Associated Women's Health Specialists  

Exercise and Your Health

Regular physical activity—exercise that is done on most days of the week—has many health benefits. It can help you prevent or control disease, lose weight, and feel better. Exercise is key to a healthy lifestyle. This pamphlet will explain:
  • Benefits of exercise
  • Types of exercise
  • Safety tips
Benefits of Exercise

Exercise can strengthen your heart and promote the health of your blood vessels. It helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which can reduce your risk of heart disease. Regular exercise also can:

  • Strengthen your muscles
  • Increase your flexibility
  • Give you more energy
  • Help control your weight

Exercise can help build and maintain strong bones. It helps slow the bone loss that occurs as women age and begin to develop osteoporosis.

Regular exercise also lowers the risk of diabetes and certain types of cancer, such as colon cancer. Women who are not active are at increased risk for these health problems.

Exercise is good for your mind as well as your body. Staying active promotes mental well-being, relieves stress, helps you sleep better, and can help ease depression and anxiety.

Regular exercise promotes a healthy heart and lowers your risk of many health problems. It also can give you more energy, help control your weight, and make you feel better.

Types of Exercise

There are two types of exercises—cardiovascular (or aerobic) exercise and strength training. A mix of both is best. In addition to these exercises, every workout should include exercises to promote flexibility. This means careful stretching of the muscles and joints. Some exercise programs, such as pilates and yoga, are specifically designed to improve flexibility. A water-based program, such as water aerobics, is a popular way to promote flexibility with reduced risk of injury. The support of the water allows joints to move freely. This type of exercise often is less painful for patients who are recovering from an injury.

All strength training and some cardiovascular exercise is weight bearing. This means that, during exercise, your body is supporting your weight against gravity. This promotes bone density and protects against osteoporosis.

Cardiovascular Exercise

Cardiovascular exercise causes your heart and lungs to work harder to build fitness. Improving the fitness of your heart and lungs increases your body's ability to use oxygen. Also, it burns calories, which helps you lose weight.

Cardiovascular exercise also helps build endurance. The more endurance you have, the longer you can exercise. Examples of cardiovascular exercise are:

  • Swimming
  • Running
  • Bicycling
  • Walking
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Aerobic activities

Walking is one of the most flexible forms of physical activity. It can be done almost anywhere at any time. You should use these common sense tips to keep safe and avoid injury:

  • Choose a safe place to walk.
  • Start gradually.
  • Warm up before walking and cool down afterwards.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Wear walking shoes with thick flexible soles.
  • Wear clothes that will keep you dry, comfortable, and visible to traffic.
  • Avoid intense walking in extremely hot or cold weather.
You should aim to walk at least 30 minutes above your regular physical activity on all or most days of the week. During a moderately paced session you will walk about 1,000 steps in 10 minutes. To maintain or lose weight you should walk longer or faster—at least 10,000 steps per day. Following these rules will help you get the most out of your walking session:
  • Keep your chin up and shoulders back.
  • Walk so that the heel of your foot touches the ground first.
  • Point your toes forward.
  • Swing your arms as you walk.
Aerobic Activities

Aerobic activities are a popular form of cardiovascular exercise among women of all ages. The most common types of aerobic activities are:

  • Aerobic dancing—Rhythmic exercises based on a variety of dance forms, such as disco, jazz, and ballet that are performed to music.
  • Water aerobics—Aerobic exercises performed in the water to reduce stress on the joints.
  • Low-impact aerobics—Aerobic dancing without high kicks and leaps during which at least one foot is on the ground at all times to reduce stress on the joints.
Strength training

Strength training, also called resistance training, builds muscle and slows bone loss. Exerting force on your muscles and bones helps to strengthen them. As you build muscle, your body will become more toned. The more muscle you have, the better your body burns calories. Examples of strength training include:

  • Lifting weights
  • Using weight machines
  • Using resistance bands
  • Push-ups
  • Leg lifts
  • Squats
  • Sit-ups
Exercise Guidelines

How often and how much you exercise depends on your goals. If you want to

  • lower the risk of chronic disease—exercise at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
  • maintain weight—exercise about 60 minutes on most days of the week. You should not eat more calories than you burn.
  • lose weight—exercise at least 60–90 minutes on most days of the week.
You will likely have to reduce the number of calories you eat. Try to do a combination of cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercises every day. Activities such as gardening or dancing also can help burn calories or tone your muscles.

Getting Started

If you are in good health, you do not have to see your doctor before you begin a moderate exercise program. However, some people may need extra care. You should talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program if

  • you are older than 50 years and plan a vigorous program
  • you have a chronic medical condition or are at increased risk of a medical condition
  • you are very overweight (obese) (see Table 1 "Body Mass Index")
  • you are pregnant
You may want to consult a fitness instructor who will set a routine for you to follow under his or her supervision or on your own. A fitness instructor can show you how to perform certain movements to avoid strain or other injury. Many gyms offer this service.

There also are many videos, books, and magazines available on exercise and fitness. You may want to ask a fitness instructor to suggest a video that will match your level of fitness.

If it has been some time since you have exercised regularly, you should start exercising slowly and gradually. You can spread exercise throughout the day. Plan your exercise program to suit your interests and lifestyle. Table 2 lists activities that you can select to fit into your daily life. It also will tell you how many calories you can burn during these activities.

Warming Up and Cooling Down

Each exercise session should include a warm-up and a cool-down period. Warm-up exercises prepare your heart and muscles for more intense activity and prevent injuries. Cooling down helps your body return to normal after exercise.

Start the exercise session with a warm-up period for 5–10 minutes. This is light activity, such as slow walking or stationary cycling at a low resistance.

After exercising, cool down by slowly reducing your activity. This allows your heart rate to return to near-normal levels. Cooling down for 5–10 minutes and stretching will increase flexibility and prevent muscle soreness. Hold stretches for 20–30 seconds and do not bounce. To avoid overheating, do not use a hot tub or sauna and do not take a hot shower until you have cooled down completely from exercise.

Things to Watch

Most women can exercise at some level without any risk. However, any activity done in excess or the wrong way can cause injuries and long-term problems.

Warning Signs

To avoid injury during a workout, you need to use common sense and pay attention to your body's messages. Following are signs that you may be working too hard:

  • Excessive muscle soreness or pain
  • Pain
  • Problems breathing
  • Feeling very tired for the whole workout
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness
  • Irregular heartbeat
If any of these signs occur, you should stop working out. The next time you exercise, do not work quite so hard. If you still have problems, see your doctor.


Women who routinely exercise too much may get injuries because of repeated stress on their muscles and bones. These injuries include stress fractures, shin splints (which cause pain at the lower front part of the leg), and knee injuries. Exercises that can cause stress injuries include high-impact aerobics and running.

One way to avoid injury is to rest on some days or alternate between vigorous and lighter activity. Another way is to cross-train, which means doing different activities, such as tennis and swimming. Water-based activities, such as swimming or water aerobics, are low-impact exercises that are ideal for older women. Water aerobics, however, is not a weight-bearing exercise and will not help prevent osteoporosis.

Pregnant Women and Older Women

If you were physically active before pregnancy, you can remain active during pregnancy. If there are no complications, 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise every day is healthy. You should avoid activities with a risk of falling, such as basketball, gymnastics, or horseback riding. You also should avoid deep scuba diving because of the risk of decompression. If you were not active before getting pregnant or you have a medical condition, you should talk with your doctor to plan a safe exercise program.

Women also should continue to exercise as they age. Older women who have not exercised before should work with a doctor to plan an exercise program and start slowly. Old age, a medical condition, or physical impairment should not be a reason for not exercising.

Finally . . .

Regular exercise promotes a healthy heart and lowers your risk of many health problems. It also can give you more energy, help control your weight, and make you feel better. Find exercise that you enjoy and take time to exercise every day. Making exercise a part of your lifestyle will have long-term benefits.


Calorie: A unit of heat used to express the fuel or energy value of food.

Cardiovascular Exercise: Exercise designed to promote a healthy heart and blood vessels

Osteoporosis: A condition in which the bones become so fragile that they break more easily.