Exercise for Optimal Health

What is exercise?

Physical activity and exercise are both terms that are often used interchangeably, but at a closer look have quite different meanings. Physical activity is a broad term used to describe incidental activity that required any bodily movement produced by contracting muscles. Exercise is a type of physical activity requiring planned, structured and repetitive body movements performed to improve or maintain physical fitness. Think of a planned exercise session, for example, a brisk walk around your neighbourhood for 30minutes or a gym session, compared to taking the stairs at a shopping centre or cleaning the house.

How much exercise?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM) are the world leaders in exercise for health and provide the Gold Standard recommendations. To exercise for health, adults must engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week (equating to 30mins a day, 5 days a week). This can be accumulated by completing a bout of exercise at a minimum of 10minutes. Alternatively, weekly exercise can be completed with 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (20minutes a day, 5 days a week), or a combination of both moderate and vigorous aerobic exercise. If that’s more than you can do right now, do what you can, something is better than nothing! Even 5 minutes of physical activity has real health benefits.

Types of Exercise

Exercising for health needs to fulfil several areas including cardiorespiratory, strength, flexibility, and neuromotor training. Health benefits can be gained by completing exercise on most, if not all days of the week, with additional health benefits gained from greater amounts of physical activity.


Cardiorespiratory training is any form of exercise that trains the heart and lungs such as running swimming, brisk walking, trail walking, running, bike riding etc. Ensure that the exercise is intense enough so that you need to breathe through your mouth. A good way to identify a good pace is the talk test. You should be able to speak a sentence with laboured breathing but unable to sing a song.


Resistance training, also known as strength training, is exercise that strengthens the body such as going to the gym. Strength training should be completed on at least 2 days of the week. Exercises that involve weights or your body in an intense fashion are examples of resistance training. The repetition range should be between 8 and 20 repetitions, performing 2 – 4 rounds per exercise.


Flexibility exercise is any training that lengthens muscles or mobilises the body. Stretching and yoga are examples. Hold each stretch or mobility exercise for 10-60 seconds.


Neuromotor exercise is any movement that practices a body skill such as balance and coordination. Pilates, Yoga, Thai chi gymnastics, and dancing are examples. 20 minutes 5 days per week is optimal.

Health benefits of exercise

Exercise has a range of health benefits including reducing premature mortality, and reducing the risk of morbidities including cardiovascular disease/coronary artery disease, hypertension, stroke, osteoporosis, type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, metabolic syndrome, some cancers, and reduce the risk of obesity. Exercise can assist to:

  • reduce resting systolic and diastolic blood pressures
  • increase HDLs and increase triglycerides (improves cholesterol)
  • reduce total body fat and intra-abdominal fat, decreasing weight
  • improve glucose tolerance and reduce insulin needs (improves blood glucose profile, reduces blood sugar levels)
  • reduce inflammation
  • reduce risk of developing comorbidities and secondary complications
  • reduce the feeling of anxiety and depression
  • improve cognitive function
  • enhance feelings of well being
  • improve sleep

Resistance training can not only provide the above benefits but also:

  • improves walking distance and velocity
  • increases muscle mass and strength
  • improved quality of life
  • improves the ability to complete Activities of Daily Living (ADL’s) subsequently independence
  • improves work, recreational or sporting performance
  • improves bone mass/strength (bone mineral density) to prevent, slow or reverse the loss of bone mass in individuals with osteoporosis
  • reduces pain/disability in individuals with osteoarthritis
  • reduces risk of falls and injuries from falls in older individuals

Reducing sedentary time

The ASCM not only recommend exercise levels but also provide recommendations on how to improve health through reducing sedentary time. Sedentary behaviours refer to periods of inactivity requiring low levels of energy expenditure. Such behaviours include sitting, reclining or lying. The most thought of sedentary behaviour would be sitting or lying watching TV (Netflix anyone?). More time spent in sedentary behaviours increase the risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, type 2 Diabetes, some cancers, and has an overall negative effect on aerobic fitness and muscle strength. ACSM recommend reducing sedentary behaviour as much as possibly by completing some form of physical activity spread throughout the day to produce health benefits.

In a generation where technology is the reason we are sitting more than standing, these same tech companies are selling tools to encourage us to move more. A great marketing team is behind the latest craze in fitness watches and activity trackers with sales increasing 110% over the last 12 months. A common guideline that encourages people to be active is to achieve 10 000 steps a day.

The Great Debate of 10,000 steps

It’s great to see a nation which is struggling to control a chronic disease epidemic become concerned about the amount of movement we are doing. But is 10,000 steps the answer to increasing our fitness and improving our health?

The most important thing to understand with exercise is one size does not fit all and each individual is capable of and requires a different amount of exercise. In Australia, 7 million people or one in three are currently diagnosed with at least one chronic health condition. These 7 million people all require different levels and intensities of exercise.

The number “10,000” steps has no real scientific background, and yes it is a great target to start with, but based on your health you need to set realistic goals. If you have no chronic health conditions and want to lose an amount of weight, you may need more than 10,000 steps to achieve your goal. However, if you have chronic arthritis and cannot walk 10,000 steps you may need other exercises such as swimming.

Other factors that influence our weight loss is the speed and intensity that these steps are taken at. To burn calories, you need to increase your heart rate, so 10,000 nice slow strolls to the printer and back all day might not be the solution to your weight loss. We also have to look at other factors such as diet.

Let’s get one thing straight, moving more absolutely has a great impact on our health. Wearable fitness trackers are a great tool in assessing our movement. However, be sure to seek advice on how much movement is right for you.

Starting an Exercise Program

It is always best to gain GP clearance before starting an exercise program. An Exercise Physiologist or Physiotherapist can assist you in starting up an exercise program by providing you with advice on how and where to start based on your exercise, health, and injury history. In the meantime, here are some general tips on implementing and building on an exercise program:

1. Start sensibly.

If you haven’t done any physical activity in 6 months your exercise capacity is going to have decreased. A good way to start getting back into it without overdoing it is to start at 50% of what you were doing previously then progressing from there. If you have never exercised before it is a good idea to have a rest day in between each day of physical activity so the body has time to recover; this also prevents overuse injuries. Remember to listen to your body!

2. Gradually increase your workouts.

Only change one variable of your workouts at once. Whether it is the frequency, distance, speed, hills, intervals, or time it is always better to only change one variable at a time. This avoids overtraining and overuse injuries. When you start to exercise more frequently or have more intense workouts make sure you always allow appropriate recovery and rest.

3. Cool Down after exercise.

Always cool down to ensure recovery. A gentle walk, dynamic stretches, or a massage will all help you to recover properly. Also, remember to eat good nutritious food and stay hydrated!

4. Exercise with someone or set goals.

Exercising with a buddy is a nice way to make exercising fun and stay accountable! Setting regular goals also keeps you on track; make sure the goals are always realistic. It is nice to set goals that aren’t aesthetic in nature and make sure they are measurable.

5. Lacking motivation?!?! Try something new.

There are so many different types of exercise so make getting fit interesting. Try walking, swimming, yoga, cycling, antigravity yoga (Google this if you don’t know what I’m talking about!) Pilates, extend barre, Zumba, spin classes, pump classes, X-fit rock climbing, pole dancing…the list is endless. Give different things a go and see what you fall in love with.

The takeaway message is that leading an active lifestyle has such a great range of health benefits and every step counts. Something is better than nothing. If you need any tips, encouragement or are unsure where to start, our Exercise Physiologists or physiotherapists are here to help individualise a program just for you. Happy exercising!

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