Make Exercise Work for You

What if you could feel good, look better, and save money, all while reducing your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes? You can! Increasing your daily physical activity will do this and more. And best of all, being active for just small amounts of time each day can add years to your life.

Research has proven that we all benefit from being active, regardless of age. People who are active are less stressed, live healthier lives, and have lower medical costs.

Choose your game.

It’s important to enjoy what you’re doing so you won’t get bored or think of physical activity as a chore. To help you choose the activity that’s right for you, ask yourself these questions:

Do you like to be social, or would you prefer time to yourself?

  • Social butterflies should try activities that connect them with other people. Try walking with friends, joining a team or recreation association, or going line-dancing.
  • If you need time to yourself, walking, running, swimming, or gardening can give you time to reflect.

Do you need to get energized or wind down?

  • For an energy boost, try aerobic activities that get the heart pumping.
  • Reduce stress with activities like yoga or tai chi.

Are you goal-oriented, or do you like to stay flexible?

  • If you like to feel a sense of accomplishment, choose activities where you can chart and monitor your progress like training for a run, or take up an activity with rising skill levels, like martial arts.
  • For a more flexible routine, try walking or find an exercise video you can do at home.

Do you want to get away from it all or get involved?

  • If you want to get away, choose outdoor activities like hiking, biking, or rollerblading.
  • To get involved in the community, consider building homes for the disadvantaged, taking part in charity walks and runs, helping an elderly neighbor with yard work, or tidying up a local school.

How active should you be?

The recommended goal

Adults should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these). Getting even more activity is ideal.

Children and teens should get at least 1 hour of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day.

  • Moderate intensity activities are those that require effort equal to a brisk walk.
  • Vigorous intensity activities generally use large muscle groups and result in a faster heart rate, deeper and faster breathing, and sweating.

But being more physically active than you usually are, no matter what your level of activity, can have many health benefits.

It’s also important to limit the time you spend sitting or lying down, such as time spent on your phone or computer, or watching TV.

Reaching the goal

How you get to the recommended levels of activity depends on you.

  • If you haven’t been active, you should start with moderate activities and slowly increase the duration, frequency, and intensity as you become more fit.
  • If you already are active but want to do more, increase the intensity, duration, or frequency of what you currently do.
  • If you are active and want to stay at your current fitness level, try adding new activities to your routine to use different muscles and keep your interest.

Keep in mind that these are minimum goals. Doing more than 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity or more than 150 minutes of vigorous activity per week is likely to provide even more protection against cancer.

Strike a balance.

Ads for expensive exercise equipment and special diets can make healthy living look complicated. But the truth is there’s no secret to getting to a healthy weight. It is as simple as balancing the calories you eat with the calories you burn. When that doesn’t happen, you gain weight.

Remember that everything you eat has calories, and everything you do uses calories. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds and are active, you need about 2,250 calories per day to maintain this weight, versus about 1,950 calories if you are sedentary.

It helps to know that 1 pound of body fat equals 3,500 calories. That means that to lose 1 pound per week, you need to create a “deficit” of 500 calories per day. You can do this, for example, by eating 250 fewer calories a day and burning an extra 250 calories through physical activity (such as by walking 2½ miles).

Safety first!

By following a few practical guidelines, you can ensure that your physical activity is fun and safe.

  • Most children and young adults can safely do moderate and/or vigorous activities without checking with their doctors. But men and women who are older or have chronic illnesses or risk factors for heart disease should check with their doctors before starting a vigorous activity program.
  • If you are just starting to be active regularly, start slowly and increase duration, intensity, and frequency over time.
  • Warm up and stretch to reduce chance of injury.
  • Be active with a partner.
  • Drink plenty of water before, during, and after physical activity.
  • Don’t overdo it. There is no gain from pain.
  • Always follow instructions and safety recommendations when using exercise equipment or machinery.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and the right kind of shoes.

Active substitutions

Don’t think you have time to add physical activity to your day? Think about how much time you spend sitting, versus being active. Consider simple substitutions. For instance:

  • Get up and walk around if you are on your phone.
  • Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk or bike to your destination.
  • Be active at lunch with your co-workers, family, or friends.
  • Take a 20-minute activity break at work to stretch or take a quick walk.
  • Walk to visit co-workers instead of sending an email message.
  • Go dancing with your spouse, partner, or friends.
  • Plan active vacations, rather than just sightseeing trips.
  • Wear an activity tracker every day so you can monitor and increase your number of daily steps and the time you spend being active.
  • Join a sports or recreation team.
  • Use a stationary bike or treadmill while watching TV.
  • Plan your activity routine to slowly increase the days per week and minutes per session.

Whether you set aside time to exercise or do short bursts of activity throughout your day, the most important thing is to get up and get moving.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: June 9, 2020

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.