Why does fitness matter?
The benefits of exercise include:
- Stronger bones and muscles
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Less risk of diabetes
- Reduced cancer risk
- Help to improve blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels
- Help lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
- Improved sleep
- Help manage and prevent anxiety and depression
The great thing about exercise is that it’s never too soon or too late to start. Fitness can support healthy growth and development in children and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and delay the onset of dementia in older people.
You don’t have to join a gym or spend lots of money on equipment to get fit. Sitting less and moving more is a great way to start, and walking is one of the best forms of exercise for people of all ages.
If you’re new to exercise, or if you have any underlying health issues, check with a qualified health professional before starting any new exercise routine. Always start gently and build up slowly.
How much exercise is enough?
Australian guidelines recommend adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity on most or all days of the week. The children's guidelines recommend children (aged 5–12) accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.
In older Australians, the amount of physical activity depends on age and level of health.
- Any physical activity is better than none, so it’s fine to start with a little and build up.
- Be active on most, preferably all, days each week.
- Aim for 150 to 300 minutes (2.5 to 5 hours) of moderate intensity or 75 to 150 minutes (1.25 to 2.5 hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity each week.
- Do muscle-strengthening (resistance) activities at least twice a week.
Moderate-intensity activities make you breathe harder, but you can still talk while you’re doing the activity (such as brisk walking, dancing, golf, or household jobs like digging the garden or washing windows).
Vigorous-intensity activities make you breath more heavily so you can’t talk as easily (such as cycling uphill, jogging, aerobics, competitive tennis and many organised sports).
Muscle-strengthening activities are designed to make your muscles work harder than they normally would (such as lifting weights, heavy gardening, push-ups and yoga). Muscle strengthening exercises help improve strength, balance, power and endurance and help reduce natural bone loss in older adults
If you’re not used to physical activity, start small and build up. Your aim is to sit less and move more. Sedentary behaviour (too much time spent sitting down) is associated with poorer health outcomes, including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Put the TV remote out of reach and stand up to switch channels.
- Park further away from the shops.
- Take the stairs instead of the lift.
- Stand up when you’re on the phone.
See more tips on building more movement into your daily life.
Do steps count?
Studies have shown that the more you walk, the better it is for your long-term health. One study showed that people who walk more spend less time in hospital. Another Australian study showed that each increase of 1,000 steps a day could reduce the risk of dying prematurely from any cause by 6%.
Walking is a great choice if you’re new to exercise. It’s a low-impact activity, which means it doesn’t place too much strain on your joints. Walkers only have a one to five percent risk of injury, while runners have a 20 to 70% risk. One of the best things about walking is that you can do it almost anywhere and it’s an easy and cheap way to get active.
If you walk for 30 minutes a day, you could lower your risk of heart disease and stroke by 35% and type 2 diabetes by 40%.
If you have no prior injuries, running has many health benefits. But, if you have osteoarthritis in the knees, it’s a good idea to avoid high-intensity weight bearing exercises like running as it can worsen symptoms. Any amount of running, even just once a week, can bring health benefits and reduces the risk of death at any given point in time. Running improves aerobic performance, heart function, balance and even metabolism.
An easy, safe form of exercise for most people, cycling can reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. You can increase the aerobic intensity of cycling by challenging yourself with hill climbs, or take it easy on a gentle ride along a riverbank or through a local park. If you’re a novice cyclist, start in a traffic-free area.
You use nearly all of your muscles when you swim, and your heart has to work hard to pump blood around your whole body. Swimming can boost cardiovascular fitness and avoid high impact on joints.
People with cardiovascular disease who took part in moderate-intensity dancing and walking had lower heart-related mortality rates. Dance involves periods of high-intensity exercise and has the added benefit of social interaction.
This involves switching between quick bursts of vigorous exercise and periods of rest or less intense activity. Interval training can be adapted to all levels of fitness. You could run as fast as you can for a minute or two, then slow to a jog for the same length of time, and if you’re less fit, try walking at maximum speed, then slowing down.
Interval training at high intensities (also known as HIIT) can be better than moderate continuous exercise for improving heart rate variability (HVR) for physically inactive adults. The changes in pace can improve the heart’s muscular function - enhancing its ability to pump blood around the body.
Help your heart
You’re less likely to have a heart attack or develop heart disease if you’re physically active. The best way to help your heart health is to boost your fitness. Your heart is a muscle. If you make it work a little harder you will improve your cardiovascular fitness, which can cut your risk of heart disease by a third.
If you’ve had some time away from exercising, or if you’re new to exercise, talk to your GP or health care professional to make sure your regime is safe and appropriate. This is especially important if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure.
Strengthen your body
Strength training isn’t just for body builders. People of all ages can benefit from having stronger muscles, and even people with arthritis can benefit by preventing or even reversing muscle weakness.
People with more muscle burn more energy (calories) because they have a higher metabolic rate, even when resting.
Australian guidelines recommend muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days a week. A typical training session might take around 20 minutes.
Strength training can help to:
- Manage blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol
- Prevent and control heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- Improve posture, mobility and balance
- Reduce the risk of falls and injury
- Slow down the rate of bone and muscle loss
- Boost your metabolism
- Reduce the strain on joints
Don’t hold your breath while you’re lifting weights, as this can make your blood pressure rise. Lift lighter weights with more repetitions (reps) if you have high blood pressure, and stop immediately if you feel dizzy, experience chest pain or get very out of breath.
Boost your mood
Exercise can be just as effective in treating mild-to-moderate depression as medication, without the sometimes negative side effects of medication. People who take regular exercise are less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression than people who don’t exercise.
Natural light is known to help lift people's moods. Heading outside can help you feel better and give you a daily dose of vitamin D, which may also help protect you from depression.
Research has shown that walking outdoors surrounded by greenery, for as little as five minutes, can improve your mood. It’s called ‘green exercise’. If you prefer to exercise in the gym, add sounds and images from nature to improve your chances of lowering your stress levels.
Exercise with friends
There are plenty of good reasons to exercise with a friend. You’re more likely to stay motivated and less likely to get bored. Even better, you can have a laugh while you’re exercising. Laughter can boost your immune system, lower your anxiety and release tension.
If you want to boost your mood, it really doesn’t matter which exercise routine you choose. The more you like doing something, the more you’ll do it and the better you’ll feel. Walk, swim, cycle, lift weights or throw yourself into any physical activity you love – all of them can give you a lift and reduce symptoms of depression.
Lasting benefits of dance
Dancing once a week can improve your mental health, and it doesn’t matter how old you are. Similar results were found for teenagers and seniors, and in one study the benefits lasted up to eight months after classes finished.
Strength training can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Even if you don’t build muscle, resistance training can still boost your mental health. Work with what you’ve been given naturally, with these bodyweight exercises.
You can learn more about strategies for positive mental health on our Mental Health page.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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