There are all kinds of reasons why many of us find it hard to start exercising – our day-to-day lives require a lot less physical activity than in our grandparents’ or even parents’ day, most of us own cars and rely on them to get around, and more and more people spend hours sitting in front of computers.
Physical inactivity is an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease – in other words, if you don’t exercise you dramatically increase your risk of dying from a heart attack. Conversely, exercise means a healthier heart because it reduces several cardiovascular risks, including high blood pressure.
Being physically active can bolster good mental health and help you to manage stress, anxiety and even depression.
Regular exercise can help you achieve and maintain an ideal weight, which can be important in managing many health conditions, or may just make you feel happier about your appearance.
All exercise helps strengthen bones and muscles to some degree, but weight-bearing exercise, such as running, is especially good in promoting bone density and protecting against osteoporosis, which affects men as well as women.
Different exercises help with all sorts of health niggles, such as digestion, poor posture and sleeplessness, and physical activity can be beneficial for a range of medical conditions, from diabetes to lower back pain.
How much exercise?
The government recommends that children and young people get one hour of physical activity a day.
This activity should be of at least moderate intensity – in other words, you should work up a bit of a sweat and get slightly out of breath. But if you can manage something a bit more strenuous, then that’s even better.
At least twice a week you should include activities to improve bone health, muscle strength and flexibility. Activities that are ‘weight bearing’ (in other words, where you are on your feet, rather than in water or on a bike) help build strong bones.
Many of the short trips we make by car are ideal for a quick spin on the bike, plus you’ll be helping to protect the environment. A staggering 70 per cent of all car trips are less than five miles. Even though most of us own bikes – there are an estimated 27 million across the UK – we just don’t use them.
Dancing is largely an aerobic activity that improves the condition of the heart and lungs, as well as testing your balance. To dance for any length of time also requires muscular endurance and motor fitness.
Many people think they can’t dance because they have poor coordination, but anyone can dance. The main purpose is to enjoy moving to music, so dancing is suitable for people of all ages, shapes and sizes.
As with most activities, it’s a matter of starting gently and building up to the right level of activity. See if your local college, social club or leisure centre runs classes.
You could play football or racket games, like squash, tennis and badminton which come under the heading of multiple sprint sports, which tax all the energy systems and require a combination of skill, stamina, strength, power and reaction time.
Most of us walk at some point each day but we do it far less than we used to – the government calculates there’s been a decline of more than 20 per cent in the number of miles walked since the mid-1980s.
But walking’s the simplest and cheapest of all exercises, and making it a regular activity and focusing on the intensity or distance covered can greatly increase your fitness.
You could try power walking in the park, for example: the idea is to walk at such a fast pace that it would actually be easier to break into a run. You burn more calories walking at this speed than you would running at the same pace.
- Walk, don’t drive, to the local shop. If you have a lot to carry, take a small rucksack.
- If you have children, walk them to and from school as briskly as you all can manage.
- Get off the bus or train a stop or two early. This will give you some extra daily exercise – and might even reduce your fare.
- Take a walk during your lunch hour. Half an hour’s walk after a meal will cut the amount of fat you store by using it to fuel your exercise.
Running might just be the ultimate way to get fit: it’s cheap, can be done anywhere, at any time and, most importantly, is very effective. There’s really no difference between running and jogging, although jogging is often used to describe running at a slow pace. Whatever you call it, all you need is a good pair of running shoes and a little enthusiasm.
As a high-impact activity, running may maintain or increase bone density, helping to offset osteoporosis. But it can also put more stress on your joints than lower impact activities such as walking and cycling, especially if you’re overweight. Again, if you’re concerned, consult your GP.
As with all exercise, you must warm up first. Start by walking at a brisk pace, then gradually break into a slow jog. Run at a pace at which you can still hold a conversation, but which definitely feels harder than walking. If you’re getting too breathless to talk, slow down or walk for a while until you’re breathing more easily.
Swimming is a great way to tone up and trim down, because to swim you need to move your body against the resistance of the water. Just swimming a few lengths involves most of the major muscle groups, giving your body a good workout. And if you crank up the pace, you’ll get a brilliant aerobic workout, too.
Swimming is also an effective form of fat-burning exercise: because you can swim at your own pace, slowly if you wish, you can keep swimming for long periods, and maintaining your staying power is a vital goal in fat-burning exercise.
The other big advantage is that water supports your weight and takes the stress off your joints, so you can put your body through a good workout without your knees, hips or spine paying the price.
The gym can be a good place to work on overall aerobic fitness and build muscle strength, or just somewhere to exercise on days when you can’t face the cold or the rain.
Gym-based activities include aerobic exercise such as running, rowing or cycling machines, weight training, and classes, such as aerobics or aerobic dance. All ages and fitness levels are catered for and improvements can be measured and exercise programmes tailored to your needs.
Check your instructor is qualified to recognised standards, especially if you’re weight training.
Some gyms can be expensive to join, but council-run facilities often offer a cheaper alternative where you can pay per session.
Page updated: 6 July, 2017