The Importance of Exercise

Women Exercising

Being active is an important part of achieving and retaining optimal physical and mental health plus well-being for both men and women.

But a closer look at the approach men and women take toward exercise indicates a significant gap in thinking:  studies show men take greater enjoyment from participating in a regular exercise routine and/or sports than women, the majority of whom view exercise as a means of losing or maintaining weight.

However, responses from both men and women had one element in common: neither group stated optimizing their overall physical or mental health as the primary reason to engage in regular physical exercise.

Experts further found women (and girls) to be more physically inactive than their male counterparts, in part because of women’s self- or family-inflicted time constraints managing multiple obligations to family, workplace, or community; feelings of being too tired or lacking energy or motivation to make exercise a regular part of their lives; plus not placing a high priority or value on optimizing their personal physical health through exercise.

Some statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding women and physical fitness:

  • More than 60% of U.S. women don’t engage in the recommended amount of physical activity.
  • More than 25% of U.S. women are not active at all.
  • Physical inactivity is more common among women than men.
  • almost 50% of Americans (both male and female) discontinue exercise programs before 6 months.

April is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.  Your local Capital Women’s Care team wants to share with you the many proven physical and mental health benefits of exercise and physical fitness, including those specific to women that offer positive impact on health and wellness from reproductive and childbearing years to onset of menopause and into the golden years.

Plus, we explain the positive value exercise has to your health in relation to chronic health issues.

Finally, we provide some tips for achieving a level of healthy fitness and enjoyable exercise ideas you can do yourself or with your partner, family members and/or friends to guide you toward establishing regular physical activity and exercise so you can optimize both your physical and mental health and enjoy a high quality, long life.

Types of Physical Fitness

There are 3 forms of physical activity:

Aerobic or “cardio” activities make your heart work harder by beating faster and you breathe harder. Aerobic activities require repetitive entire body or combined movements of arms and legs.

Muscle-strengthening activities include using weight machines, hand weights or exercise bands. You can also perform exercises using your own body’s weight (like push-ups or yoga) to create resistance.

The muscle you build helps you have strength to do daily activities, like climbing stairs or carrying groceries.

During strength training, you should do different exercises to work all your body’s major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms.)

Balance exercises are important for all women, but especially older women who are at a higher risk of falls. This includes women who have had falls in the recent past or have trouble walking. An effective exercise plan includes a combination of all these types of exercise each week to gain maximize health benefits. Examples of balance exercises include tai chi, walking backward, and standing from a seated position.

How Much Exercise Do I Need?

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends either of the following physical activity guidelines:

150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. Moderate-intensity activity is when your heart is beating faster but you can still have conversation. A brisk, 30-minute walk 5 times a week is a great example.

Or you could do 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity each week. This occurs when you’re breathing hard and it’s difficult to hold conversation. A 40-minute jog or step class 2 times per week is one example.

In addition to aerobic or cardio exercise, you should strive to do muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days each week, allowing 1 day between sessions to avoid putting too much stress on muscles and joints. Or you could devise a plan which focuses on working certain muscle groups on specific days to ward off muscle strain.

Researchers know that doing balance and muscle-strengthening activities for at least 1 ½ hours a week helps lower your chance of falling and becoming injured. Here are details to guide you toward establishing a well-balanced exercise plan.

Benefits of Being Active

Regular exercise provides many positive benefits to your health. By following recommended exercise guidelines, you:

Physical Health Benefits of Exercise

Exercise optimizes the efficiency and functioning of your body’s systems. It helps:

  • lower your blood pressure and optimize your cardiovascular health, both of which reduce your risk of dying from coronary heart disease.
  • maintain healthy bones, muscle, and joints, all of which contribute to avoiding obesity through weight control and management, building up lean muscle tissue and reducing body fat.
  • get you more energy.
  • improve your lung capacity.
  • decrease recovery time due to physical injuries from accidents or surgeries.
  • and increase efficiency of blood circulation.

Psychological Benefits of Exercise

Exercise goes beyond offering you many physical benefits -- it also benefits your mind and brain functions. Exercise helps to:

  • improve your sleep quality.
  • reduce stress levels.
  • decrease feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being.
  • improve your memory and brain function.
  • contribute to building self-esteem and confidence.
  • provide a means for socialization and nurturing relationships with others.

Exercise Protects Against Many Chronic Diseases

What’s more, exercise can help protect your body and mind against developing chronic diseases or health issues. It can:

  • improve joint pain and stiffness.
  • reduce risk of death from coronary heart disease.
  • control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis.
  • potentially ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms through engaging brain activity.
  • potentially reduce blood pressure in some women diagnosed with hypertension.
  • significantly reduce risk of both heart disease and stroke in women.
  • maintain healthy blood pressure.
  • reduce obesity risk.
  • reduce cholesterol levels.
  • lessen likelihood of getting colds or other illnesses due to its boost to the immune system.
  • decrease risk of low bone density which leads to bone fracture and/or osteoporosis.
  • decrease chance of developing high blood pressure, colon cancer and diabetes.

Exercise Protects Against Symptoms of Chronic Conditions

And if you happen to become diagnosed with a chronic health issue, regular exercise can considerably lessen its side effects. Exercise can help to:

  • combat cancer-related fatigue and tiredness.
  • increase lung capacity which reduce effects of asthma or seasonal allergies.
  • maintain bone density and mass.
  • regulate normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • optimize cardiovascular health to avoid heart attack, the number 1 cause of death in U.S. women, and stroke.
  • regulate body and mind’s stress responses, among others.

Women also gain many valuable health benefits from regular exercise during their reproductive and childbearing years, all stages of pregnancy and menopause and beyond through their golden years.

Physical Activity and Your Menstrual Cycle

Regular exercise is beneficial to women of all ages throughout their menstrual cycles. It can help:

  • ease menstrual cramps.
  • lessen mood swings associated with menstrual cycle -- the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation reported that even small amounts of physical activity done routinely are found to improve quality of life and mood.
  • and regulate menstrual flow.

Exercising too much can cause missed menstrual periods or make your periods stop entirely. Irregular or missed periods are more common in athletes and other women who train hard regularly. But if you haven’t worked out in a long time and suddenly start a vigorous fitness routine, your period could stop or become irregular.

Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have irregular or missed periods. A regular period is a sign of good health. These period problems can lead to more serious health issues, including difficulties getting pregnant and bone density loss.

Physical Activity During Pregnancy and Postpartum Stage

Physical activity during pregnancy benefits a woman's overall health. For example, moderate-intensity physical activity by healthy women during pregnancy maintains or increases cardiorespiratory fitness.

Strong scientific evidence shows the risks of moderate-intensity activity done by healthy women during pregnancy are very low and do not increase risk of low birth weight, preterm delivery, or early pregnancy loss. Some evidence suggests physical activity reduces pregnancy complications risks, like preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, antenatal depression and reduces labor time, but this evidence isn’t conclusive.

During normal postpartum period, regular physical activity continues to benefit a woman's overall health. Studies show moderate-intensity physical activity during the period following birth increases a woman's cardiorespiratory fitness and improves her mood. Such activity doesn’t appear to have adverse effects on breast milk volume, breast milk composition or infant growth. Physical activity also helps women achieve and maintain a healthy weight during postpartum, and when combined with caloric restriction, helps promote weight loss.

Physical activity during pregnancy is usually safe and healthy for you and your baby. The more active you are during pregnancy, the easier it will be to start getting active once your baby is born. Talk to your doctor about your activity level throughout your pregnancy.

Physical Activity for Older Women

It’s important to stay active as you get older. Regular physical activity can help keep you healthy and strong. Physical activity offers many benefits for older women. It helps to:

  • prevent muscle and bone loss.
  • reduce risks of falls and fractured bones.
  • prevent or delay conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
  • reduce joint swelling and pain of arthritis.
  • reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • make you feel good and enjoy life more.
  • maintain independence to do basic everyday activities (dressing, bathing, using the bathroom and eating.)
  • prevent dementia.
  • keep bones strong, thus helping to avoid hip fractures, a common health threat for older adults.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology educational bulletin recommends that both premenopausal and menopausal women exercise to prevent osteoporosis.

Strength training builds strong muscles and bones as well as helps to maintain your body’s metabolism, which slows during the menopause years due to lowered estrogen levels within your body. Maintaining your body’s metabolism is beneficial for helping you to maintain a healthy weight. Learn more about avoiding weight gain after menopause.

Balance exercises are also important to incorporate into your regular exercise plan, especially as you age. These exercises help your body retain full range of motion plus maintain your body’s agility and flexibility, important elements required for doing everyday activities that allow you to live an independent life when you’re older.

Tips for Maintaining Regular Exercise

Beginning a regular exercise routine is beneficial to your health no matter what age you start. If you don’t exercise regularly, schedule an appointment with your practitioner before you begin to get a physical exam and to discuss ways you can safely initiate exercise into your daily life.

Below are some tips to help you stick with an effective, regular exercise plan:

Treat your exercise time as you would a doctor’s appointment – block off the time on your calendar and don’t allow other things to get in the way of your daily physical fitness. Think of exercise as a health priority you need to do daily so you can be your best throughout the rest of the day.

Be flexible and creative – you don’t need a solid hour of physical activity to reap health benefits. Experts suggest activity for 10 to 20 minutes a few times daily is just as effective as a solid hour-long session. Taking a walk during lunch, parking further from your destination or climbing a few stairs are great ways to squeeze in some fitness during your workday. If you’re with your toddlers, a trip to a playground, park, or even hanging out in your backyard can fulfill some fitness time. The key is to keep your body moving.

Think outside the gym – fancy gym memberships or equipment aren’t a requisite for regular exercise. Set up an area in your home devoted to fitness. Explore the web for videos or apps of proven exercise routines from certified health professionals. If you’re at home with your kids, turn your sweat session into a family affair. Using your body weight within your routine and exploring the outdoors via hikes and walks are easy, no-equipment-necessary ways to be fit and healthy.

Have a positive mindset – set reachable, smaller goals to help you move your fitness forward. Instead of having the goal of losing 30 pounds, set your sights on increasing the number of repetitions or weight used or trying a longer walking route, both smaller, more manageable goals that won’t get you frustrated and give you negative feelings about exercise. Set up small rewards when you do achieve your goals (but avoid food and skipping exercise as rewards.)

Avoid the approach of giving exercise an “all or nothing” focus – you don’t have to have an exercise plan resembling that of a gold medal Olympic athlete. Try a different variety of cardio and strength exercises and stick with those you enjoy doing. If you enjoy your exercise routine, you’ll look forward to it and have more success.

Explore your options – have an open mind and try something new if you become bored or start to view exercise as a repetitive chore. Mix up your cardio to include swimming, studio cycle classes, boxing, or martial arts. Try tai chi or yoga if you need to still your mind. Trade out your indoor cycle session for an outdoor bike ride in nice weather. A new approach will keep your interest and help you do regular exercise.

Avoid fitness stereotyping - barbells and weights don’t cause women who use them to become physically bulky and these fitness tools aren’t for men only. Additionally, Zumba and other dance fitness routines are enjoyed by both men and women of all ages.

Dismiss feelings of “gymtimidation” – you don’t have to go above and beyond your abilities whether at home or working out in a gym. Manage what you’re safely capable without guilt of achieving cultural expectations or norms. If you aren’t sure how to use equipment, ask the staff trainer to show you. If you do plan to use a fitness facility, request a tour that includes showing you how to use equipment and sign up for some personal training sessions with a certified trainer to help you devise a regular exercise plan.

Creative Ways to Stay Active

Physical exercise doesn’t just mean using weight machines or equipment or taking a virtual or in-person fitness class – it can be anything that requires physical exertion. Here are some creative ways to get moving and fit while getting things done:

Clean house – vacuuming, mopping, scrubbing a bathtub or floor, washing windows, and cleaning all burn calories. Wear a fitness tracker the next time you do chores and you may be surprised at the results.

Step it up – always take stairs whether traveling to and from work, running errands or going to appointments, for a short burst of cardio. When driving, park so that you need to walk the rest of the way to your destination. Those steps add up to healthy milestones!

Child’s play – play outdoor games or enjoy the variety of playground equipment at a favorite park with your kids or grandkids. Bad weather? No problem – put on some silly movement videos or your own music and play “Simon Says,” incorporating jumping jacks, mountain climbers, toe touches and other exercises that can be done in a small area.  Not only will you create memories, you’ll get some fun exercise as a healthy bonus.

Dig in – gardening, landscaping and lawncare are great ways to get some physical exercise. You get fresh air, sunshine, plus create a place brimming with eye-appealing, fragrant blooms or a cornucopia of delicious fruits and veggies you can use for prepping healthy meals in the colder months to come.

Let’s dance – dancing is another form of exercise that burns calories. Enjoy dance night with your kids or partner, take a dance class with your spouse, or enjoy a fitness dance class on your big screen TV with some gal pals or your kids. Put together a playlist of favorite tunes to keep everyone moving.

Take a hike – venture to the mountains or park and take in the scenery. Not only will being outdoors calm your mind, hiking is a great exercise that affords you opportunity to enjoy nature while being physically active.

Ride a bike – go for a neighborhood adventure or to your local rail/trail with your spouse and kids for a bike ride. You’ll enjoy family time together that’s both healthy and fun! You could also bike to work or to get errands accomplished.

Being active can help you live a longer, healthier life, no matter your age, your abilities or when you start regular physical exercise. There are many exercises and stretches you can do at any age to improve both your physical and mental health and well-being. While it’s important to be active, it’s also important to be safe and know how to prevent injuries.

Your Capital Women’s Care team is here for you should you have questions or concerns relating to regular physical exercise. Our team of knowledgeable professionals can help you devise and integrate an exercise program into your overall personal care plan so you can enjoy a long, healthy life.

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