Topic Overview

What is fitness?

Fitness means being able to
perform physical activity. It also means having the energy and strength to feel
as good as possible. Getting more fit, even a little bit, can improve your

You don’t have to be an athlete to be fit. A brisk half-hour walk every
day can help you reach a good level of fitness. And if this is hard for you, you can work
toward a level of fitness that helps you feel better and have more

What are the benefits of fitness?

Fitness helps
you feel better and have more energy for work and leisure time. You’ll feel
more able to do things like playing with your kids, gardening, dancing, or
biking. Children and teens who are fit may have more energy and better focus at

When you stay active and fit, you burn more calories,
even when you’re at rest. Being fit lets you do more physical activity. And it
lets you exercise harder without as much work. It can also help you manage
your weight.

Improving your fitness is good for
your heart, lungs, bones, muscles, and joints. And it lowers your risk for falls, heart attack,
high blood pressure, and some cancers. If
you already have one or more of these problems, getting more fit may help you
control other health problems and make you feel better.

Being more fit also can help you to sleep better,
stress better, and keep your mind sharp.

How much physical activity do you need for health-related fitness?

Experts say your goal should be one, or a combination, of

  • Do some sort of moderate aerobic activity, like brisk
    walking, for at least 2½ hours each week. It is up to you how many days you want to exercise, but it is best to be active at least 3 days a week. Be active for at least 10 minutes at a time. For example, you could:

    • Take a 10-minute walk 3 times a day. Do this 5 days a week.
    • Take a half-hour walk 3 days a week. On the other 4 days take a 15-minute walk.
    • Take a 45-minute walk every other day.
  • Or do more
    vigorous activities, like
    running, for at least 1¼ hours a week. This
    activity makes you breathe harder and have a much faster
    heartbeat than when you are resting. You can spread out these 75 minutes any way you want to. It is better to be active at least 3 days a week for at least 10 minutes at a time. For example, you

    • Run for 25 minutes 3 times
      a week.
    • Run for 15 minutes 5 times a week.

Here’s an easy way to tell if your exercise is moderate: You’re at a moderate level of activity if you can talk but not sing during the activity. If you can’t talk while you’re doing the activity, you’re working too hard.

Children as young as preschool age need activity. Encourage your child (age 6 to 17) to do
moderate to vigorous activity at least 1 hour every day.

What types of physical activity improve fitness?

The activities you choose depend on which kind of fitness you want to
improve. There are three different kinds of fitness:

  • Aerobic fitness makes you breathe faster and makes your heart work harder for a while. Aerobic activities include walking, running, cycling, and swimming. Aerobic fitness is also called cardio or cardiovascular training.
  • Muscle fitness (strength) means building stronger muscles and
    increasing how long you can use them. Activities like weight
    lifting and push-ups can improve your muscular
  • Flexibility is the ability to move your joints and
    muscles through their full range of motion.
    Stretching is an exercise that helps you to be more

How can you be more physically active?

Moderate physical activity is safe for most people. But it’s always a
good idea to
talk to your doctor before becoming more active, especially if you
haven’t been very active or have health problems.

If you’re ready
to add more physical activity to your life, here are some tips to get you

  • Make physical activity part of your regular day.
    Make a regular habit of using stairs, not elevators, and walking to do errands near your home.
  • Start walking. Walking is a
    great fitness activity that most people can start doing. Make it a habit to take a daily walk with
    family members, friends, coworkers, or pets.
  • Find an activity partner. This can make exercising more
  • Find an activity that you enjoy, and stay with it. Vary it with
    other activities so you don’t get bored.
  • Use the
    Interactive Tool: How Many Calories Did You Burn?
    find out how many calories you burn during exercise and daily
A woman

One Woman’s Story:

Kris, 56

“I knew I needed to do something. I felt
like all my muscles were starting to atrophy. Now I feel like I’m so much more
toned. I’m not buff, but I’m toned. I can definitely feel the

Read more about Kris and how she has worked physical activity into her life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about fitness:

Getting fit:

Staying fit:

Why Should You Be More Active?

No matter what your
size or shape, being active:

  • Makes you feel better.
  • Helps you fall asleep and sleep well.
  • Gives you more energy.
  • Helps you think better and faster.
  • Helps you handle stress.
  • Makes you healthier.
  • Helps you live longer.

Fitness benefits everyone. Learn about fitness in children and teens, in older adults, and during pregnancy.

Your health will thank you

The more active you are, the better your heart
and lungs work. You’re less likely to get many of the diseases that can shorten your
life, including:

  • Coronary artery disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Some cancers.

If you already have any of these problems,
staying active may help you to have better control over them, feel better, and
live longer.

Your body will thank you

Being fit includes keeping your
muscles, bones, and joints as active and healthy as possible. You can:

  • Make
    your muscles stronger
    . Lifting weights-even small ones-is a good way to do this. Weights also increase
    bone density, which is especially important for older
    adults.footnote 1
  • Stay flexible and
    coordinated. Stretching will help you do this. As you become more flexible, you will find it easier to reach
    things on high shelves, look under a bed, or perhaps tie your shoes. You
    will also have a better sense of balance and coordination.

Your bathroom scale will thank you

Being more active burns calories.
That can help you get to and stay at a healthy weight. Getting regular exercise:

  • Helps your body burn more calories
    even when you’re resting.
  • May lower your
    percentage of body fat and
    increase muscle strength and tone.

To find out how many calories
you burn during different activities, use this
Interactive Tool: How Many Calories Did You Burn?

A man

One Man’s Story:

Bob, 79

“My doctor said, ‘It’s about time you
lose weight.’ That’s when I got my bike.”-Bob

Read more about Bob and how he became more active.

You’ll thank yourself

The best thing about
being active and fit is a better quality of
life. You’re able to do things you
enjoy for longer periods of time, like playing with
children, gardening, dancing, or walking.

What Does “Being Active” Really Mean?

You can be active by doing housework, mowing the lawn, walking, or joining a fitness class. It’s important to be active in three areas: aerobic activity, muscle strength, and stretching.

Aerobic activity

Aerobic activity makes your heart and lungs work harder and builds up
your endurance. It gets more oxygen to your muscles, which allows
your muscles to work longer. Aerobic activities include walking, running, cycling, and swimming.

To get and stay
healthy, experts say to do either of these:footnote 2

You can choose to do one or both types of
activity. And it’s fine to be active in several blocks of 10 minutes
or more throughout your day and week. Do what works best for you. For
example, you could do moderate activity for 45 minutes every other day. Or you could do 10 minutes 3 times a day, 5 days a

How hard to

Moderate activity causes your heart and lungs to work harder. Here’s an easy way to
know if you’re working hard enough to get the health benefits of
moderate-level activity:

  • If you can’t talk and do your activity at
    the same time, you are exercising too hard.
  • If you can sing while you do your activity,
    you may not be working hard enough.
  • If you can talk but can’t sing while you do your activity,
    you are doing fine.

Another way to see how hard you exercise is
to find your
target heart rate. As a guideline, use the
Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate? and learn to take your pulse.

Stronger muscles

Building stronger muscles is an important part of overall health. When your muscles are
strong, you can carry heavy grocery bags more easily, pick up children without
feeling as much strain, or do more downhill ski runs before you
get too tired and have to stop.

Making your muscles stronger includes:

  • Resistance training. This helps build muscles through regular use, especially when your muscles have to work against something.
  • Strengthening your
    core. This helps build
    the muscles around your belly and back (trunk). This is called
    core stability. It can help you have better posture and balance, and help
    protect you from injury.

Experts advise people to do exercises to strengthen muscles at least 2 times a week. Be sure to work the major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Examples of resistance-training exercises include lifting weights, doing push-ups, or using elastic bands.

Stretching for flexibility

Flexibility means being able to move your
joints and muscles through their full range of motion.

As you become more flexible, you will find it easier to reach
things on high shelves, to look under a bed, or perhaps to tie your shoes. You
will also have a better sense of balance and coordination.

To stay flexible,
stretch all your major groups of muscles. These
include the muscles of your arms, your back,
your hips, the front and back of your
thighs, and your calves.

you get started with flexibility and stretching, begin slowly, and increase your
efforts bit by bit. You can measure your progress with
flexibility by noticing how much farther you can do each stretch. Can you
stretch farther each day than you
could when you started? If so, your flexibility is getting

Do your stretching and
flexibility exercises in addition to your aerobic and strength-building

Becoming More Active

Are you ready?

you increase your activity, take a look
at where you are now. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What challenges get in my
    You may have
    barriers in your life that get in the way of
    becoming more active. These barriers may be a lack of time, fear of getting hurt, or having
    no one to exercise with.
  • Is physical activity safe for me? For
    some people, some forms of physical activity might be unsafe. If you have heart disease,
    high blood pressure, diabetes, or any health concerns,
    talk to your doctor before you start any exercise or fitness program.
    Your doctor may want to help you build
    an exercise plan (What is a PDF document?) matched to your needs. You can find a way to be active safely.

    Planning to Be More Active When You Have Chronic Disease (What is a PDF document?)

Changing your thinking

If you need to make some lifestyle changes to become more
active, you’ll have more success if you first change the way you think about
certain things:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others. Healthy bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. One person’s
    choice of activity won’t be right for another person. Some people use fitness
    to compete against others, while others use it to feel as good as possible.
  • Think positive. You can help
    yourself succeed just by thinking that you can succeed. If you tell yourself
    negative things-“I can’t do this. Why bother?”-change will be harder. But if
    you encourage yourself with thoughts like “I can do this,” you can raise your
    odds of success.

Changing your habits

Making any kind of change in the way you live your daily life
is like being on a path. The path leads to success. Here are steps you can use to change a habit by setting goals:

  1. Have your own reason for making a
    change. Know why it’s important to you to meet your goals.
  2. Set goals. Include both long-term and short-term goals.
  3. Think about what might get in your way, and prepare for slip-ups.
  4. Get support from your family, your
    doctor, your friends-and from yourself.
  5. Measure improvements to your health.
    For example, keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar.
A man

One Man’s Story:

John, 54

“My mantra is ‘Find a way to exercise.’
It has made all the difference in my life.”-John

Read more about John and how he became more active.

Staying Active

Turning physical activity into a habit

Most people don’t think about being active or inactive
as a habit. But it is. And habits are affected by many things, including our work
schedule, our home life, and our social life. When something becomes a habit,
we don’t think about it much-we just do it, like brushing our

The key to staying active is to make fitness a habit-something that you just do.

It might take a long time for you to form a habit. So start small, and keep
doing an activity until you no longer think about it as something “extra” that you have
to do.

When you slip up, don’t get mad at yourself or feel guilty. Figure out
what happened and how to keep it from happening again. Get right back into your
physical activity routine, and don’t look back.

Maintaining the lifestyle

Many of the
good things about being active, such as having
more energy and being in a better mood, happen
soon after you become more active. But some of the most important health
benefits have to do with being active over many years. If you stop being
active, you lose the fitness you achieved. Being consistent makes the most
sense for your health.

To help make physical activity a long-term

  • Set goals. Develop and follow a specific
  • Make it a habit. Turn physical activity into a
    normal, pleasant, and routine part of your life.
  • Get the support of friends and family.
  • Expand your fitness activities through coaching,
    competition, and cross-training.
  • Add variety to your fitness program. Change the place,
    activity, and time.
  • Don’t let
    reasons such as lack of time or bad weather slow you
  • Schedule your activity for times that
    you’re likely to keep doing it. If you don’t have time for
    one 30-minute walk, break it up into three 10-minute walks.

Finding what works for you

When you have decided that you want to
get fit, you will want to plan a
physical activity routine. Although most people think of
classes and specific activities (such as jogging or tennis) as the way to
fitness, there are many ways you can work physical activity into your

A woman

One Woman’s Story:

Shellie, 39

realized that I had put myself on the back burner for too long and it was time
for me to make time for myself, even if it was just a few minutes a day. I wrote myself a note and taped it to my bathroom mirror. It said, ‘I
will take a 10-minute walk during my morning coffee break every day this week.’ ” –Shellie

Read more about Shellie and how she became more active.

Structured fitness

Fitness classes or groups
provide a consistent approach to an activity. Local gyms, schools, and churches
may sponsor a regular fitness group. Teams also provide a consistent approach
to fitness but are more competitive. Many communities have physical activity
programs to help adults and children get fit. They often are found within
social agencies and schools.

Structured fitness has the advantage

  • Being held at the same time and place, which may
    be easier for some people to schedule.
  • Having a social atmosphere.
  • Providing support and “healthy” peer
    pressure to show up and participate.
  • Sometimes being led by a certified fitness professional.

Self-directed fitness

Many people find an activity
they enjoy, and then they create their own fitness
program. Self-directed fitness gives you:

  • Flexibility as to the time and place.
  • The ability to try different types of exercises.

For this to be effective, you must set up a regular
schedule and stay with it.

Fitness within your day

You can use “everyday”
activities for fitness, as long as you do them regularly. This includes:

Preparing for slip-ups

It’s perfectly
normal to try to change a habit, go along fine for a while, and then have a
setback. Lots of people try and try again before they reach their goals.

What are the things that might cause a
setback for you? If you have tried to make changes in your activity level
before, think about what helped you and what got in your way.

By thinking about these
barriers now, you can plan ahead for how to deal with
them if they happen.

Here’s one person’s list of barriers to taking a brisk
30-minute walk every day, along with some possible solutions:

Overcoming barriers

“I might be too busy.”

  • My backup plan will be to break my usual 30-minute
    walk into two 15-minute walks or three 10-minute walks.
  • I will
    set a time to meet my friend or neighbor every day for a walk.

“I might get bored.”

  • I’ll listen to music or podcasts while I
  • I’ll get my neighbor to walk with me.

“It might rain.”

  • I’ll buy a good rain jacket.
  • My backup
    plan will be to use an exercise DVD or a treadmill in front of my TV when the
    weather’s bad.

Use a
personal action plan (What is a PDF document?) to write down your barriers and backup plans.

Can You Be Physically Active As You Get Older?

It’s never too
late to start getting active. You can benefit from physical activity even if you think of yourself
as “elderly” or you already have conditions such as arthritis or heart
disease. Being more active will help you feel better and may even
help you live longer.

If you haven’t been
active for a long time, you may have no idea where to start. The important
thing is to take that first step-and make that first step a small one.

If you’re an older adult and are starting activity, be sure to:

  • Start safely. Talk to your doctor before you start, and don’t overdo it.
  • Keep the benefits in mind. Activity and exercise can strengthen your heart and give you more energy, make falls less likely, and help you sleep at night. It can improve blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Know when to stop. Stop your activity if you are panting or are very
    short of breath or have pain in your chest. If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911 right away. Symptoms include pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in your chest, back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.

Preventing Injury and Illness

Physical activity is
good for your health, but you can hurt yourself if you don’t do it
right. Always keep safety in mind.

  • Learn about the risks of any new activity you begin. Take lessons
    if you need to know how to do exercises with proper form and technique to avoid injury.
  • Wear clothing that is right for your activity and the weather. Wear
    shoes that have good support for your feet.
  • Always use the safety gear that goes with
    your chosen activity, like helmets and knee
    pads. Learn about the proper fit of that gear.
  • Start each activity session slowly.
    Then work up to your normal level.
  • Pay attention to pain and tiredness. They are your
    body’s way of telling you to slow down. Muscle soreness is common
    when you try a new activity, but pain can mean you’re injured. If you are very
    tired, you may be doing too much too soon.

Watch out for these injuries and
illnesses as you exercise:

  • Overuse injuries can
    happen when you use a certain joint over and over without giving it time to recover. Tennis elbow is an example of an overuse injury.
  • Dehydration.
    You can lose too much water through sweating if
    you don’t replace it by drinking fluids as you
    exercise. Follow these guidelines to
    avoid dehydration when you exercise.
  • Heat exhaustion,
    heatstroke, or dehydration may be caused
    by exercising in heat and humidity.

  • Overhydration during exercise is rare. But it is a medical emergency when it happens. When you do strenuous exercise for a long time, such as distance running, you lose water. You can also lose electrolytes, which are minerals your body needs. If you drink lots of water but you don’t replace the electrolytes, you can become overhydrated. Symptoms include:
    • Feeling bloated (your watchband may feel tight).
    • Feeling sick to your stomach.
    • Feeling confused.
  • Exercise-induced asthma can
    occur even if you don’t have asthma at any other
  • Overtraining is rare,
    but it can make you tired and grouchy, as well
    as raising your risk for injury and illness.
  • Heart attack is rare, but be
    aware of the
    symptoms. They include pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in your chest, back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.

Other Places To Get Help


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity (U.S.)



  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2004). Strength training among adults aged 65 or older. MMWR, 53(2): 25-28.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online:

Other Works Consulted

  • Ainsworth BE, et al. (2011). Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide. Columbia, SC: Prevention Research Center, Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina. Available online:
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2008). Bright Futures: Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children, and Adolescents, 3rd ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • American College of Sports Medicine (2006). Prevention of cold injuries during exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38(11): 2012-2029.
  • American College of Sports Medicine (2007). Exertional heat illness during training and competition. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(3): 556-572.
  • American College of Sports Medicine, et al. (2009). Position stand: Exercise and physical activity for older adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(7): 1510-1530.
  • Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Building muscular strength and endurance. Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 111-137. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Improving flexibility. Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 151-164. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Increasing cardiorespiratory endurance. Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 75-97. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Bravata DM, et al. (2007). Using pedometers to increase physical activity and improve health. JAMA, 298(19): 2296-2304.
  • Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, Council on School Health (2006, reaffirmed 2009). Active healthy living: Prevention of childhood obesity through increased physical activity. Pediatrics, 117(5): 1834-1842.
  • Gahagan S (2011). Overweight and obesity. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 179-188. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Haskell WL, et al. (2007). Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116(9): 1081-1093.
  • Murphy NA, et al. (2008, reaffirmed 2012). American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report: Promoting the participation of children with disabilities in sports, recreation, and physical activities. Pediatrics, 121(5): 1057-1061.
  • National Institute on Aging (2011). Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide From the National Institute on Aging. Available online:
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2013). Heat: A major killer. Available online:
  • Rice RG and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2008). Medical conditions affecting sports participation. Pediatrics, 121 (4): 841-848.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online:
  • Williams MA, et al. (2007). Resistance exercise in individuals with and without cardiovascular disease: 2007 update: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association Council on Clinical Cardiology and Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism. Circulation, 116(5): 572-584.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christine R. Maldonado, PhD – Behavioral Health

Current as ofMarch 13, 2017