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Physical Activity

Regular physical activity is any body movement that works your muscles or joints and requires more energy than resting. Physical activity can take a variety of forms, including:
  • Aerobic activity
  • Strength exercise
  • Flexibility exercise
  • Balance exercise
  • Bone-strengthening exercise


Aerobic activity involves using large muscle groups, such as in the legs and arms, and increases your heart rate and breathing. It improves endurance, circulation and lung function. Examples include brisk walking, running, bicycling, swimming, and dancing.

Strength exercise increases muscle strength and power, which can improve your ability to stay independent and carry out everyday activities, such as climbing stairs, doing yard work and carrying groceries. This type of exercise is also called "strength training" or "resistance training." Examples include lifting weights or using a resistance band.

Flexibility exercise stretches muscles, ligaments and tendons. It helps with freedom of movement and reduces the risk of injury. Flexibility exercise involves taking a joint through its range of motion and trying to extend that range.

Balance exercise improves your body's reflexes to stay upright and protect joints from sudden over-flexion or extension. Better balance helps to prevent falls and joint injuries. Examples include standing on one foot and practicing Tai Chi. Many lower-body strength exercises also improve your balance.

Bone-strengthening exercise involves activity that causes your feet, legs or arms to support your body's weight and your muscles to push against your bones. This causes your bones to become stronger.

Why It's Important

Physical activity has many health benefits. These benefits apply to people of all ages and races and both sexes.
  • Physical activity lowers your risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, osteoporosis and depression.
  • Physical activity can lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels.
  • It can raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
  • Helps the body manage blood sugar and insulin levels, which lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Helps to maintain a healthy weight
  • It improves mobility and reduces the risk for falls in older adults.
  • It can help reduce feeling of depression and improve overall mood, feelings of well-being, and cognitive functioning.
  • Bone strengthening exercise can reduce the risk of osteoporosis (weak, porous bones).
  • Physical activity can improve functioning and reduce pain for persons with osteoarthritis.

What Is Known

Nationally in 2012, 23% of adults reported that they did not participate in any physical activities, and only 32% of high school students reported that they typically attended a physical education class on every day of the week.

Who Is at Risk

The health benefits of physical activity outweigh the risks of adverse consequences of exercise for almost everyone.

Factors positively associated with adult physical activity include:

  • Postsecondary education
  • Higher income
  • Enjoyment of exercise
  • Expectation of benefits
  • Belief in ability to exercise (self-efficacy)
  • History of activity in adulthood
  • Social support from peers, family, or spouse
  • Access to and satisfaction with facilities
  • Enjoyable scenery
  • Safe neighborhoods
  1. Trost SG, Owen N, Bauman AE, et al. Correlates of adults' participation in physical activity: Review and update,1996-2001. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Dec;34(12). As cited in Healthy People 2020 Topics and Objectives, downloaded from , downloaded on 7/11/2014

How To Reduce Risk

All of us should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than none, and persons who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The Guidelines include recommendations for adults, children and adolescents and older adults. The Guidelines also provide tips for staying active, and for staying safe during physical activity. Below is a summary of the recommendations for adults. Guidelines for other age groups and special considerations (e.g., activity for pregnant women) please see the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans,

For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.

For additional and more extensive health benefits, adults should increase their aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity. Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond this amount.

Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

How It's Tracked

Physical activity is tracked at the national and state levels primarily through two surveys:
  • Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adolescent and School Health.
  • Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services.

National information is also tracked through the National Health Interview Survey, National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), CDC/NCHS

For more information on tracking physical activity health objectives, please visit the Physical Activity topic at