Physical Activity Basics

With the current obesity rates in the United States at epidemic numbers, we’ve all heard over and over again: the average American (adults and children alike) eats too much and moves too little.  Physical activity (along with good nutrition) is a major factor for a healthy lifestyle and understanding the basics is important to help you make sustainable behavior changes.

Health benefits of physical activity

Many people exercise to lose weight, tone and strengthen their muscles or simply just to “look fit.”  But did you know all the significant health benefits of physical activity?  Regular moderate-level activity can…

  • Help build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints
  • Lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • Reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD)
  • Reduce the risk of stroke
  • Lower both total blood cholesterol and triglycerides and increases high-density lipoproteins (HDL or the “good” cholesterol)
  • Lower the risk of developing high blood pressure
  • Help reduce blood pressure in people who already have hypertension
  • Reduce the risk of developing colon cancer
  • Reduce feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Promote psychological well-being and reduces feelings of stress (1-5)

Physical activity recommendations

Despite the known health benefits of physical activity, more than 50% of American adults do not get enough exercise (1).  American adults aren’t the only ones that are becoming increasingly sedentary.  More than a third of high school students do not partake in vigorous-intensity physical activity.  Additionally, in 2005, 10% of surveyed high school students reported that they did not participate in any moderate or vigorous physical activity (1).

For the first time in thirty years, the USDA included a section specifically about physical activity in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, highlighting its important role in personal weight management.  Following are the basic physical activity recommendations:

 Goal     Intensity  Time  Frequency
 To reduce the risk of chronic disease  Moderate (above usual activity)  At least 30 minutes  Most days of the week
 To help manage body weight (prevent gradual body weight gain)  Moderate to vigorous  About 60 minutes  Most days of the week
 To sustain weight loss in adulthood  Moderate to vigorous  60 to 90 minutes  Daily

Which activities are considered moderate or vigorous intensity?

Moderate-intensity physical activity includes brisk walking, mowing the lawn, dancing, leisurely swimming or bicycling.  Generally, this level of activity burns 3.5 to 7 calories per minute (210 to 420 calories per hour) (1).

Jogging, swimming continuous laps and bicycling uphill are considered vigorous-intensity physical activities.  Burning more than 7 calories per minute (420 calories per hour), this level of activity tends to raise your heart rate and breathing rate (1).

An easy way to gauge your intensity level is to perform the “talk test.”  If you can sing while doing a certain activity (like walking) then you are performing it at a light-intensity level.  If you can carry on a conversation comfortably during the activity (like jogging), it is probably of moderate-intensity.  When engaging in vigorous-intensity activity (like running uphill), you are likely too out of breath to carry on a conversation (1).

Below for a more detailed chart that lists moderate and vigorous intensity physical activity.

General Physical Activities Categorized by Intensity Level

The following is in accordance with CDC and ACSM guidelines.

 Moderate Activity

(burns 3.5 to 7 calories/minute)

Vigorous Activity

(burns more than 7 calories/minute)
  • Walking at a moderate or brisk pace of 3 to 4.5 mph on a level surface inside or outside, such as:
    • Walking to class, work, or the store;
    • Walking for pleasure;
    • Walking the dog; or
    • Walking as a break from work.
    • Walking downstairs or down a hill
  • Hiking
  • Rollerblading or in-line skating at a leisurely pace
  • Bicycling 5 to 9 mph, level terrain, or with few hills
  • Stationary bicycling—using moderate effort
  • Jogging or running
  • Walking and climbing briskly up a hill
  • Backpacking
  • Mountain climbing, rock climbing
  • Rollerblading or in-line skating at a brisk pace
  • Bicycling more than 10 mph or bicycling on steep uphill terrain
  • Stationary bicycling—using vigorous effort
  • Calisthenics – light
  • Yoga
  • General home exercises, light or moderate effort, getting up and down from the floor
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Using a stair climber machine at a light-to-moderate pace
  • Using a rowing machine—with moderate effort
  • Water aerobics
  • Weight training and bodybuilding using free weights, Nautilus- or Universal-type weights
  • Boxing—punching bag
  • Calisthenics – push-ups, pull-ups, vigorous effort
  • Karate, judo, tae kwon do, jujitsu
  • Jumping rope
  • Performing jumping jacks
  • Using a stair climber machine at a fast pace
  • Using a rowing machine—with vigorous effort
  • Step aerobics
  • Circuit weight training
  • Boxing—in the ring
  • Wrestling—competitive
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Line dancing
  • Square dancing
  • Folk dancing
  • Professional ballroom dancing—energetically
  • Square dancing—energetically
  • Folk dancing—energetically
  • Softball—fast pitch or slow pitch
  • Basketball—shooting baskets
  • Coaching children’s or adults’ sports
  • Golf, wheeling or carrying clubs
  • Most competitive sports
    • Football
    • Basketball
    • Soccer
    • Rugby
    • Kickball
    • Field hockey
    • Lacrosse
    • Beach volleyball—on sand court
  • Table tennis—competitive
  • Tennis—doubles
  • Badminton
  • Fencing
  • Playing Frisbee
  • Tennis—singles
  • Handball—general or team
  • Racquetball
  • Squash
  • Downhill skiing—with light effort
  • Ice skating at a leisurely pace (9 mph or less)
  • Snowmobiling
  • Downhill skiing—racing or with vigorous effort
  • Ice-skating—fast pace or speedskating
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Sledding
  • Swimming—recreational
  • Treading water—slowly, moderate effort
  • Diving—springboard or platform
  • Aquatic aerobics
  • Waterskiing
  • Snorkeling
  • Surfing, board or body
  • Swimming—steady paced laps
  • Synchronized swimming
  • Treading water—fast, vigorous effort
  • Water polo
  • Scuba diving
  • Animal care: shoveling grain, feeding farm animals, or grooming animals
  • Playing with or training animals
  • Manually milking cows or hooking cows up to milking machines
  • Animal care: forking bales of hay or straw, cleaning a barn or stables, or carrying animals weighing over 50 lbs
  • Handling or carrying heavy animal-related equipment or tack
  • Home repair: cleaning gutters, caulking, refinishing furniture, sanding floors with a power sander, or laying or removing carpet or tiles
  • General home construction work: roofing, painting inside or outside of the house, wall papering, scraping, plastering, or remodeling
  • Home repair or construction: very hard physical labor, standing or walking while carrying heavy loads of 50 lbs or more, taking loads of 25 lbs or more up a flight of stairs or ladder (e.g., carrying roofing materials onto the roof), or concrete or masonry work

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. Promoting physical activity: a guide for community action. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1999.

Structuring your exercise program

Often due to time constraints or over zealousness, many people who go to the gym jump onto the treadmill or stair machine and immediately start exercising at full capacity.  However, this may increase your risk for muscle injuries or soreness, which can then discourage you from exercising again for several days after which you may lose the motivation to exercise.  This vicious cycle may be prevented by warming up and stretching properly as well as choosing an intensity level that’s appropriate for your current fitness level.  To get the most out of your exercise program, the Centers for Disease Control recommends including all of the following components (1, 6):

  • Warm-up
  • Exercise training activities
    • Aerobic (for cardiovascular benefit)
    • Weight training (to build strength)
    • Stretching (for increased flexibility)
  • Cool-down

All planned exercise should begin with a two to ten minute warm-up session to loosen up your body and gradually increase the range of motion of your joints. This entails slow, rhythmic upper and lower body movements such as swinging arms while walking or leisurely swimming.

Most adults should participate in aerobic training three to six days per week starting at an appropriate level. For some people, this may mean beginning with ten minutes per week, for others 30 minutes. Regardless, the duration of activity should be gradually increased to a goal of 30-45 minutes of continuous moderate activity three to six times per week.  Aerobic activity generally tends to increase your heart rate.

While aerobic exercise helps keep your heart and cardiovascular system healthy, strength training works your muscular system. Whether it’s using hand weights (dumbbells), weight machines at the gym, your own body weight (for push ups or pull ups) or even household items (two liter bottles filled with water), you can find various ways to “lift weights.”

General strength training recommendations are to weight-lift two to three times per week making sure to rest one to three days between sessions. This will help prevent injuries by giving your muscles time to recover.  For each body area (quadriceps, hamstrings, calf, back, chest, shoulders, abdomen, biceps, and triceps), one to three sets of eight to twelve repetitions each are encouraged.

Incorporating stretching into your exercise program four to seven times per week is important to keep your flexibility and prevent injuries.  Stretching should be smooth controlled movements held for 10-60 seconds.  This should not cause any pain (if painful, ease up) and is best performed after warm-up and aerobic exercise and/or strength training.  Alternative flexibility training includes yoga, pilates or tai chi.

Cooling down for five to ten minutes after an exercise program allows your heart and respiratory rates to gradually return to normal, especially after aerobic activity.  Cool-down should consist of slow rhythmic movements (as in warm-up), breathing exercises and gentle stretching.

Knowing the basics of physical activity is important to prevent injuries and maximize the health benefits of exercise.  For tips on how to incorporate physical activity into your daily life, visit For College Students or For Working Professionals.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Physical Activity.  Accessed May 2007.
2. Roberts CK, Barnard RJ.  Effects of exercise and diet on chronic disease.  J Appl Physiol 2005;98:3-30.
3. Warburton DER, Nicol CW, Bredin SSD. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ 2006;174:801-809.
4. Macera CA, Hootman JM, Sniezek JE.  Major public health benefits of physical activity. Arthritis Rheum 2003;49:122-8.
5. Pedersen BK, Saltin B.  Evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in chronic disease.  Scand J Med Sci Sports 2006;16 Suppl 1:3-63.
6. Rooks DS. Developing Personal Exercise Plans for Optimal Health.  Presentation at Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference. Harvard Medical School and the Culinary Institute of America.  Calistoga, CA; April 2007.

Note: This information is not intended to take the place of advice from a healthcare professional. Check with your physician before starting any diet or exercise program.  In addition, while all efforts have been made to ensure the information included in this material is correct, new research is released frequently and may invalidate certain pieces of data.

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