Being active is vital for good health. It can take the form of exercise such as sports, going to the gym, swimming, bike riding or running, hobbies or chores that involve movement such as gardening, vacuuming or building—even choices like taking the stairs or walking to the shops, school or work. Being physically active for at least 30 minutes per day can have immediate and long-term health benefits.

Why is it important to be physically active?

Exercise and physical activity can reduce your risk of developing several diseases including type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular (heart) disease. It can have immediate benefits for your mental health and sleep.

Not enough physical activity is one of the 10 leading risk factors for death worldwide. Despite this, one in four adults and four out of five adolescents are not active enough.

An insufficient level of physical activity levels is often due to sedentary behaviour on the job and at home, as well as a reliance on ‘passive’ modes of transportation, such as cars and public transport. Other contributing factors include a lack of time, uncertainty of what to do or how to do it, fear of injury, and a lack of safe or suitable local areas for exercise.

Trying out new exercise can be fun and challenging. There are many types of community exercise groups that you can join to help keep active such as walking, running, gym, dance, bike riding and dog walking. Your council should have a list of community groups in your area. Personal activity monitors and phone apps can also help you get active.

How can exercise prevent disease?

Exercise, which is a subcategory of physical activity, increases energy expenditure and improves the functions of the body. It is planned, structured, repetitive and aims to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness.

Regular physical activity can significantly reduce your risk of many diseases and conditions, including:

  • cardiovascular disease by 35 per cent
  • type 2 diabetes by 40 per cent
  • breast cancer by 20 per cent
  • colon cancer by 30 per cent
  • depression by 30 per cent
  • hip fracture by 68 per cent
  • dementia by 30 per cent.

Your physiotherapist will assess your current physical ability and recommend the best ways to increase your physical activity via exercise. They can also show you ways of monitoring your progress and work around any physical limitations you may have.

How much exercise should I be doing?

Children and adolescents (aged 5–17 years)

  • At least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity per day
  • Include activities that strengthen muscles and bone at least three times per week

Adults aged 18–64 years

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week (around 20 minutes per day, at a minimum) or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity
  • For additional health benefits, adults should increase their moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes per week, or equivalent
  • Muscle-strengthening activities, involving major muscle groups, should be done on two or more days a week

Adults aged 65 years and above

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity
  • Those with poor mobility should perform physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls, on three or more days a week
  • Muscle-strengthening activities, involving major muscle groups, should be done on two or more days a week

What are important measures to prevent injury when exercising?

It is a good idea to see an experienced health professional before starting your physical activity program if:

  • you are aged over 45 years
  • physical activity causes pain in your chest
  • you often faint or have spells of severe dizziness
  • moderate physical activity makes you very breathless
  • you are at a higher risk of heart disease
  • you think you might have heart disease or you have heart problems
  • you have breathing issues
  • you have pain or limited movement
  • you are pregnant.

Pre-exercise screening is used to identify people with medical conditions that may put them at a higher risk of experiencing a health problem during physical activity. Discuss this with your GP or other health professional.

Your physiotherapist can work with you if you have any pain or discomfort, or past injuries or problems that may prevent you from getting moving. They can give you exercises to improve strength and flexibility and monitor your load and activity to ensure that it remains within safe, comfortable limits so you continue to progress (rather than stop due to pain).    

How can a physiotherapist help me with my exercise program?

Your physiotherapist can help you design your fitness program. They will consider your goals (losing weight, improve your bone density and strength, control your sugar levels, reduce your risk of falls or for some other reason), as well as your current level of physical fitness and any injuries or conditions preventing you from being active.

The program should feature a logical progression of activity that is safe and specific to your current ability. When conditions such as arthritis, injury or disease limit your physical activity, your physiotherapist can work with you to determine a plan of action.

Physiotherapists work with all age groups, fitness levels and disabilities and understand how to make movement and physical activity possible for all. They know that physical activity is important to physical and mental health, and will be able to provide a clear plan to help you become more active.

Other things to keep in mind include:

  • your likes and dislikes—choose activities you will enjoy
  • build activity into your daily routine—schedule time to exercise as you would any other appointment
  • variety—by varying your activities (cross training), you can avoid exercise boredom
  • time for recovery after exercising
  • an adequate healthy diet
  • put it on paper—a written plan can encourage you to stay on track.

How effective is physiotherapy advice when designing or starting exercise programs?

Physiotherapists are skilled in designing exercise programs to target deficiencies in the muscles and joints. These clinical exercises help the body move better and function at a level that makes physical activity easier.

Your physiotherapist can help motivate you to stay active by preventing symptoms of discomfort and by teaching you good techniques and great ways to enjoy your exercise safely.

Physiotherapists can show you how to warm up and cool down, offer advise on good equipment to use and help you develop an exercise plan to meet your goals.

What exercise is best for improving my cardio fitness?

Cardiorespiratory (cardio) fitness is improved by activities that increase your breathing and heart rate over a sustained period of time (eg, 20 to 30 minutes). If you are starting cardio exercise for the first time or after a long period off from exercise, walking is a simple and effective choice. However, activities such as bike riding, swimming, tennis, running and many others will also improve your cardio fitness.

All exercise needs overload to stimulate changes in the body, so you will need to find increased challenges over time. For example, if you’re walking you can further challenge yourself by walking further, faster or add stairs, hills or a different terrain (eg, sand). Choose something you enjoy and do it with company to make it more fun.

What exercise is best to improve my strength?

Our bodies are built to be physically active. We need the strength to lift, push and carry our body weight. Repetitive activity also requires certain endurance in the strength work we can do. Strong muscles that do not fatigue quickly make physical activity easier and are particularly important for good bones.

Strengthening exercises can be done using your own body weight (through exercises such as squats or push-ups) or by using equipment such as weights or resistance bands.

How long until I’ll start to see results?

Generally, the benefits of increasing physical activity through exercise occur in the first few weeks. These improvements will be in how you sleep and your general mood. With regular exercise you will also notice physical signs of feeling less breathless and improved strength.