to getting more active and sticking with it. You don't need to run or go to a gym to be active! An exercise partner can help you stay active by making exercise more fun and encouraging you to stick to your routine. Research suggests people may be more successful losing weight through exercise when they have buddies or support partners59.
Tracking your physical activity can also help you achieve goals and motivate you to continue challenging yourself. The following is a list of tools you can use to monitor your physical activity.
For adults who like to walk, pedometers can be used to measure the number of steps taken. One recent study showed that those who wear pedometers take more steps than those who do not. Using a pedometer can help you:
- Measure how many steps you take now
- Set a goal to increase the number of steps you take per day
- Increase your steps by 250-500 per day until you reach your goal
A great goal for adults is 8,500 steps a day, and for kids, 12,000 steps a day54. Whatever goal you set, there are always benefits to increasing your daily steps.
Physical Activity Journal:Use a physical activity journal to:
- Write down your physical activity or exercise goals
- Track your daily physical activity
- Measure whether you have achieved your goals
- Here is an example of an online journal
There are a lot of new tools that can help you track your progress. The free, online SuperTracker tool is designed to support adults who are trying to follow the 2008 Physical Activity Recommendations. It offers ideas on how to vary your activity, enables you to set personal goals, and helps you track your progress. There are lots of other new online tools, like and RunKeeper, GymPact, or the Every Body Walk! mobile app that can also help you monitor your progress and stay motivated.
What is Active Transport?
One great way to increase your physical activity is to find active ways to get to work, to school, to the store, or to any other place you go. Using "active transport" instead of driving can increase your activity levels, and may also reduce your commuting costs and help the environment.
Here are some ways to use active transport to your advantage:
- Walk or bicycle to work
- Walk or bicycle with your children to school
- Get off the subway or bus early and walk the remainder of the way
- Run errands without your car—go to the post office, grocery, or bank on foot or bike
How Does the Built Environment Affect Physical Activity?
The "built environment" – that is, the places where we live, work, and play – has an important impact on our physical activity levels. It includes things like homes, buildings, streets, sidewalks, and open spaces and parks.
In some communities, particularly low-income neighborhoods, the built environment may not support physical activity. For example, a lack of safe parks, athletic facilities, or sidewalks can make it difficult for children and adults to be physically active. To help make your environment more physical activity-friendly, here are some tips and resources.