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Physical Activity Basics

What Counts as Physical Activity

Aerobic activity

Aerobic activity or "cardio" gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster. From pushing a lawn mower to taking a dance class or biking to the store – all types of activities count; as long as you're doing them at a moderate- or vigorous-intensity for at least 10 minutes at a time.

picture of man riding stationary bike

The term intensity refers to how hard your body is working during aerobic activity. The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity. As a rule of thumb, if you're doing moderate-intensity activity you are able to talk, but not sing, during the activity. If you're doing vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

Moderate-intensity aerobic activity means you're working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat. If you’re working at this level, you will be able to talk but not sing. Here are some examples of activities that require moderate effort:

  • Walking briskly or fast
  • Riding a bike on level ground or with a few hills
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Pushing a lawn mower
  • Water aerobics
  • Dancing
  • Gardening

Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity means you're breathing hard and fast, and your heart rate has gone up quite a bit. If you're working at this level, you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Here are some examples of activities that require vigorous effort:

  • Jogging or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Riding a bike fast or on hills
  • Playing singles tennis
  • Playing basketball
  • Race walking
  • Aerobic dancing
  • Jumping rope
  • Heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing)

For more information on what counts as aerobic activity watch these CDC videos. external link

Build Up Over Time

You can do moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or a mix of the two each week. A rule of thumb is that one minute of vigorous-intensity activity is about the same as two minutes of moderate-intensity activity.

These guidelines are about doing physical activity that is right for you. Some people like to do vigorous types of activity because it gives them about the same health benefits in half the time. If you haven't been very active lately, increase your activity level slowly. You need to feel comfortable doing moderate-intensity activities before you move on to more vigorous ones. If you want to do more vigorous-intensity activities, slowly replace those that take moderate effort like brisk walking, with more vigorous activities like jogging.

Muscle-Strengthening Activities

picture of people strenght training

To gain health benefits, muscle-strengthening activities need to be done to the point where it's hard for you to do another repetition without help. A repetition is one complete movement of an activity, like lifting a weight or doing a sit-up; eight to 12 repetitions per activity counts as one set. Try to do at least one set of muscle-strengthening activities, but to gain even more benefits, do two or three sets.

You can do activities that strengthen your muscles on the same or different days that you do aerobic activity, whatever works best. Just keep in mind that muscle-strengthening activities don't count toward your aerobic activity.

There are many ways you can strengthen your muscles, whether it's at home or the gym. You may want to try the following:

  • Lift weights
  • Work with resistance bands
  • Do exercises that use your body weight for resistance (e.g., push ups, sit ups)
  • Heavy gardening (e.g., digging, shoveling)
  • Yoga

For more information on muscle strengthening activities view these CDC videos. external link

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