Exercise is defined as a type of movement that is intentional, structured, and habitual. (6) There are four different types of exercise – aerobic, strength, flexibility, and stability. The health benefits of exercise are broad and include improving mental, cardiovascular, and structural well-being. Research has also shown that regular exercise protects against many chronic conditions, excessive weight gain, and obesity. Engaging in regular exercise is arguably one of the best approaches to improve your health and increase longevity. (33)(27)
Types of exercise
Most experts recommend engaging in a combination of each type of exercise for maximum benefit. (35)
By definition, aerobic means “requiring oxygen”. During aerobic exercise, the oxygen you inhale is carried to your muscles, providing them with the energy needed to perform. (25) Commonly referred to as cardio exercise, aerobic exercise includes any type of physical activity that can be sustained for an extended period of time and uses large muscle groups. (25) Cycling, dancing, hiking, running at a moderate pace, swimming, and walking are all types of aerobic exercise.
Strength training, also commonly referred to as resistance or weight training, is a form of anaerobic exercise, a type of physical activity that involves the breakdown of glucose (sugar) for energy without the need for oxygen. (25) Strength training aims to build and maintain muscle tissue through the use of bodyweight or external resistance, such as free weights or weight machines. Weight training can be used to strengthen major muscle groups, such as the legs, back, glutes, chest, shoulders, arms, and abdomen. (11)(35)
Flexibility defines the range of motion of your joints and the mobility of your muscles. Having adequate flexibility is important not only for athletic performance but also for daily functional ability and injury prevention. (31)
The two most common types of stretching are static and dynamic stretching. Static stretching involves holding a stretch of a targeted muscle for a period of time. In contrast, dynamic stretching is characterized by active stretches that typically mimic an exercise about to be performed. (28) Both types of stretching effectively increase flexibility and improve athletic performance. Dynamic stretching is generally recommended before engaging in physical activity to better warm-up muscles, whereas static stretching is typically done following a workout when muscles are more limber. (28)(18)
Stability and balance exercises often involve slow, controlled movements that engage and strengthen core muscles, which include the muscles in your abdomen, back, and pelvis. Engaging these muscle groups through stability exercises benefits all age groups and can improve a person’s ability to carry out everyday activities, such as lifting heavy objects, climbing stairs, or standing up from a chair. This type of fitness is sometimes referred to as functional fitness. (35)
Weak core muscles may lead to instability, poor posture, and decreased athletic performance. (13) To strengthen core muscles and improve stability, regularly include exercises in your routine that engage multiple muscle groups. Examples include glute bridges, planks, and push-ups. Pilates is also a popular form of exercise for improving stability and core strength. Participating in exercises that challenge your balance, such as standing on one leg or walking backward, are also beneficial for improving balance and stability. (35)
Health benefits of exercise
Research has examined the many benefits of following a regular exercise routine, including improved cardiometabolic health, stronger bones and muscles, and enhanced mood.
Improves cardiometabolic health
Regular resistance training may aid in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes due to its ability to reduce visceral fat, a type of fat stored in the abdomen near vital organs. Decreased visceral fat also improves insulin sensitivity and lowers HbA1c, an indicator of blood sugar management. (38)
Aerobic training may improve cardiovascular health by encouraging the delivery of oxygen throughout the body, reducing inflammation, and dilating blood vessels. (26) Exercise may also reduce blood pressure and decrease low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, all of which are contributing factors to the development of cardiovascular disease. (36)
Promotes bone and joint health
Aerobic exercise and resistance training preserves existing bone mass and stimulates bone growth. (3) Weight-bearing exercise has also been shown to maintain or improve bone mineral density in older adults. (1)(20) Additionally, regular exercise may help people with osteoarthritis and other joint conditions by easing pain and improving joint function. (2)
Engaging in weight-bearing exercise is especially important for young children with developing bones. Certain aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises can be considered bone-strengthening exercises. Running, jumping rope, tennis, and hopscotch are all examples since they produce a force on the bones upon hitting the ground. This force promotes muscle strength and bone growth. (35) Multiple studies have discredited the theory that strength training interferes with a child’s growth and development. (22) According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, strength training is safe for adolescents and children who have developed balance and postural control skills, which typically occurs around age eight. It is recommended that children and adolescents learn proper safety, limit resistance, and avoid powerlifting and bodybuilding until they’ve reached physical maturity. (5)
Increases muscle mass and strength
Beginning in adulthood, muscle mass slowly declines. This is known as sarcopenia. Sedentary adults are at a greater risk of accelerated muscle mass loss and may experience a loss of up to three to eight percent per decade. (36)
The good news is that it’s never too late to start an exercise program to maintain or increase your muscle mass. Strength training is an effective strategy for building muscle mass and strength at any age. (19) A systematic review of 58 randomized controlled trials determined that resistance training improves muscular strength, gait speed, and overall physical performance in older individuals. (15)
Increased muscle mass is also associated with improved longevity. One study found that adults with more muscle mass were more likely to live longer than people with lower muscle mass. (30)
May boost mood
Participating in an exercise routine can have lasting positive effects on your mental health. (29) One study showed that engaging in aerobic exercise, such as cycling or running, for at least 15 to 30 minutes three times per week, reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. (10) Exercise also helps improve confidence and self-esteem in children and adults. (9)(8) Furthermore, engaging in regular exercise may increase emotional resilience and improve how you respond to stress. (4)
Aids in weight management
All forms of physical activity burn calories. As a result, exercise is a common strategy used for weight loss and weight management. Extensive scientific evidence shows that physical activity helps people maintain their weight and can reduce the risk of excessive weight gain and the incidence of obesity. (32)
A randomized control trial of 82 men and women compared the effects of combining walking and a calorie-restricted diet with a calorie-restricted diet alone. The group that followed a calorie-restricted diet and participated in a walking regimen for 12 weeks lost more weight than the diet-only group. (16)
Increasing muscle mass through exercise boosts your metabolism, the body’s ability to burn calories. (21) Furthermore, vigorous aerobic exercise can increase energy expenditure for several hours afterward. One study of healthy young males found that 45 minutes of vigorous cycling increased energy expenditure for 14 hours post-exercise compared to the rate of energy expenditure following a rest day. (17) High-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves short bursts of intense activity followed by brief recovery periods, has also been shown to increase metabolic rate for several hours post-workout. (37)(7)
Improves mobility and balance
Stability training improves balance by enhancing the neuromuscular control system, a network of neurons and muscles responsible for movement and posture. (14) Engaging in regular stability exercises may also prevent injury, particularly ankle and knee injuries. (12) Stretching before and after physical activity contributes to better mobility and flexibility. (24)
How much exercise do I need?
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This equates to about 30 minutes of exercise five times per week. (34) The table below shows the recommended physical activity guidelines for different age groups.
Beginning an exercise regimen
Are you interested in starting a new exercise routine but not sure where to start? Follow the steps outlined below.
Find your “why”
Finding the motivation to exercise can sometimes be a challenge. The first step is to ask yourself what your motivation is. Maybe it’s to have more energy throughout the day, to complete a 5K race, or to better manage your weight. Whatever it may be, don’t lose sight of your “why”.
Don’t forget to set realistic and achievable goals. Follow the SMART guidelines when setting goals for yourself. (23) The acronym defines five principles that can be used to create goals and yield successful outcomes, which include:
- Specific: what exactly do you want to achieve?
- Measurable: how will you measure progress?
- Attainable: is your goal achievable?
- Realistic: can your goal be achieved with the resources you currently have available?
- Time-related: when do you want to achieve your goal? (23)
No matter your goal, there are resources available to help you reach it, and you don’t necessarily need to have a gym membership to participate. Fitness programs and free classes are widely available online. Keep in mind that walking, jogging, and hiking outdoors are all free activities that you can participate in as well.
Helpful resources to consider when beginning your fitness regimen include:
- Fitness tracking devices (e.g., Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, etc.)
- Gyms and fitness classes
- Mobile apps
- Online workout videos
- Support groups
Consider the potential risks involved when engaging in physical activity. When beginning an exercise regimen, it’s best to ease into a routine. Avoid drastically increasing your activity level over a short period of time in order to reduce the risk of injury to bones, muscles, and joints. (35) Consider consulting your integrative healthcare practitioner before beginning a new exercise routine, particularly if you are a beginner.
The bottom line
Following a consistent exercise routine is one of the most beneficial actions you can take to improve your health and increase your life expectancy. For best results, engage in a combination of aerobic, strength, stability, and flexibility exercises on a regular basis.