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How can I live a more active life?
Even a little more movement each day can make a big difference in your health. We’ll show you how easy it can be and how to find activities you love.
We hear a lot about how staying active is the key to a long, healthy life. If you’re reading this, you’ve already taken the first step toward that goal. Getting more activity into your day is easier than you might think. No sweat-drenched workout needed. It can be something like a walk in the park, a dig in the garden or parking your car at the far end of the lot.
And making it happen is well worth the effort.
Seven of the 10 most common health issues, including diabetes and heart disease, can be improved by moving regularly. Especially when paired with good-for-you eating habits.1 That’s according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Nearly 80% of us don’t get the minutes of activity needed each day to get these benefits. But HHS says the first step can be simple: Move more and sit less.
Working activity into your day is literally a smart move. It’s a strategy that’s more likely to foster habits that can last a lifetime. Telling yourself you’re going to do a hardcore workout five times a week rarely sticks.
Read on for some basics that can help you along the path to being more active.
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What is an active life?
You might think it’s defined by how much activity you do. But experts say it’s not that simple. An active life is also about mindset.
“It’s really an awareness,” says Adam Ortiz. He’s a certified coach with Rally Health, part of Optum, in Denver. “The more aware you are of being active or sedentary, the more likely you are to make better choices for yourself.”
Part of this is looking at movement as a gift, not a duty. “Try to start your day looking forward to being active versus thinking, ‘I have to move more,’” he says.
How can I change my mindset about activity and exercise?
Making this mental shift can be easier if you focus only on yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t worry about what you see on social media. Just think about doing better this week than you did last week. Want to get started? Try our two-week fitness challenge.
If your goal is to run a 5K (or a marathon), that’s OK. But if it’s not, that’s OK, too. There’s no sense in training for something that’s not important to you.
Think about what you would like to be able to do. Maybe you want to walk your dog, have better posture or have less back pain. Perhaps you want to do yard work more easily. Or maybe you want to be able to lift your luggage into the overhead bin on an airplane. And maybe you just want to feel better in your clothes.
“An active lifestyle is different for everyone. It also changes throughout everybody’s life,” says Ortiz. “As we get older, what we want to do can look vastly different. It’s normal for your view of activity and the activities you do to change, too.”
What are the benefits of being active?
New research is coming out all the time that supports the health benefits of exercise. The latest HHS updates suggest that regular physical activity can2:
- Boost brain health in people of all ages and prevent memory loss
- Strengthen bones and limit age-related bone loss
- Improve balance and prevent falls
- Strengthen your heart and lungs and prevent related diseases
- Reduce anxiety and depression (including in youth and new moms)
- Prevent at least eight types of cancer (bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, kidney, stomach and lung)
- Prevent, manage or reverse prediabetes and type 2 diabetes
- Help you get to and maintain a healthy weight
- Lengthen lifespan and improve quality of life
What is the difference between staying active and exercising?
“I look at exercise as something that’s done with the main goal of improving fitness,” explains Billy Ryan. He’s a certified Rally Health coach in Chicago. Gardening is a physical activity, but your goal is to grow flowers or vegetables. “That’s not really exercise. There’s no ‘gardening’ section in the gym,” he says.
If you walk on a treadmill, take a fitness class or work out with weights, your goal is to get stronger and healthier. This can help you keep doing the activities you enjoy.
Staying active and exercising can deliver health benefits. But you have to put in enough minutes each week, with enough effort.
How much exercise do I need to be healthy?
Any amount of physical activity has some health benefits. In fact, HHS suggests that adults just try to sit less throughout the day. Many health trackers, such as smart watches and phone apps, can be set up to remind you to get out of your seat once an hour. If you’re not able to move around much at work, try this strategy when you’re home.
For substantial health benefits, you need to up the effort level. HSS recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. That’s about 30 minutes five days a week. You can tell you’re at moderate intensity if you can talk but not sing. But if you haven’t exercised in a long time, you shouldn’t start there.
“I think of movement as medicine,” says Mark Zaetta, MD. He’s the medical director at Optum Primary Care in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s better to split it up throughout the week. You’d never take all your week’s pills in one day. Small doses of exercise on a regular basis are safe and work well in the long run.”
Start slow. Do 10 minutes of heart-rate-boosting movement three or four days a week. This gives you time to build up your stamina. Can’t do that? Do what you can. Remember: Every minute matters.
Ready to do more? Go ahead. Be sure to either add minutes or push yourself harder, but not both. You don’t want to ramp up so quickly that you get hurt. See below for more on exercise intensity.
Add muscle-strengthening moves. At least two times a week, choose exercises that hit all major muscle groups.1 Break them up into smaller bouts if desired. Have access to a pool or calm body of water? Try these strength-building tips.
Don’t forget about food. More than half of your healthy-living efforts should be in the kitchen, our experts say. That’s especially true if weight loss is the main goal. It’s far easier to eat 200 fewer calories than to burn them off with exercise. That’s about the amount in a snack-size bag of potato chips5, by the way.
Stock up on all your health essentials in one swoop at the Optum Store. From pain medication and fitness trackers to sunscreen and vitamins, we have you covered. Shop now.
How hard do I need to push myself?
How hard you’re working is known as the intensity. You might also hear it called zone training. Each zone is based on your heart rate at rest. Zone 1 is very light effort, and Zone 5 is a full-out effort or close to it.
“Most of life is lived in Zones 1 and 2,” says Dr. Zaetta. “If you’re training for longevity, there’s plenty of benefit in those zones.”
The talk test can help you check your intensity3,4:
- Low intensity (Zones 1 and 2). Warm up and cool down. You can talk easily.
- Medium intensity (Zones 3 and 4). You can talk but not sing. This is the sweet spot for building fitness and health.
- Vigorous intensity (Zone 5). You can’t get out more than a few words without taking a breath. In Zone 5, you can do fewer minutes of exercise and still reap the health benefits.
“The cool thing is, once your body adapts, pushing a little beyond that isn’t going to be that bad,” says Ryan. “And then your body will adapt to that and you’ll continue to improve from there.”
What are the main types of exercise?
There are five main categories of exercise: aerobic, muscle strengthening, bone strengthening, balance and flexibility.
Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, is anything that boosts your heart and breathing rates. Some types are done in short bursts, like sprints. Longer bouts are known as endurance exercise.
- Examples: brisk walking; bicycling; swimming; jumping rope; taking an aerobics class; using a rowing machine
Muscle-strengthening exercise, also known as resistance training, has the muscles of the body working against a weight or force.
- Examples: lifting weights; using resistance bands; lifting heavy objects (milk jugs, a shovelful of dirt); climbing stairs; hiking; bodyweight moves (push-ups, sit-ups, yoga moves)
Bone-strengthening exercise, also known as weight-bearing exercise, puts stress on the bones so they rebuild and become stronger. The stress usually comes from the impact on the ground.
- Examples: jumping actions (jumping rope, jumping jacks); aerobics/dance classes; running or brisk walking; weight lifting
Balance exercise tests your ability to stay steady when you’re not standing on both feet.
- Examples: balancing on one foot; shifting weight from foot to foot; walking backward; using equipment like a balance ball or board; doing yoga or tai chi
Flexibility exercise, also known as stretching, helps loosen up tight muscles. This helps your joints move more fully through their range of motion. Usually, you’ll do moves that help lengthen the muscles. Stretching can be still (static) or moving (dynamic). And you can do it without equipment or with tools such as stretch bands and foam rollers.
- Examples: toe touches; torso twists; lunging; doing yoga or tai chi
Many types of exercise fall into more than one category. Make sure your routine hits on each category of exercise for the most benefits.
What is functional training?
It is often described as “strength training moves to improve balance and ease of daily living.” Ortiz admits he’s not fond of the term because it makes something simple sound more complex.
“There’s not much difference between strength training and functional training,” he explains. “If you’re doing strength training, it’s going to be functional. It’s going to help you with strength and joint and muscle health, which will help you in everyday life.”
For older adults, functional training might focus on muscles that are needed to get up from a chair. Or they focus on reaching for things in a cupboard. Gyms use chairs, grab bars and other equipment to mimic these activities.
“People may not think of this as strength training,” says Ortiz. “But that’s really what it is.”
Functional training can be done at any age. What’s “functional” for you is very personal. This type of exercise can be a good place for many people to start before turning to weights or weight machines.
What is the best exercise for weight loss?
“The best exercise for weight loss is the one you enjoy doing,” Ryan says. “Because if you enjoy doing it, you’ll do it regularly. And that’s the key to success.”
How can you find something you enjoy? He suggests asking yourself some questions.
Which sports or fitness activities do you like now? What did you like as a kid? As a teen? At other points in life? Maybe you want to try it again.
What activities do family and friends like to do? Do you have a dog to walk? Kids to play catch with? A friend who likes to bike or play golf? Having buddies can help keep you on track and make movement more fun.
What activities have you said you always wanted to try? If they’re out of reach for now, how might a personal trainer and exercise plan help? They can help you build the strength and skills to open that door. (If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, you may have access to free gym benefits.)
How can I make time to exercise?
Ryan encourages people to go through their day and write down a list of what they do and for how long. It might include getting ready for work, commuting, watching TV or doing chores. Some will be must-dos and some will be like-to-dos. That’s OK: Capture it all.
Next, rate each task from 1 to 10, based on how important it is to you. The items rated 1s, of course, will stay. You’re not likely to give them up to squeeze in an exercise class. But you might adapt some of them. Instead of reading in bed, listen to an audiobook on the treadmill, for example.
Now look at anything that ranks 7 through 10. Do these tasks matter more to you than taking a walk or going to the gym? Even if you don’t give any of them up entirely, can you cut back a bit to make room for movement?
“If you spend two hours on the computer or social media — and a lot of people do — don’t give it up. But think about setting aside 30 minutes of that time for activity or exercise,” says Ryan.
We've got more workout motivation tips here.
What should I do if I want to start moving more?
You can likely add some more steps to your day without a doctor’s green light. But check with your primary care physician (PCP) before starting a new exercise plan. This is especially important if you haven’t seen a doctor in the past year or so. It will keep you safe and help track your progress over time. If you need a new doctor, we can help. Search for Optum providers now.
Ask your health care team to order basic bloodwork, advises Dr. Zaetta. It will include testing your levels of blood sugar and blood fats (cholesterol). Then, a few months into your more active life, ask for a retest.
“People are surprised when they see how much their blood sugar, cholesterol and other factors change after just two or three months of exercise,” says Dr. Zaetta.
The results are so positive that many of his patients keep having their bloodwork checked. “It helps keep them accountable,” he says. You can use the funds in your flexible spending or health savings account to help pay for lab work not covered by your insurance.
If that’s not for you, find another way to hold yourself accountable. Look for a workout buddy or tell loved ones about your goals. Talk to a fitness trainer at a gym or other wellness facility. All these people can offer inspiration and information. And that can move you toward the active, healthy life you want.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd Edition). 2018. Accessed June 26, 2022.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Top 10 things to know about the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Last updated August 25, 2021. Accessed June 26, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measuring physical activity intensity. June 2, 2022. Accessed June 26, 2022.
- National Academy of Sports Medicine. The talk test: An underrated fitness tool for personal trainers. 2022. Accessed June 26, 2022.
- FoodData Central. Lay’s honey barbecue potato chips 1.125 ounces. March 19, 2021. Accessed June 28, 2022.
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