Physical activity & exercise

Last updated 13 February 2017 — Last reviewed 17 February 2014

It's never too late to become more physically active. Beginning or resuming exercise at any age will benefit your health. Activity for 30 minutes on most days of the week will provide you with sustainable health benefits. The importance of regular physical activity, types of activity and ways to get you more active are discussed.

Why exercise & physical activity is so important

Regular physical activity can help to ease back, muscle and joint pain, promotes better sleep, increases energy levels and lowers the risk of developing a number of significant conditions and diseases.

physical activity

Conditions How important is physical activity What regular physical activity can achieve
Heart disease

The most common risk factors for developing heart disease in Australia are:

  • lack of physical activity
  • poor diet
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower blood cholesterol levels
  • Reduced body fat

Diabetes

100,000 people develop diabetes annually in Australia and being physically inactive is a major contributing factor.

If you already have type 2 diabetes, physical activity can help to improve the body's response to insulin, which can:

  • lower blood glucose levels
  • help control weight
  • lower heart disease risk
Depression Research shows regular physical activity of light or moderate intensity can lead to a reduction in the symptoms of depression by up to 50%, especially in women.
  • Helps block negative thoughts
  • Distracts from daily stresses
Osteoporosis & bone health Women are at a much higher risk than men of developing osteoporosis.
  • Increases muscle strength
  • Helps to improve:
    • posture
    • balance
    • coordination
  • Reduces the risk of falls and fractures in older age
Arthritis Around three million Australians have some form of arthritis.

Regular light exercise can help to:

  • relieve joint stiffness
  • build muscle strength
  • lower feelings of stress or depression
  • maintain independence for longer
Weight loss Excess body weight is often a result of too little physical activity. Even moderate-paced walking (about 5km/h) burns calories and gets your metabolism going.

Impact & activity

Exercise is often described as 'high impact' where the impact on your body is 2.5 times your body weight such as running, or 'low impact' where movements involve less direct force on the body such as swimming.

Moderate activity

This is movement that causes a small increase in your breathing and heart rate – but you should still be able to talk. A walk, mowing the lawn and even vacuuming are examples of moderate activity.

Vigorous activity

This activity should be enough to make you 'huff and puff'. This is recommended for those who are able, and wish to achieve further health and fitness benefits. Aerobics, competitive sports and running are examples of vigorous activity.

How much physical activity is enough?

The Australian National Physical Activity Guidelines for adults recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week to benefit your health. There are many ways to achieve this, and it isn't as hard, or as time consuming, as you think. According to the guidelines, three 10 minute activity sessions are just as effective as 30 minutes of continuous activity.

Starting an exercise program

Exercise physiologists

If you have a medical condition, are overweight, are pregnant, over 40 years of age or have not exercised regularly for a long time, see a health professional for medical advice before increasing your activity. They can refer you to an accredited exercise physiologist who can help you design an activity plan that is safe and helpful to your individual needs.

In most cases the initial costs of the exercise physiologist will be covered by Medicare.

An accredited exercise physiologist can be located through Exercise & Sports Science Australia.

Getting started

Planning is essential.

Schedule it in

Schedule physical activity into your day:

  • try an earlier start so you have time to exercise
  • try walking during a lunch break
Equip yourself

To get started:

  • a good pair of training shoes so your body is well supported
  • comfortable clothes so you can move freely
  • a water bottle so you stay hydrated

To go to the next level:

  • a pedometer so you can see how much you are doing
  • a heart rate monitor so you know when you are being more aerobic in your approach
Find others Exercising with others (friends, family, community, class) helps keep you motivated.
Choose what works for you

Are you going to enjoy doing it and is it:

  • convenient (i.e. close to home, work, school, transport)?
  • within your budget (i.e. free, requires equipment, could share cost with a friend)?
  • going to affect a pre-existing medical condition (e.g. back, neck, leg, feet injuries or conditions)?
Be creative

Try something different: yoga, Pilates, salsa dancing, water aerobics, tai-chi, a local tennis/cricket/netball/soccer club, Ultimate (frisbee), fencing, judo, taekwondo.

Keep at it

There may be times where you lose focus because of other priorities, but come back to it, reprioritise to include your exercise plan in your week.

Set goals

Goals are good focus points and good celebration points. You will need both short and long-term goals. As with all goals:

  • be realistic
  • keep track of your achievements
  • set new goals as you achieve each goal
Reward yourself
  • It's important to reward yourself when you achieve your goals – having an added incentive can also help you to get going when you don't feel motivated.
  • A reward should make you feel good so it could be anything: buying a magazine/scarf/earrings/CD/book, getting a manicure/going for a drive/seeing a movie/exhibition/garden or simply allowing yourself to spend an afternoon entirely devoted to something that interests you.
Listen to your body

Exercising is not about 'no pain, no gain'. If an activity causes you pain either slow down or stop altogether. Pain is a sign something might be wrong. If you are worried, see your doctor before continuing.

Have fun

Enjoyment is essential for maintaining a long-term commitment to being more physically active, so find what works for you: the company, the comfortable clothes, the view as you walk, the music you listen to.

tips for increasing your physical activity

Setting goals

Set some short and long-term goals for yourself. A short-term goal might be to build up to a brisk 30 minute walk every day for a week. A longer-term goal, something you work slowly towards, might be to participate in a fun run or go bushwalking. Try setting goals using a pedometer. Aim for 1,000 extra steps every few days until you reach 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day.

Sticking to the plan

Here are a few ways of overcoming some common barriers to sticking to a new plan.

Common barrier What to do
I don't have time
  • Schedule activity into your daily routine
  • Get up earlier or walk during your lunch break
  • If you can't find half an hour then try for three 10 minute sessions
  • If you drive to work, park 10 minutes' walk away
I'm too tired
  • Remember: physical activity actually helps you to:
    • improve your energy levels
    • sleep better
  • Start small and slowly build up as your energy levels increase
I'm too old
  • It's never too late to benefit from the positive health effects of physical activity
  • If you are worried, speak to your doctor or get a referral to an accredited exercise physiologist to find out what activities would best suit you
I can't afford it

Free activities to improve your fitness can be found in the park, your local community centre, with your friends and in your home including walking, dancing to your favourite music or gardening.

I'm not well

Ask your health professional or get a referral to an accredited exercise physiologist to get advice on what activities would be of benefit to you.

 

What about  children?

 
  • Be active with your children by playing active games with them at the park or in the garden
  • Plan and participate in your physical activity sessions when your children are at school, day-care or kinder
  • Your local fitness/recreation centre may have child minding facilities to look after the kids while you exercise

Tools to help

Using pedometers and heart rate monitors as tools to assist your physical activity program are a great idea. They are affordable and user friendly, in most cases the cheapest base models will provide all the features you will need.

Pedometer

Pedometers come in a range of models starting at around $20 for a base model and can reach nearly $50 for the advanced models. They are available from many sports stores and pharmacies.

  • First measure your daily steps
  • Set goals to increase your steps (no more than 10% a week)
  • If you average 6,000 steps per day then the following week try to average 6,600 steps a day

Heart rate monitor

Heart rate monitors are another great tool for monitoring exercise. But you will need to become familiar with important bits of information before using them. They range in price from $70 to as much as $1,000, depending on the additional features.

The heart rate monitor measures how fast your heart is beating and allows you to keep the rate in specific zones for the duration of your exercise. These are available from good sports stores.

All you need is a chest strap and watch, which have some simple features that are easy to use. Take the time to read the instructions, but the basic approach is:

  • enter your personal information: weight, height and age
  • place the chest strap around your chest and ensure the electrodes have good skin contact –  the strap should fit just below the bra line or even under your bra if comfortable
  • you then start the wrist watch and it will begin recording and showing your heart rate

If you are at rest, expect to see numbers between 45-70 beats per minute. These will increase as you start to become active.

For heart rate monitors to be useful you need to work out some heart rate zones that will be equivalent to light, moderate and vigorous activities. This is done by first estimating your maximum heart rate using a simple formula of 220 minus your age. For example, if you are 25 your maximum heart rate would be 195. Next, for each light, moderate and vigorous activity multiply your maximum heart rate by the % range. For example, for light activity 50-65% of a maximum heart rate of 195 is 98-127. See below for more calculations:

Estimating heart rate zones % of maximum heart rate What the beats per minute would be for each zone based on a maximum heart rate of 195
Light activity 50-65% 98-127
Moderate activity 65-80% 127-156
Vigorous activity 80-100% 156 -195

Now that you know what heart rates are needed to be achieved to meet your exercise intensities, you are ready to get active. Heart rate monitors can be used for all physical activities as they are water proof.

Weekly activity diary

A weekly activity diary helps you become more aware of your activity needs and the importance of not trying to fit too much in.

Download the Jean Hailes weekly activity diary (PDF).

How to use the weekly activity diary:

  • Print out the weekly activity diary and fill in the first table with your current usual weekly activities.
  • Now go back over it and mark the activities you:
    • 'have to do' with an H
    • 'should do' with an S
    • 'would like to do' with a W
  • Is there something missing, such as time out for you? Make a list of things you would like to do for yourself, no matter how big or small
  • Now look at the H's, S's and W's and prioritise them, starting with the most important down to the least
  • On a new weekly activity sheet put in the top 5 activities for each group PLUS 5 things from your list of things to do for yourself
  • Practise your new weekly activity sheet – fine-tune where needed

Making the most of your everyday activities

Often people struggle to come up with ideas to get physically active and can become bored with just a single activity. Think of movement as an opportunity, not an inconvenience. In the table below are some ideas to get physically active at home, out and about, at a local recreational/fitness centre and at the office.

Where Type of activity What to try
Local area Walking to and around local parks
  • Many parks have both walking tracks and exercise equipment – use a circuit approach and intersperse walking laps with a couple of the exercises on the equipment
  • Join/start a tai-chi group in the park
  • Join/start a walking group to walk around the park
Walking around your neighbourhood
  • Walk with a friend, the kids, your partner or the dog because you are 6 times more likely to persist if you have a commitment to others
  • Start by walking around the block, then build up as you get stronger
Out and about Everyday opportunities that increase how much you exercise
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator
  • Don't bother hunting for a parking spot near the entrance to the shops – park further away and walk the extra 50m
  • Walk the children/grandchildren to or from school
  • Try a new physical activity with friends (yoga, zumba or dancing) instead of catching up for coffee
  • When you get in the car, think 'could I walk/ride my bike instead?'
At home Housework
  • Mow the lawns or weed the garden
  • Vacuuming is good exercise especially with music to increase your pace
  • Be inefficient:
    • go upstairs twice
    • increase the number of trips to the kitchen it takes to clear the table!
Home fitness equipment Walking with a pedometer Clip on a pedometer to measure how many steps you take per day and aim for 10,000 steps each day.
Fit ball exercises Put a fit ball near a television, so you can do some simple activities that can give your whole body a workout while getting your daily TV fix.
Hand weights exercises Use hand weights to strengthen your upper body while watching TV.
Treadmills/bikes/cross-trainers/rowing machines Install one in your home and you can walk, run or ride (and watch TV) at any time of the day and in any weather (however, they are not always cheap).
Local sports and recreation centres Pool activities
  • Aqua-aerobics – classes provide a good workout and are also suitable for those who can't swim
  • Swim laps
  • Use one of the dedicated lanes and walk or run in the water
  • Join a 'learn to swim' program for adults
  Fitness centre – group classes
  • Boxing
  • Pump
  • Aerobics
  • Cycle/spin
  Fitness centre – individual sessions
  • A structured aerobic session
  • Structured weight training

If you feel a bit intimidated:

  • go during quiet times 
  • train with a friend
  • choose a women-only facility
  Social team sports
  • A team sport – so you get both moderate and vigorous activity in 1 session at a time that suits you.
  • Try:
    • netball
    • soccer
    • cricket
    • basketball
    • golf
  Other group activities
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
At work Workplace
  • Get involved in fitness challenges such as:
    • "10,000 steps"
    • "The Global corporate challenge"
  • Take advantage of any work facilities or special deals your work offers at fitness centres
  • Get a work colleague to join you for lunch time walks
  • If you work in an office environment, get up from your desk and go talk to a colleague in person rather than calling/emailing them
  • Always take the stairs when possible

Activities to relax & strengthen you

Different activities suit different women and there are no right or wrong activities.

Walking is one of the most popular and achievable forms of physical activity. "Surveys show that women prefer walking over all other activities and when they walk with friends they walk longer and report walking is more enjoyable," says dietitian Cate Lombard. "Set a time and place to meet each week – rain, hail or shine – and make the effort to turn up. Group activities are more social and you can encourage each other to keep going."

The following are suggestions for other activities you might like to try (if you haven't already).  

Type of activity Helps to What you can try
Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation

Reduce:

  • anxiety and stress
  • heart rate
  • breathing rate
  • blood pressure
  • muscle tension

Increase:

  • sense of calm
  • energy levels
  • immunity
  • concentration
  • quality sleep
  • balanced mood

Deep breathing – a simple but powerful relaxation technique that:

  • can be done anywhere, anytime
  • helps to focus on the present moment by concentrating on the 'in and out' breaths

Progressive muscle relaxation – you learn to feel the difference between tension and relaxation and can recognise the first signs of muscular tension by progressively tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in the body

Meditation and mindfulness

Reduce:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • blood pressure
  • chronic pain
  • insomnia

Focus awareness of how you're feeling right now and keep in the present.

  • Slow breathing down
  • As a thought comes into your head, you acknowledge this is a thought and let it go –  the aim is not to connect or 'buy' into your thoughts, rather to become an observer of your thoughts
  • Thoughts will continue to flow into your head and the aim is to try and increase the time and space and time between the thoughts
Yoga

Improve:

  • mood
  • sense of wellbeing
  • ability to cope with stress
  • blood pressure
  • muscle relaxation
  • overall physical fitness
  • strength and flexibility
  • cramps and lower back discomfort with PMS and endometriosis
  • strength and stretch of the muscles that aid childbirth if you are pregnant (but let your yoga teacher know)
  • fatigue and restlessness associated with perimenopause and menopause
  • Awareness of breath: working with your breathing to calm the nervous system and to enhance self-awareness
  • Physical postures: to build strength and flexibility and release tension stored in the muscles
  • Relaxation: taking the benefits of the physical activities into the mind to become calmer

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at February 2014.

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