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Exercise and Physical Activity


Article updated and reviewed by Larry A. Weinrauch, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School on May 2, 2005.


Almost everyone recalls a time when his or her well-being and overall health was better. Few question whether active physical activities are beneficial for children, yet once Americans leave school and become adults there is less time for leisure physical activity. Scientific research continues to demonstrate that regular physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke and improves the quality of life in many other chronic conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer, obesity, metabolic syndrome, arthritis and even depression. Yet, nearly half of all Americans report that they are not active at all.

Whether sustained or intermittent, physical activity has the potential to diminish the risk of coronary artery disease. Physically active people have less than half the risk of coronary heart disease than inactive people. Since the combination of heart attacks and strokes represent the leading killer of men and women in the U.S. each year we can really make a difference in how long we live if we can stay in the “physically active” group. Just think, physical activity has been demonstrated to be as helpful in preventing heart attack and stroke as most medicines. While the risk of cancer makes many of us change our diets, workplaces and lives (and obtain needed mammograms, PAP smears, prostate exam and colonoscopy) the risk of suffering a heart attack or disabling stroke is far more likely than the combination of the total of the next 7 most frequent cancers, at any stage in life.

Physical Activity/Routines

Most people can accomplish some increase in exercise without facing insurmountable problems with finding the time if they accrue the recommended 30-minute minimum from short bouts of activity as they go about their daily lives. Activities like climbing stairs, mowing the lawn, playing actively with children or dancing can confer substantial benefits, as long as these activities are performed with the intensity of a brisk walk (at a rate of three to four miles per hour). Intermittent bouts of physical activity can promote health, even if they are as short as 10 to 15 minutes each. Obviously, people who are out of shape or who suffer from diseases that have limited their exercise previously should start at a low level and ramp up their exercise with the help of their health care team. In some cases it may be necessary to undergo stress testing or evaluation by a physician or healthcare professional trained in evaluation of their exercise capacity. Some simple and safe increases in exercise, however, have little risk and some benefit. These include parking farther from their destination in order to take a brisk walk for those who drive, walking on the golf course rather than always riding a golf cart, walking on the beach or along the bottom of the pool rather than just sunbathing. Loss of weight will also make exercise easier, just as exercise will help in the loss of weight. Unfortunately exercise alone will not decrease the weight but burning off an extra 200 calories per day certainly will not hurt. If you can burn off an extra 500 calories per day, though, you will be on the way to losing a pound a week.

Performing any of the following moderately intensive activities for 10 minutes will expend between 40 and 70 calories:

  • brisk walking
  • cycling at the rate of 10 miles per hour or less
  • swimming (side stroke
  • general calisthenics (arm, leg and abdominal exercises)
  • table tennis
  • pulling a handcart when golfing
  • canoeing leisurely
  • mowing the lawn with a power mower

Ten minutes of the following vigorously intensive activities will expend 70 or more calories:

  • brisk walking uphill or with a load
  • cycling at more than 10 miles per hour
  • swimming (fast treading or crawl)
  • aerobics
  • stair climbing
  • cross-country skiing
  • singles tennis or racquet ball
  • stream fishing
  • canoeing rapidly
  • mowing the lawn with a push mower

Ten minutes of jogging will expend about 100 calories.

Bottom line: The key to physical activity and exercise is to make it a part of your regular routine. Choose a type of exercise that you feel you might enjoy. While baseball might be fun, it takes the commitment of many to keep it up, and it is usually seasonal. Don't feel as if you have to be an athlete. This is fine for some people, but any amount of activity is better than none. With practice, it is possible to incorporate a more active lifestyle into a busy family life and work-related responsibilities. Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. Pick something that you really like to do, and do it more. Most exercises will increase your mobility, your ability and your self-esteem, and if done enough may actually make you live longer and better.


What type of activity do you recommend?

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Are there any precautions of which to be aware before an exercise regimen is started?

Is there anything of which I should be particularly aware, given my current condition?

Editorial review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.