According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity decreased considerably among all age groups in 2022. 27.5% of adults worldwide — or about 1.5 billion people — did not meet physical activity recommendations, which include at least 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes per week of intense aerobic exercise.1
Although these guidelines sound precise, they aren’t as clear-cut in practice. The difference between aerobic exercise, cardio, and strength training can be confusing, and it isn’t always obvious where popular exercise practices like yoga fit into this model. Whether your confusion stems from what certain exercises even are, how to do them correctly and safely, or which ones fit into your busy life, you might think it’s easier not to do any exercise at all. To clarify things, this guide outlines the best types of exercises for adults, their benefits, and national and international recommendations for the top routines for your health.
Physical activity is good for everyone. As we get older, however, moving regularly only becomes more important. In some cases, regular exercise can mean the difference between life and death. Not only can it manage your weight in the short term, but it can also improve your odds of defeating (or not developing) certain diseases. Over time, regular movement can help improve your quality of life in the following ways:1
There are three major kinds of physical activity: stretching, aerobic exercise, and strength training. We’ll explore each of these below, as well as balance exercises, which may not be as familiar.
As we get older, movement becomes harder. Losing flexibility in our muscles and tendons over time means that simple tasks can become more difficult, if not insurmountable. Everything from picking up a dropped pen, tying our shoes, or even getting out of bed is more challenging without flexible muscles or lubricated joints. Luckily, stretching is often enough movement to stave off some of those more painful moments. Short muscles are tight and difficult to move, and stretching lengthens and loosens muscle fibers.
Without regular stretching, it’s possible to experience more severe problems and even injury. Not regularly stretching muscles and tendons can lead to:2
Including a routine of stretching can strengthen and lengthen our muscles and tendons, increase our range of movement, and make daily activities less painful and risky.2 There are two kinds of stretches: dynamic and static.
Stretching is an exercise on its own and is just as important as any other kind of exercise you’ll read about in this guide. It can improve your flexibility, balance, and overall mobility. However, when and how you stretch matters. Research has indicated that stretching before intense exercise (such as sprinting) might decrease your performance or damage your hamstrings because of prolonged pressure on the muscle. A better way to incorporate stretching into your daily routine is after your workout when your muscles are at their warmest. These are called static stretches.3
After your warm-up or workout, choose your static stretch. These kinds of stretching exercises hold the stretch for up to 60 seconds.3 Remember, if you have any physical limitations or health conditions, talk to your doctor about which stretches are safest for you.
One example of a common static stretch is a hamstring stretch. Follow the instructions below to complete this exercise safely.
Other kinds of static stretches target muscle groups like your hips, back, and shoulders. Be sure to personalize your static stretches to your sore or underworked areas, and pair them with whichever part of your body was affected the most by your workout.
Where static stretches are better after a workout, dynamic stretches are the most effective as warm-ups. A dynamic stretch is a repetitive movement that eases you into more intense exercise. They deliver blood and oxygen to your muscles, preparing your body for intense activity.2 Stretching “cold” stiff muscles can lead to injury, so warm-ups with simple, repetitive movements such as arm circles, walking, in-place marches, or jumping jacks to avoid hurting yourself while trying to improve your health. Aim to warm up for about 5 to 10 minutes before jumping into your workout.3
Aerobic exercise is another name for cardiovascular conditioning, nicknamed “cardio.”4 Cardio exercises increase heart rate and breathing rate, making the lungs work harder to provide oxygen to the body. For this to happen, though, the exercises must reach a moderate to high intensity, whether that’s achieved through vigor level or the amount of time spent doing the exercise.
Cardio has numerous health benefits. The elevated heart and breathing rates increase your endurance levels, which allow your body to perform better, work harder, and feel less tired, to start. Cardio has also been shown to:4
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends doing 30 minutes of cardio 5-7 times a week. Cardio doesn’t have to leave you soaked in sweat, though. There are many different ways to do a moderately-intense cardio workout, like:4
Because cardio can be done in many ways with little to no equipment, it also can be broken up to fit your schedule. This can look like a 15-minute walk or jog before breakfast and after dinner, or one ten-minute walk or jog before or after each meal.
If you have more time on your hands, your choices don’t have to be limited to walking or jogging. Consider a more intense session, particularly if you’re interested in weight loss or heart health and have more time on your hands. To reap more benefits, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests adding 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio three times per week. High-intensity cardio includes running, jump rope, sports, or any of the above cardio exercises done faster, with more resistance, or for a longer amount of time.4
If you have any physical limitations or health conditions, speak to your doctor on how to effectively and safely include cardio into your routine. There are ways to modify exercises so that anyone, regardless of limitations, can implement them.
In the same way, any exercise has the potential for injury. Knowing your limits and how to properly do an exercise is important. Here’s an example of an effective cardio workout:
As we age, our body fat percentage increases and our muscle mass decreases, especially if we live a sedentary (inactive) lifestyle.2 While cardio improves endurance, strength training increases and maintains muscle mass and improves bone density. Strength training has also been shown to:5
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommends including 20-30 minute strength training sessions two or three times per week.5 However, recent research has found that the more strength training you do, the lower your risk of adverse health events. The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that increasing your strength training to 60 minutes a week was associated with a 10-20% drop in early death, cancer, and heart disease risks.5
The study’s best results occurred when strength and cardio training were done together. Individuals who did one hour of moderate-intensity cardio, as well as one to two strength training sessions per week, had a 40% lower risk of death than those who didn’t exercise at all. The difference in health is that of a nonsmoker and someone who smokes half a pack of cigarettes daily.6
Unlike most cardio, where you either need the gym, a machine, or the outdoors to best complete the exercise, strength training can be done either from the comfort of your own home or at the gym. (The upside of training at the gym is that there are professionals who can help if you need it, but there are hundreds of resources online about how to do strength training at home.) Some tools to help you strength train include:5
With strength training, it’s important to remember that the goal is to fatigue the muscle groups you’re targeting — meaning you feel too tired to do another repetition. Doing this regularly is what increases muscle mass as your body rises to the challenge. Another important thing to remember is to rest for one full day between each exercise, so don’t strength train two days in a row. Allowing your muscles to rest and recover reduces the risk of injury.5
Let’s walk through what an effective strength training exercise looks like:
As with all exercises, knowing your limits is important. Because strength training involves the lifting of heavy objects, whether body weight or free weights, it’s important to speak to your doctor before attempting this kind of exercise. The risk of injury can be high if you don’t know how to perform it correctly, particularly if you have any health conditions or limitations.
If balance exercises don’t sound familiar, you might know them by their more popular representatives: yoga, tai-chi, and pilates. These exercise practices are usually taught in group settings, such as studios, gyms, and senior centers.2 We’ll focus on yoga because of its popularity and high accessibility.
One in seven adults participates in some kind of yoga regularly, making it undoubtedly the most well-known balance exercise practice.7 Originating from India and practiced for thousands of years, the exercises themselves range from relaxed postures to positions requiring the utmost flexibility and resilience in heated rooms. Yoga focuses on improving mobility and balance, and achieving harmony between the mind and body through different postures, breathing exercises, and meditative practices.7
Yoga can help people of all ages, but it’s particularly beneficial for older adults. Research has shown that adults over 60 who practice yoga can improve their balance, mobility, and reduce their risk of falls.8 Since it’s similar to stretching, it doesn’t have to put a lot of strain on the body but still improves muscle tension.
Yoga can even have a positive impact on what you eat. A 2015 study found that practicing yoga can lead to making better food choices, such as eating less fatty foods and choosing more vegetables, whole grains, and meatless proteins. The mindfulness honed by yoga can lead to reductions in binge eating, emotional eating, and stress eating, and can even reduce the risk of eating disorders.9 Yoga can also:
Although yoga can be learned at home with the help of online classes or instructional videos on YouTube, it’s much better to join a yoga studio or beginner’s yoga class at a gym. Teaching yourself yoga without professional supervision can lead to injury, especially if you have health conditions or are pregnant. Always consult with your doctor before attempting new exercises or balance practices.7
Another reason to join a yoga studio or class is to take advantage of the community and culture that yoga fosters. The benefits of yoga speak to a culture of wellness, health promotion, and stress relief. While some gym environments can be competitive, stressful, and unwelcoming, the right yoga studio will boost your self-esteem and confidence while monitoring and nurturing your progress. You might even make new friends who are like-minded and at the same skill level, meaning you can progress to more advanced yoga stages together.9
Incorporating physical activity into your life doesn’t have to mean following a rigid routine. As long as you’ve spoken with your doctor about any limitations or conditions you have, there is no reason to hesitate. Whether you try intense cardio, strength training, or the regal discipline of yoga, physical activity has to suit your lifestyle before it can be of any benefit. Start slowly to realize your potential and then branch out to other forms of exercise. Not only will you reap the health benefits of exercise, but you’ll also become a more confident and capable person.
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Global status report on physical activity 2022. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2022. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2017, January 13). The 4 most important types of exercise - Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/exercise-and-fitness/the-4-most-important-types-of-exercise
Mayo Clinic staff. (2017). Stretching: Focus on Flexibility. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/stretching/art-20047931
Cleveland Clinic. (2019, July 16). Aerobic Exercise Health Information | Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7050-aerobic-exercise
Mayo Clinic staff. (2021, May 15). Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/strength-training/art-20046670
Fairbank, R. (2022, August 24). People Who Do Strength Training Live Longer — and Better. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/24/well/move/cardio-strength-training-benefits.html
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2019, May). Yoga: What you need to know. NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga-what-you-need-to-know
Youkhana, S., Dean, C. M., Wolff, M., Sherrington, C., & Tiedemann, A. (2015). Yoga-based exercise improves balance and mobility in people aged 60 and over: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Age and Ageing, 45(1), 21–29. https://doi.org/10.1093/ageing/afv175
Anekwe, C., & Reddy, N. (2021, December 6). Yoga for weight loss: Benefits beyond burning calories. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/yoga-for-weight-loss-benefits-beyond-burning-calories-202112062650