Simple Ways to Step Up Physical Activity

It’s possible for people of all ages, abilities, shapes, and sizes to increase physical activity—really!


Just one in five women and one in four men in the U.S. meets the recommended Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (see Physical Activity Guidelines box below). That means most of us are missing out on the many health benefits of being physically active.

Every Bit Counts: According to Roger Fielding, PhD, senior scientist of the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology, and Sarcopenia Team, even small bouts of activity have health benefits. A study conducted in Sweden found that adding 30 minutes per day of light-intensity physical activity—like household chores, walking, or even standing—was associated with a 24 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease after 15 years. Higher intensity activity (like a brisk walk for 10 minutes a day) was associated with a 38 percent lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease. “Almost any activity counts,” says Fielding. “Don’t discount the housework or gardening you’re doing, for example—it may be lighter than jogging, but it’s certainly better than sitting.”

Set a Goal: Set small, achievable, time-bound, realistic goals. For example, if you already walk, run, or bike regularly, you may set a goal to add 20 minutes of resistance training twice a week. If you are mostly sedentary, you may aim to accumulate 30 minutes of walking a day by the end of the month. Once you achieve your goal, aim to increase intensity by adding a hill or quickening your pace. Move throughout each day, but be specific as to what times on which days you’ll be particularly active. Include a plan for inclement weather, and for how you’ll make up missed days (and be kind to yourself) when life gets in the way.

Keep track of your progress in a journal or with an app. For additional motivation, enjoyment, and accountability, Fielding suggests looking for a workout buddy. Listening to music, audio books, or podcasts can also make activity more enjoyable.

Focus on Health: Physical activity can improve metabolism, sleep, mood, muscle strength, and immunity, with or without weight loss. Activity can also reduce harmful visceral fat (fat around the intestinal organs) without measurable change in body weight. Weight may even go up due to increases in muscle mass. So, think of exercise as a health tool, not a weight loss tool.

Get Creative: “People have always had to think about ways to make physical activity a part of their lives,” says Fielding. “These days they may need to be even more creative and make modifications.” Walking, jogging, biking, and tennis are safe, socially distant activity options. Speed clean the bathroom, ride a stationary bike during a conference call, find free online yoga videos, or do bicep curls with canned beans or jugs of water. Walk laps around the house, climb up and down the stairs, and take advantage of the wide range of apps—free and fee-based—that are available to guide, track, and motivate activity.

However you choose to get moving, the best activities are those you’ll enjoy and do consistently, so look for ways—traditional or outside of the box—to make this the year you step it up!

Physical Activity Guidelines

For full health benefits, adults should aim for:

  • For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensitya, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensityb aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.
  • Adults should also include muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.
  • Moderate-intensity physical activity: Aerobic activity that increases a person’s heart rate and breathing to some extent.
  • Vigorous-intensity physical activity: Aerobic activity that greatly increases a person’s heart rate and breathing.
  • Muscle-strengthening activity: Physical activity, including exercise that increases skeletal muscle strength, power, endurance, and mass. It includes strength training, resistance training, and muscular strength and endurance exercises.

Source: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition

Take Charge!

Try these tips to make this the year you improve your health with more physical activity:

Make a plan: Decide what you want to achieve, and why. Have contingency plans for bad weather and life’s little interruptions.

Set realistic goals: Meet yourself where you are, and set goals that move you (slowly and incrementally) toward your planned achievement.

Add on: Increase activity incrementally over whatever you are doing now. Small periods of activity have health benefits too, so take 10 and get moving.

Get creative: Climb the stairs, take a walk (outside, on a treadmill, or around the house) during a meeting or call. Lift household objects.


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