Most of us know that exercise is good for our health. But if you’re new to physical activity or you’re picking it up again after a period away, the idea of exercising can be intimidating.

Experts believe that the best exercise for your health is the kind that you’ll do regularly. And studies have shown that enjoyment is a major factor in sticking with any type of physical activity. When you discover ways of moving your body that bring you joy, physical activity becomes a treat, rather than a chore.

Exercise is something that almost everyone can do. Its benefits can be felt right away, and you don’t have to train for anything major to reap the rewards – small, consistent sweat sessions are enough to stay healthy.

Below, we’ll explore the best exercises for your health and how you can start working out.

First of all, how much exercise do you need?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity every week.

During moderate-intensity aerobic activity, you should feel out of breath, but still be able to hold a conversation. Dancing, treading water, canoeing and yoga are great examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities.

In vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, you will be too winded to speak more than a few words at a time. Jogging at a fast pace, biking uphill, jumping rope and cross-country skiing are great examples of vigorous-intensity aerobic activities.

The CDC also recommends that adults include activities that strengthen muscles, like weightlifting, on two or more days of the week.

While all this may seem like a lot, how you spread your exercise time throughout the week is up to you. You could work out for 30 minutes five times a week, fit in hour-long workouts three times a week, or do fast-paced HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts for 15 minutes five times a week. You can decide what works best for you.

What are the types of exercise?

If you’re new to exercising, you may want to try several different kinds of physical activity to discover what you like. Remember, don’t only focus on what kind of movement you can do, but also ask yourself what kind of movement you enjoy doing. When you enjoy an activity, you’re more likely to keep doing it.

And you can like more than one type of exercise. In fact, it’s better to vary your exercise routine with more than one kind of physical activity so you can work different muscle groups in different ways.

Man and woman laughing and chatting while riding exercise bikes in a gym.

Cardio

Cardio, also called aerobic exercise, is any form of movement that gets your heart rate up, your blood pumping and your lungs working. It activates and strengthens your cardiovascular system, but also improves the health of your whole body and mind. Cardio can lower stress, improve sleep and flood your brain with those feel-good endorphins. It’s also an excellent tool when it comes to weight loss.

Cardio can be the most easily accessible form of exercise – and the simplest. A brisk walk or yard work can count as cardio, as long as you start to get hot, sweaty and out of breath. While the classic image of cardio is someone huffing and puffing on a jog, there are so many activities to choose from when it comes to cardio:

  • Walking and hiking: Walking is one of the best cardio exercises out there because it can be done almost anywhere and with little equipment. All you need is a pair of comfortable, sturdy shoes. If you’re just starting out, walk 5-10 minutes per day and work your way up to 30 minutes or more per day. Regular walking can help you lose weight, prevent disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your mood. Hiking allows you to explore and enjoy nature, and often burns more calories than walking by involving steeper, more uneven paths.
  • Running: Like walking, you just need a pair of well-fitting shoes to start running. No matter where you run or how fast you go, regular runs can improve your cardiovascular health, your bones and muscles, and your mental health.
  • Dancing: For a fun, exciting workout, try dancing. While dance can bring the same cardiovascular benefits as other forms of cardio, it can also help increase flexibility as you move your body in new ways. And the social aspects of dancing, not to mention learning the choreography, strengthen our cognitive function.
  • Cycling: Cycling is a great way to target and strengthen your lower body while working your heart and lungs. And the task of staying upright on a bicycle, stationary or not, helps your balance and posture. Riding a bike is also a great alternative to one of our most popular sedentary activities: driving. The next time you have somewhere to go – the grocery store, a friend’s house, the post office – try riding your bike instead.
  • Swimming: When you swim, you get all the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercise, with none of the impact. Working out in the water gives your joints a break while still strengthening muscles throughout your body. And you can burn calories without all the sweat.
  • Jumping rope: Nothing gets the heart pumping like jumping rope. It’s an incredibly efficient cardiovascular workout that you can squeeze into any busy schedule. You can get all the heart healthy benefits you need from just 10-15 minutes of jumping rope. And it’s fun!

Strength training

Strength training is a great way to build muscle and lose fat. This type of exercise involves subjecting your muscles to some form of resistance through lifting and moving heavy objects or straining against gravity. There are so many forms of strength training based on equipment and how much weight you are lifting.

  • Body weight exercises: When you’re getting started with strength training, exercises that use only your body weight are usually enough for you to start getting stronger. Pushups, planks, squats, lunges and burpees are all great options. Doing these exercises without additional weight also allows you to practice and perfect proper form, which is essential for preventing injuries in the future.
  • Weight machines: Using weight machines allows for more opportunities to practice your weightlifting form before you lift unassisted. Machines can also help you target specific muscles and give you a more controlled range of motion.
  • Free weights: Lifting weights is considered a functional exercise, meaning it can make you better at daily tasks like climbing the stairs, carrying grocery bags and cleaning around the house. It trains entire muscle groups to improve strength, balance and coordination.

A comprehensive strength training routine can include a combination of all three types of weight-related exercise.

Stretching

Stretching increases and maintains your flexibility, or your body’s ability to move in different ways without injury. Stretching regularly can help you perform better physically, use your full range of motion and avoid injuries. The best time to stretch is after a workout, when your muscles are warmed up from movement, but you can still benefit from stretching at any time.

  • Static stretching: This kind of stretch is achieved through lengthening your muscles as far as they will go without pain, and then holding that position for 15-30 seconds. There are two types of static stretching, active and passive. In active stretching, you contract one muscle to allow the opposite muscle to relax. Lying on your back and lifting your leg straight up into the air makes your thigh muscle contract, while your hamstring can lengthen and stretch. In passive stretching, you use an external force, like your hand, to help your body stretch. When you bend your knee and use your hand to hold your foot behind you to stretch your thigh muscle, that is a passive stretch.
  • Dynamic stretching: Before a workout, try dynamic stretching to get your muscles warmed up and ready for activity. Dynamic stretching is more active than just touching your toes. Movements include toe touches, high knees, butt kicks and lateral shuffles.

If you experience pain when stretching, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist. They can suggest stretches that won’t hurt and will help you increase flexibility slowly.

Balance exercises

Keeping your balance is an essential skill in multiple sports and daily activities, and it only gets more important as you get older. Working on your balance now can help you prevent falls later in life and avoid the injuries that often come with them.

  • Yoga: Better sleep, better mood, better flexibility – yoga has a lot of benefits. A huge part of any yoga practice is balance. Yoga challenges your body to maintain balance as it flows through dynamic poses and maintains different positions. In doing so, you release tight muscles and strengthen those essential stabilizer muscles, both of which lower your risk of falling.
  • Tai chi: A low-impact exercise that can be done almost anywhere, tai chi is an excellent way to control stress and improve balance. The flowing movements from one pose to the next allow you to practice shifting your weight from one foot to another with your arms outstretched.

What exercise is best?

Finding the exercise that works best for you and your lifestyle can seem overwhelming, but you don’t need to stick to just one. Everybody needs a few different types of workouts to get all the mind and body benefits of exercise. Engaging in different workouts also keeps exercise exciting and helps you continue challenging your body to grow stronger, avoiding a fitness plateau.

How you spend your exercise time depends on your goals and what you’re trying to achieve.

Exercising for your age

Everyone, whether 8 years old or 80, benefits from regular exercise. And it’s never too late to start. If exercise hasn’t been a part of your life up to this point, it’s still possible to get fit no matter how old you are – and there are tremendous advantages to doing so.

As you age, exercise allows you to stay limber and active while also reducing your risk of injury . You can maintain the energy to continue doing the things you love – like exploring new cities by foot, playing with your grandchildren and walking your dog.

This is when exercising for balance becomes especially important, so you can avoid falls and prevent injury. Cardio should still be included for a well-rounded exercise routine, but target heart rate – how fast your heart can safely beat during a workout to prevent injury and get the most benefit – decreases as we age. You can opt for lighter cardio in the later stages of life.

The CDC recommends that children and teens (ages 6-17) exercise for at least one hour every day. Children of any age exercise through play, but as they get older, they made need more structure and encouragement to get moving. To help kids get the exercise they need to be healthy, try the following tips:

  • Take them to parks, playgrounds and pools regularly
  • Sign them up for sports teams through their school or the local park district
  • Set a good example with your own commitment to physical activity

Adults also need play sometimes and running around with your kids helps you get a good workout in too. When children learn the importance of regular exercise early on, they can establish lifelong healthy habits around fitness.

Exercising for your life stage

Our circumstances and situations change throughout our lives, and our exercise needs change with them. Whether starting a new job, going through a pregnancy, caring for your kids or moving to a new neighborhood or city, you might not always have the same amount of time to exercise as you’ve had in the past. That’s okay! You shouldn’t put extra pressure on yourself to maintain an exercise routine that doesn’t work for you anymore.

When life gets busy, one key thing to remember about exercise is this: it’s not about how much exercise you do, but how often you do it. One study, done in 2016, demonstrated that 10 minutes of fast-paced aerobic exercise had the same cardiometabolic benefits as 50 minutes of steady, continuous aerobic exercise.

Fitting in 15-20 minutes of physical exertion each day, wherever you can, is enough to still get some benefits of fitness. Remember, exercise is just one part of our lives, it’s not the center of them.

Exercising as part of recovery

Following an injury or medical diagnosis, you can use exercise to regain and maintain strength. However, it requires patience. Resuming all your regular activities too quickly can put you at risk of reinjuring yourself. So go slowly at first. And while exercise may be the last thing you want to do when you’re in pain, regular workouts can actually help address any chronic pain you’re feeling.

You can work with your primary care doctor or a physical therapist to develop a plan that helps you get back on track. They can make sure you do exercises that work the proper muscle groups, while also being safe for your condition.

Exercising at home

Working out in public can be intimidating, especially if you’re just starting out. But you don’t need a membership at a gym or a ton of fancy equipment to get or stay fit. Just an open spot in your house where you won’t collide with or knock anything over, and a pair of comfortable shoes. You may also want a yoga mat to provide cushion if you have a hardwood floor.

You can start with small, easy movements, like marching in place and arm circles, and then ramp up the challenge as you get more comfortable. There are tons of apps and videos online to help you make the most of at-home workouts, or you can develop your own routine involving strength training exercises that use your body weight. Once you’re working out at home regularly, consider investing in a set of free weights so you can keep building strength.

How to start exercising

Starting anything new can be tricky, but exercise may seem especially daunting. Start slow and go at your own pace. The journey is worth it. Exercising is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health – and to avoid chronic medical conditions.

Set SMART goals

It’s easy to get lost in the vast world of fitness, to lose sight of why you started and quit. This is where goals come in. Setting goals for yourself can act as a roadmap to help you navigate what exercise means to you and how it fits into your life. Goals are a fantastic motivational tool, but only when used properly. When developing exercise goals, make them specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable and timely. These are called SMART goals.

You’re more likely to achieve SMART goals than you are goals that are too big, too vague and too ambitious. For example, it’s fine to have a goal of getting stronger, but how do you get there? Creating goals around slowly increasing the amount of weight you lift or the number of repetitions you do can help you find your way. And, setting short-term goals that you then achieve will help you feel a sense of reward that keeps your motivation high.

Maybe you want to shed a couple pounds to look and feel better. Exercising to lose weight can be a great goal, but it’s easy to fall into harmful habits and patterns. Just remember that it takes time to lose weight, so be patient with yourself.

Sometimes doctors will recommend exercise to alleviate or improve the symptoms of certain conditions. The ill effects of high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis can be improved and prevented through regular physical activity.

Find people to help you meet your exercise goals

One of the greatest resources you can use when you want to start exercising or exercising more often is other people. Whether they’re a friend or a professional, people can help you get started and stay on track when it comes to your fitness journey. If you’re looking for a little help, look to those around you:

  • Ask about personal training or fitness classes at your local health club. Whether you prefer working out one-on-one or in a group, sometimes we all need a little company. Many gyms offer classes in everything from water aerobics to dance, and it’s a great way to find a fitness community.
  • Seek support from your friends and family. If you bring up exercise, you might be surprised at who wants to join you. Working out with someone is a great way to make sure exercise happens, even when you’re feeling unmotivated.
  • Talk to your primary care doctor. If you have any medical conditions, your primary care doctor can recommend the types of exercise that make sense for you.

Slowly increase activity levels

It’s never too late to start working out, but it can be confusing to know where to start. A good initial fitness goal is to decrease the amount of time you spend sitting down. Stand up every hour to stretch or walk around for 10-15 minutes. Then continue building activity into your routine.

In the beginning it can be as simple as slipping in exercise during routine activities. Instead of driving the five minutes to the store to pick up a few things, you might try walking. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. If it’s nice outside, ride your bike to work.

If you’re getting together with a friend for coffee, suggest that you get your beverages to go and then head off for a walk – even if you’re just wandering around a mall. Or, when you’re getting caught up on your shows after work, stand up and do some stretching.

Fitting in exercise around the things you already do will make it seem easier and less disruptive to your daily routine. You’ll be more motivated to continue increasing your activity time, and slowly exercise will become part of your daily routine as well.

Take care of yourself

Exercise isn’t just another chore to check off your to-do list, though sometimes it may feel that way. It’s a lifelong investment. So, exercise has to be approached in such a way that you can keep it up for years to come.

If you throw yourself into too-frequent workouts, you may injure yourself or lose interest after a few months or years. If you do find yourself feeling ambivalent about the activity you once loved, don’t panic. Take a break, and allow yourself to devote time to other areas of your life. You may regain your passion down the road. Or you can switch it up, and try different types of exercise for a while.

To make exercise a sustainable habit, try the following tips:

  • Stretch before and after exercising
  • Drink plenty of water – unless you’re running marathons, you probably won’t need a sports drink
  • If you find that you have pain that’s caused by exercise, talk to your doctor. They’ll be able to provide suggestions to ease the pain (so you can continue to get the big benefits of exercise). Or they may refer you to a specialist such as a physical therapist who can help you work out better.
  • Keep up with preventive care, and you’ll be able to see the impact that changes in your lifestyle are having on your overall health.

Get in a groove

Momentum is a necessary part of exercise, both literally and metaphorically. While you need momentum to keep you moving, you also need momentum to keep hitting your goals. How do you build and maintain momentum?

  • Be consistent: One of the most important aspects of exercise is consistency. Running 10 miles every once in a while isn’t going to be nearly as beneficial to your fitness goals as running shorter distances 4-5 times a week.
  • Build routines: Schedule workouts in your calendar so they’re harder to skip.
  • Notice improvement: Maybe you’re able to run that extra mile this week, or you can lift the 15-pound weight instead of the 12. Notice and celebrate each stride you make, and it will be a lot easier to keep coming back for more.

Get moving for your health

Exercise has the power to improve not only our health, but every area of our lives. If you’re not sure how to get started on an exercise program, or you’re not sure that you’re healthy enough for exercise, we can help.