When most people think of exercises, they think of two things: body lifters with bars stacked with weights, or running on a treadmill. But exercise encompasses so much more. From a brisk walk with your dogs to a morning meditation practice, there are ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine that are almost seamless.
So what exactly constitutes exercise? Generally speaking, exercise is equated with movement. But, not all movement can be considered exercise. Walking is the perfect example. A moderately-paced 2-mile walk on the beach would certainly be good exercise. But walking to your car or to check the mailbox, even though it is the same type of movement, would never be considered exercises.
So how do you differentiate between movements that are exercise and those which aren’t? For movement to switch over to being exercise, it must be 1) planned and 2) repetitive.
Exercise is planned in advance – even if it’s only 5 minutes in advance (“The weather’s great, I’m going for a walk!”). One of the main reasons for this is that most forms of exercise require specific gear: think of running shoes, kettlebells, an elliptical machine. Exercise is also planned because most people like variety in their workouts. Legs on Monday, arms on Tuesday, etc. Or they do cardio M/W/F and strength training on T/Th. Having a defined plan keeps you on track more easily.
For exercise to be effective, it also has to be repetitive. Doing one squat isn’t going to do anything for your quads! Most strength training programs, for example, suggest 8-12 reps and 2-3 rounds of an exercise. That adds up to anywhere from 16 to 36 repetitions. The repetitive nature of exercise can also be based on time: 30 minutes of cycling, or a one-hour dance class.
While this isn’t strictly a requirement, most exercise has an intention – a goal or purpose. It can be as simple as wanting to lose weight or build muscle Or maybe your goal is more specific, such as running a half marathon in under two hours. The exception to this rule would be sports, which often have no specific intention and instead are played just for fun. But since the movements are planned and repetitive, sports are still considered to be exercise.
The 4 Types of Exercises You Need Every Week
If you work out regularly, you probably have a favorite exercise. It’s what you focus on when you go to the gym or exercise at home.
Having a favorite exercise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It keeps you fit and motivates you to continue working out. The only downside is the tendency to ignore other forms of exercise. This can be detrimental to your overall fitness, because your body needs the balance.
To truly benefit from your workouts, you need to change things up! Your muscles and your brain need the variety to achieve and maintain optimal fitness.
Every week, you should try to participate in at least two of the following: cardio, strength training, stretching, and meditation. Variety is the key to success!
Think of how you look and feel during your workout. Your cheeks are pink, you’re dripping sweat, and your heart is pumping a mile a minute. You’re probably smiling (or will be when you’re done), thanks to the mood boost. These are all common effects of cardio exercise.
Cardio is one of the basic components of any fitness routine. By design, it raises your heart rate and improves both cardiovascular and respiratory fitness and endurance.
Cardio is short for cardiovascular, named after the cardiovascular system. Why? Well, your cardiovascular system, including your heart, arteries, and veins, is responsible for pumping blood through your body. Cardio exercise is anything that gets your heart pumping faster.
Cardio is also commonly referred to aerobics or aerobic exercise, although that is not quite accurate. Aerobic translates roughly to “with oxygen” – meaning that although your breathing rate is elevated, you can sustain the exercise for a longer period of time. In fact, cardio is recommended for 30 minutes at a time.
Most cardio formats are aerobic: dancing, walking, swimming, and hiking are all common forms of cardio.
In contrast, anaerobic means “without oxygen.” For cardio, this means that you are working out so hard that you are breathless, and you wouldn’t be able to sustain that activity for a longer time period. Sprinting, climbing stairs, and lifting heavy weights are all examples of anaerobic exercises, because you quickly have difficulty breathing and wouldn’t be able to sustain that exercise for a long period of time.
Although most cardio exercise formats are aerobic, many of them can become anaerobic if they are performed at a higher intensity. Going for a bike ride might seem like aerobic exercise, until you try racing your friend up a hill. That will quickly push it to an anaerobic exercise!
Benefits of Cardio Exercises
Cardio exercise benefits both your mind and your body. It improves not just your fitness, but also your mood and your emotional well-being.
Lowered Risk of Heart Disease: Your heart is primarily a muscle. And like any other muscle, the more you work it, the more efficient and powerful it becomes. When you are exercising, you can feel your heart pumping harder, right? You are basically giving your heart a workout. It becomes stronger and is less prone to common heart diseases. Of course, genetic factors and dietary choices also play roles in heart health. Cardio alone isn’t enough to prevent heart disease.
Improved Lung Function: This goes back to what we discussed earlier about aerobic exercise. When you are working out hard, i.e. a brisk stroll and not just wandering around, your lungs are forced to increase their oxygen intake, because your muscles need more oxygenated blood. Over time, your lungs become more efficient.
Lower Blood Pressure: When you work out, your heart is pumping blood more forcefully. Your blood vessels naturally expand to accommodate the extra blood that is pumping through them. With healthier blood vessels and a healthier heart, your blood pressure will naturally lower, over time, when you are exercising regularly.
Weight Loss: Cardio is a great form of weight control or weight loss. When you sustain cardio exercise your body will use carbohydrates and fat as fuel. The actual amount of weight you can lose will depend on many other factors, though, so it’s better for you to think of this as a secondary benefit than a primary benefit.
Improved Moods: Cardio or aerobic exercise cause your brain to release endorphins. These are the mood-boosters known to create that famous “runners high” that athletes and avid gym-goers often refer to. Just 20 minutes a day of cardio can improve your mood, decrease tension and anger, and reduce the risk of depression.
What are Some Good Examples of Cardio Exercises?
Some of the most popular examples of cardio that can be done at home include:
If you prefer working out in a gym, here are some cardio options:
- Treadmill (to run or walk)
- Stair climber
- Rowing machine
Most sports are also a good cardio workout. Some of the most popular options include:
- Ice Skating
High Impact vs. High Intensity
Some of the terms that you’ll often hear used when referring to cardio are low intensity, high intensity, low impact, and high impact. Sometimes people will use the intensity/impact phrases interchangeably, but they actually have very different meanings.
This is used to refer to an exercise that doesn’t get your heart rate too high and doesn’t affect your breathing as intensely. It’s still cardio, but a more moderate form. So instead of running, for example, you might be walking.
High intensity exercises are those that get you sweating! These are the exercises that elevate both your heart rate and your oxygen intake. Running and kickboxing are both high intensity exercises.
In the fitness world, low impact exercises require you to always have one foot on the ground. No jumping! It places less stress on your body and reduces the risk of injury. Walking and cycling are two of the most common forms of low impact exercise. But swimming and kayaking are fun alternatives.
Most people think of high impact when they think of cardio. Your body will come into contact harder with either the floor or the fitness impact. Sports such as football or soccer are high impact, as are running and plyometrics.
Which Cardio Exercises to Choose
It all depends on your fitness level and your goals. If you are just starting out with exercise, are recovering from an injury, or have any health conditions, then a low-intensity, low-impact workout is probably best for you, at least at first.
Starting off with more challenging exercise formats could lead to frustration and even injuries, which could cause you to work out less or even stop altogether.
However, if you are in good physical condition, there should be nothing stopping you from the higher-intensity higher-impact choices.
But the most important thing with cardio exercises is to have fun! If you hate running, then doing it several times a week will just feel like a dreaded chore. And no one wants more chores. Try some other options: join group exercise classes, join a sports league, or take dance lessons. If you love being in the water, try swimming or surfing.
The more you love your exercise format, the more likely you are to stick with it.
How Much Cardio Should I Do?
Your fitness goal should include 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, 5x per week, for 150 minutes of cardio every week. Try to add some variety through different forms of cardio, instead of always doing the same thing. It’s better for your muscles and better for your mood.
Remember to start off slowly. Don’t hurt yourself or overdo it. Gradually increase your workouts until you reach that number. You can add about 10% each week. So if you can only walk 20 minutes, the next week you can add an extra 2 minutes and walk 22 minutes each time.
Once you’ve achieved the 150 minutes of working out per week, you can slowly raise the intensity of your workouts through intervals. So for example, if you are walking 30 minutes, you can add in some short spurts of running throughout your workout.
When most people think of strength training, the first thing that comes to mind is usually a pumped up guy at the gym, red-faced from listing an astonishingly stacked barbell. And while this is certainly one form of strength training, there are others that aren’t so extreme. Or intimidating. In fact, there are many strength training exercises that don’t use weights at all!
Whereas cardio exercises focus on increasing cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, strength training exercises are meant to tone your muscles or increase your muscle mass. In general, strength training is considered to be any exercise that is done using resistance (weights or otherwise).
In the section on cardio, we discussed the difference between aerobic (“with oxygen”) and anaerobic (“without oxygen”) exercise. Strength training is considered to be anaerobic. This doesn’t mean that you don’t need oxygen!
But when you are strength training, your body is moving in short, intense spurts of motion, not sustained movement. And your focus is on your muscles, not on elevating your heart rate or breathing. Instead of requiring oxygen for energy, when you are strength training you are using glucose (often in the form of carbs) to fuel your workout.
Benefits of Strength Training Exercises
Strength training will, of course, give you muscles. But it has many additional positive effects on your body.
The many benefits of strength training include:
Defined Muscles: Whether your muscular goal is to build mass (“bulk up”) or tone and define your existing muscles, strength training is the way to do it. Repetitive exercises that work the specific muscles will condition your body. Then, depending on your goals, you can determine your exact training routine.
Faster Metabolism: “Strength training turns fat into muscle” is one of the most widely spread myths surrounding this particular form of exercise. They are two completely different types of tissue, and cannot be interchanged that simply. However, weight training does help reduce your body fat percentage and increase your muscles. Because muscles burn more calories, even at rest this increases your metabolism all day long, even when you aren’t working out.
Increased Stamina: When you are strength training, you will constantly be increasing the amount of weight and/or the number of repetitions. This boosts your stamina, and allows you to do more work before getting tired. This isn’t just a benefit for when you are exercising; it will improve your everyday life.
Improved Bone Health: Because of the way the muscles push and pull on your bones during your strength training workout, your bone density will improve. Your bones will be less brittle, and less likely to suffer from a serious injury such as breaking or fracturing. You will also have better posture, and can fight off osteoporosis more easily.
Improved Mental State: Like most other forms of exercise, strength training has positive side effects for your mental health, as well. The endorphins, norepinephrine, and dopamine released when you work out are natural mood boosters that help reduce anxiety and depression.
Examples of Strength Training Exercises
There are three types of strength training exercises. You might have a favorite one, but your workouts will be more effective if you rotate among them.
This is probably the most common form of strength training, and the one people first think of when they start to exercise. Dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells can all be used when you are weight training, as well as the weight machines at the gym.
Body Weight Exercises
These exercises build muscle using just your body. They are convenient, because you can do them anywhere, for example, on vacation, without the need for any special equipment. But, body weight exercises can be a bit of plateau, since you can’t increase the resistance. Try increasing the number of reps or the speed of each rep to challenge yourself. Examples of this would be squats, tricep dips, glute bridges, pushups, lunges, and most core work.
This is almost a cross between the other two. Like body weight exercises, resistance training doesn’t use weights. However, unlike body weight exercises, they do use equipment Workouts that incorporate resistance bands, loop bands, or TRX straps are all considered resistance training.
What Are Some Examples of Strength Training Exercises?
There are numerous different exercises you can do for strength training. Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Medicine ball
- Tricep dip
- Abdominal exercises (i.e. crunches)
- Bicep curls
- Shoulder presses
- Resistance bands
In the gym, you can strength train in a group exercise class or by using the weight machines.
Although strength training is not a sport, there are some sports that incorporate aspects of it. Rock climbing, Highland games, and powerlifting are all examples of strength sports.
How Often Should I Strength Train?
Strength training is recommended 2-3 per week.
The key to strength training is repetition. Doing one squat will get you nowhere. But doing 25 of them, three times a week, will give you results.
Training Muscle Groups
Most exercise buffs prefer to split up their strength training routines, working out more often but focusing on different muscle groups. So instead of going to the gym twice in a week, and working all of the muscle groups in one long session, you might split your muscles into smaller groups and go to the gym more often.
The muscle groups most commonly worked together are:
- Chest and shoulders
- Back, arms, and abs
- Hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves
Increasing Weights During Strength Sessions
Most strength training programs suggest 8-12 reps (repetitions) repeated for 2-3 rounds. That very last rep should be a challenge that you can barely complete.
To start, pick a weight that you can use to complete 8 reps, 2 times. Gradually increase the reps and add the third set. Once you can complete 3 sets of 12 reps, it’s time to add more weight.
When you think of exercising, you’ll probably be thinking of workouts such as running, swimming, or weight lifting. Stretching might not even come to mind at all. But stretching is crucial to any physical fitness program, and there is no doubt that it should be incorporated into your own fitness.
Stretching keeps you flexible and loosens tight muscles and joints. This will increase your range of motion (how much you can move easily). This not only reduces the risk of injury when you are working out or playing a sport, it even reduces the risk of hurting yourself when you are going about your daily activities.
Have you ever heard someone say that they hurt their shoulder just reaching for something? That is likely because they reached past their range of motion. Stretching and having
Dynamic and Static Stretching
There are two main types of stretches: dynamic and static stretches.
Dynamic stretches are those which incorporate movement. You do these types of stretches on cold muscles, to warm them up and prepare them for movement. For this reason, you would usually add them into your warm-up routine prior to exercising or playing a sport.
Neck rolls, shoulder circles, and leg swings are all examples of dynamic stretches.
Static stretches are those in which you stretch a muscle to a certain position, then hold it for 10-30 seconds. Because static stretches push your muscles more, you should only do them with muscles that are already warmed up. You can do your static stretches after your workout, as part of your cooldown.
Static stretches include standing quad stretch, calf stretch, or overhead triceps stretch.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching has so many benefits for both the mind and body. Here are just a few of them.
Improved Flexibility: The more you stretch your muscles, the more supple and flexible they become. This will help you with exercises, sports, and even your daily life. As we get older, we naturally lose some of our flexibility, but stretching will help you retain it as much as possible.
Improved Range of Motion: Ideally, you want to be able to move your joints through their full range of motion. Both dynamic and static stretching help you achieve that goal by keeping your joints loose.
Alleviate Sore Muscles: When you stretch your muscles, you are increasing the circulation to those specific muscles. In some cases, the increased blood flow can help shorten recovery time and reduce muscle soreness.
Reduce Back Pain: Back pain is often caused by poor posture or muscular imbalances. When you stretch, you combat both of those scenarios. Although back pain has many causes, stretching can help make you feel better.
Aids in Relaxation: Your muscles hold tension, especially your shoulder and neck muscles. Stretching them will loosen them up and relieve some of the stress and tension that they hold. If you suffer from tension headaches, stretching can help relieve that, too.
How Often Should I Stretch?
Most people just do a few stretches into their warm up or cooldown routine. While that is better than not stretching at all, it’s not nearly enough to really give your body the benefits of stretching.
Try to aim for 30 minutes of stretching every week. You can split this up into small stretch sessions throughout the week, 5 or 10 minutes each time.
Ideally, you should stretch before and after each workout or sports session.
How to Incorporate Stretching
If you’ve never tried stretching before, take it easy. Stretching should never hurt. You might feel some soreness, since you are pushing your muscles and joints for maximum flexibility and looseness. But you should never feel pain when you stretch.
With static stretches, you should hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds. The longer you hold the stretch, the more you will benefit from it. Take deep breaths while you stretch, and every time you exhale you can deepen the stretch. Only on your exhales, not on your inhales.
For dynamic stretches, try to repeat the motion for at least 60 seconds. As you feel your muscles loosening, you can make your movements bigger to increase the range of motion.
If you’re not sure where to begin, a tai chi or yoga class both offer plenty of dynamic and static stretching.
Meditation is the fourth activity that should make up part of your physical wellness routine. You might not be exercising your body, but you are definitely exercising your mind! It is as effective as other exercises when it comes to overall wellness.
You may be thinking that meditating is just sitting cross-legged on the floor and humming. And while some people do meditate in that position, a meditation practice goes much, much deeper than that.
Think of meditation as a way of opening your mind and training it to achieve a mentally stable, calm and peaceful state. When you meditate, you leave all worries and tension behind and try to let your thoughts become clear and focused.
Benefits of Meditation
When you meditate regularly, you will soon begin to see the many benefits of this practice.
Reduced Stress: Meditation can reduce the creation and release of cortisol, the stress hormone. With reduced levels of cortisol, your body and mind will feel more relaxed and less tense due to the reduced levels of stress.
Lowered Blood Pressure: Due to the breathing techniques used in meditation, as well as the reduced stress, your blood pressure will be lower while you meditate. Over time, the reduced strain on the heart and arteries has a cumulative effect, and your blood pressure will be lower even when you have completed your meditation.
Improved Sleep: By reducing stress and producing a state of relaxation, meditation will also improve your sleep. Without all of those racing thoughts, you can sleep more deeply and longer. This will help your body and mind get the rest they need, which will be especially helpful if you are working out.
Reduced Depression: When you are under stress, your body produces chemicals called cytokines. These chemicals are known to affect moods and can lead to depression. By reducing stress, and therefore lowering the production of cytokines, meditation can lower the risk of depression.
How to Begin a Meditation Practice
If you have never meditated before, here’s a helpful guide to get you started.
Pick a Time of Day
In general, you probably want to try to meditate at more or less the same time each day. Although not strictly necessary, it will help you form the habit. Just like you get into a routine with other types of workouts, meditating at the same time every day will make it easier for you to find the time each day.
Most people prefer to meditate either when they first wake up or at the end of the day.
Choose Your Spot
Try to pick a spot in the house that is removed from any action or noise. Ideally, you can find a room with a door that you can close, so that you won’t be disturbed. If that proves to be too difficult, you can play soft music or white noise on your phone.
Wear Comfortable Clothing
Concentrating on meditation is difficult enough without a tag on your shirt scratching your neck! Wear loose, comfortable clothing that you won’t be tempted to scratch or tug at.
Forget the images of meditation with the model in a perfect cross-legged pose on the floor. You need to find a pose that works for you and is comfortable for you. You don’t want the distraction of being uncomfortable and constantly having to shift your weight. While sitting on the floor is grounding, if it’s uncomfortable, then you can sit in a chair.
Don’t worry about your hands, either. The mudras, or hand gestures, you see in pictures of people meditating are fine if you want to copy them. If not, you can place your hands in your lap, in front of your chest in a prayer position, or resting on your legs/knees with the palms up or down, whatever you prefer.
Relax and Breathe
Focus on your breathing. You don’t necessarily need to deepen it right away. Just focus on how the air goes in and out, notice your inhales and exhales. When a thought intrudes, simply accept it and let it float away. If you feel comfortable deepening your breaths,you can do so at any point.
If You Need Help
Meditating is not always easy, especially if you are new to the practice. If you find it difficult to relax and find yourself being overwhelmed by racing thoughts, you can opt for a guided meditation instead. YouTube has several good ones for you to choose from, and both Android and iPhone offer guided meditation apps.
When you are done with your meditation practice, don’t just stand up and go back to your reality. Take time, stretch – remember, you’ve been sitting for quite a while, and gradually bring your awareness back to your day.
How Often Should I Meditate?
To reap the maximum benefits from your meditation practice, ideally you would meditate every day for 10-20 minutes. Of course, that’s not always possible, but try to at least come close.
If you are a beginner, you might find it difficult at first to meditate for that long. Set a phone timer for 5 minutes, and gradually increase the time until you reach the recommended 10-20 minutes.
Why Is Exercise Important?
Exercise doesn’t just improve your body. It’s not about looking good, it’s about feeling good. The physical and emotional benefits of exercise are both crucial parts of your overall well-being. In some cases, depending on the exercise, the emotional benefits might even outwith the physical benefits.
Regardless of the results you want, it is clear that exercising is a crucial part of your overall well-being.
Depending on your current physical condition, you might see some of the physical benefits of your exercises right away. Increased muscle mass, sculpted muscles, and weight loss are all easy to see when you begin working out consistently.
But there are other physical benefits that you won’t be able to see. Increased bone density and improved cardiovascular endurance are perfect examples of this. Regardless of whether or not you actually see the physical benefits of exercising, you can relax and be confident that they will be present, as long as you stay committed to your fitness.
You will also feel the emotional benefits of exercising. Reduced stress is one of the biggest benefits. Having a way to consistently release tension will relieve the symptoms of stress, both physical and emotional.
Due to the hormones produced and released when you exercise, you can also count on the emotional benefits of exercising. Working out regularly improves your mood, reduces the risk of depression, and lessens anxiety.
Aside from these emotional benefits, exercising regularly will also help your brain itself. As your heart rate increases, it increases the blood flow to your brain. This can enhance your cognitive skills, improve your memory, and reduce the possibility of schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Start an Exercise Routine
Congratulations on your decision to begin exercising! Whether you are exercising for the first time or returning after taking a break, we’re thrilled to be a part of your fitness journey.
Here are some guidelines that will help you get started.
- Start off Slowly: Yes, it’s tempting to jump in and get right to it. However, this will create the potential for injury or for muscles so sore that you need a prolonged recovery time. You are better off taking it easy and seeing what your body can handle realistically. You can make your exercises more challenging as your body adapts.
- Do Something You Enjoy: Start off with the exercise formats that you love. Don’t force yourself to do something you hate, just because you think it’s good for you. You want to be excited about your workouts, so you can stay motivated and happy.
- Add Variety: Don’t fall into the trap of only strength training or only swimming or only anything. There are plenty of examples listed above to get you started. Variety will keep it interested and challenge your muscles. And try to do at least one of each of the workouts (cardio, strength, stretch, and meditation) every week.
- Don’t Be Too Strict: While we did recommend frequency and duration for exercising, these are just loose guidelines and should only be followed if your body is ready. When you are just starting out, don’t be too strict with yourself. You don’t want to overdo it! You can always increase your exercises over time.
If You Have Access to a Gym
If you have a gym membership, it’s time to use it! Stop by the front desk, introduce yourself, and let them know that you are just getting started (or returning). They can help you figure out the best way to achieve your goals.
Most gyms will also walk you through the machines. They will have personnel, sometimes even personal trainers, available to demonstrate the proper usage of the machines and make sure your form is correct.
Most gyms also provide group fitness. Look at their schedule and see if there are any classes you might enjoy. Working out with a group is always more fun and a great way to get motivated.
If You’re Working Out at Home
At-home workouts have changed tremendously over the past few months. There are so many options for you to work out, without ever going to the gym!
Decide what you want to do. If you need any equipment, you can buy everything from yoga mats to dumbbells online or at most local stores.
You can also head outside whenever the weather allows. Walking, cycling, swimming, stretching and meditation are all easy options for outdoor workouts. You can even loop a TRX strap around a tree for outdoor strength training.
If you’re not sure what to do at home, download a fitness app or look for videos online. Just read the customer reviews and make sure the instructor is licensed before you start.
The Last Word
Physical fitness is a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t see results in the first week.
Pace yourself, put in the work, and be consistent. Your efforts and hard work will pay off in the long run!