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 Physical Activity for Everyone
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Physical Activity and Health

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The Benefits of Physical Activity

Physical activity can bring you many health benefits. People who enjoy participating in moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity physical activity on a regular basis benefit by lowering their risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, and colon cancer by 30–50% (USDHHS, 1996). Additionally, active people have lower premature death rates than people who are the least active. 

Regular physical activity can improve health and reduce the risk of premature death in the following ways: 

Everyone can benefit from physical activity.
  • Older adults
    No one is too old to enjoy the benefits of regular physical activity. Evidence indicates that muscle-strengthening exercises can reduce the risk of falling and fracturing bones and can improve the ability to live independently.
  • Parents and children
    Parents can help their children maintain a physically active lifestyle by providing encouragement and opportunities for physical activity. Families can plan outings and events that allow and encourage everyone in the family to be active.
  • Teenagers
    Regular physical activity improves strength, builds lean muscle, and decreases body fat. Activity can build stronger bones to last a lifetime.
  • People trying to manage their weight
    Regular physical activity burns calories while preserving lean muscle mass. Regular physical activity is a key component of any weight-loss or weight-management effort.
  • People with high blood pressure
    Regular physical activity helps lower blood pressure.
  • People with physical disabilities, including arthritis
    Regular physical activity can help people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength. It also can improve psychological well-being and quality of life by increasing the ability to perform the activities of daily life.
  • Everyone under stress, including persons experiencing anxiety or depression
    Regular physical activity improves one's mood, helps relieve depression, and increases feelings of well-being.

Can a lack of physical activity hurt your health? Evidence shows that those who are not physically active are definitely not helping their health, and may likely be hurting it. The closer we look at the health risks associated with a lack of physical activity, the more convincing it is that Americans who are not yet regularly physically active should become active.

How much is enough? See How much exercise do you need?

For more information on how physical activity can reduce the risk of disease, please visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' online document "Physical Activity Fundamental to Preventing Disease."

Risks to Being Active

Although there can be some risks associated with physical activity, most can be avoided or minimized by taking reasonable precautions.

Cardiovascular Risks

Occasionally, we learn about an athlete who died suddenly while jogging or exercising strenuously. These athletes typically had underlying cardiovascular disease that, when coupled with extremely strenuous activity, resulted in their death. Such events can plant doubts and fears in the minds of people who are thinking about leading a more active lifestyle. "Me? Exercise and end up having a heart attack? No way!" However, sudden deaths due to underlying cardiovascular disease are extremely rare, particularly among individuals participating in moderate-intensity physical activity (Pratt, 1995).

Persons with known cardiovascular disease or persons who have already experienced a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack, stroke, or heart surgery, should have a physical evaluation by their physician before engaging in even a moderate physical activity program. But other than in those cases, most adults do not need to consult their physicians before engaging in moderate-intensity physical activity. If, however, they are planning to engage in vigorous-intensity physical activity, experts recommend that men over age 40 and women over age 50 should also consult a physician first.

Other Risks

The most common risk associated with physical activity is injury to the musculoskeletal system-the bones, joints, tendons, and muscles. These injuries are usually not serious, often require no treatment other than a few days of rest, and can be minimized by taking sensible precautions. Most of these types of injuries related to physical activity may be prevented by gradually working up to the desired level of activity and by avoiding excessive amounts of activity at one time.

Therefore, to avoid soreness and injury, people who have not been regularly active and are thinking about increasing their levels of physical activity should start out slowly, incorporating even a few minutes of increased activity into their day, gradually building up to the desired amount of activity, and giving their bodies time to adjust (Pate et al., 1995).

For more, see When is a medical evaluation necessary?

Tips for Avoiding Activity-induced Injuries

"Success doesn't come to you... You go to it." —Marva Collins

Keeping the following tips in mind can help prevent common injuries associated with participating in physical activity.

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Page last reviewed: March 24, 2008
Page last updated: March 26, 2008
Content Source: Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion