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Physical activity 101

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to enhance and maintain optimal health

Going for a run

What is physical activity?

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to enhance and maintain optimal health.     

Physical activity is body movement that challenges you, increases your heart rate and breathing, and makes your muscles exert effort. The ultimate goal of regular physical activity is to increase your strength and stamina, so that you can enjoy your life more, and be able to do the things you want to do!

This section summarizes the most important information you need to know about physical activity. For more information consult the For Those Who Want to Know More below.

The types of physical activity

For online resources and workouts check out our physical activity resources.

Aerobic activities are those that increase your breathing and heart rate. They challenge your cardio-vascular system. They include:

Strength activities are those that increase or maintain muscle and bone strength. They include:

Flexibility activities are those that elongate (i.e. stretch) muscles and tendons. They include:

Balance exercises are another important type of physical activity, particularly for older adults.

The benefits of physical activity

You can find an in-depth list of the benefits of physical activity from the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report. The committee reviewed and evaluated thousands of research studies. Some of their findings on the health benefits of physical activity include:

  • Lower risk of early death
  • Lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Lower risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels
  • Lower risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Lower risk of colon, breast, bladder, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung and stomach cancer
  • Prevention of weight gain and weight loss, particularly when combined with reduced calorie intake
  • Reduced risk of depression and reduced severity of depressive symptoms
  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety
  • Enhanced sense of quality of life

Other benefits include:

  • Better quality of sleep
  • Better sex
  • Better cognitive function (e.g. memory, attention and academic performance)
  • Enhanced sense of self-esteem
  • Improved strength, fitness and overall physical function
  • Enhanced bone density
  • Reduced risk of falls
  • Reduced risk of dementia
  • Helps prevent and treat mental health problems
  • More physically active pregnant women are less likely to develop gestational diabetes and post-partum depression

The ultimate goal of regular physical activity is to increase your strength and stamina, so that you can enjoy your life more, and be able to do the things you want to do!

Physical activity recommendations

  • All adults should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than none, and adults who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.
  • For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic activity. This fun video expands on the idea of "30 minutes a day."
  • For additional and more extensive health benefits, adults should increase their aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes a week of moderate intensity, or 150 minutes a week of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activity.
  • Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

For more information counsult the 24hr movement and activity guidelines for adults.

The Mayo Clinic website offers a good overview of the basics of physical activity.

Inactivity: We're sitting too much!

Many Canadians are more inactive than they realize. Canadian adults sit for most of their waking hours:

  • We sit in a car or on the bus to commute to and from work and school
  • We sit many hours a day in front of a computer, at a desk, in class
  • We use email, direct-deposit, and online shopping to accomplish tasks that used to require us to walk a bit
  • We sit to relax: eating, surfing online, texting, or socializing with friends.

Being physicallly inactive raises your risk of illness. Even among people who get enough regular exercise, if they spend too much time sitting, it has negative impacts on their health.

Along with engaging in 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every week, it's also important to move more throughout your day. Even light activity can have a positive impact on wellbeing and mortality. The latest Canadian physical activity guidelines include suggestions for limiting sedentary behaviour, or sitting. Since there aren't any Sedentary Guidelines for grownups yet, take a look at the ones for teenagers, and go from there:

  • Limit recreational screen time to no more than 2 hours per day; lower levels are associated with additional health benefits.
  • Limit sedentary (motorized) transport, extended sitting and time spent indoors throughout the day.

Simple ideas to move more include:

  • Plan to stand up from your computer or textbooks for at least a few minutes every hour.
  • Make the active choice at every chance you get: take the stairs instead of the elevator, stretch while watching television, do something active when socializing with friends.
  • The article titled 27 ideas to help you spend less time sitting down provides more ideas.

What about society's role?

Your personal efforts to adopt healthy behaviours are made easier or harder by forces within your community. The economic and social conditions that influence the health of people and communities are called the social determinants of health.

To learn more, see physical activity and the social determinants of health.

For those who want to know more





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