Your Start to an Active Life
Getting into fitness can seem a bit intimidating or out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be! There are many ways to incorporate physical activity in your daily life, as well as time-efficient training protocols that can provide huge health benefits in minutes.
It’s vital for you to get your heart pumping with exercise that you find challenging. This guide covers the fitness guidelines recommended for your health, ways to test your current level of fitness, and a selection of aerobic and strength training exercises and resources for you to make the most of your time. After reading this guide you should have all the tools you need to get your heart pumping and your muscles working.
Remember: You should talk to your doctor before engaging in strenuous physical activity if you have any concerns about your health.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Your Health
Being physically active is a vital part of your overall health. Fitness strengthens your heart’s muscles and improves your capacity to pump blood. The benefits of regular exercise includes decreasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Exercise can improve the quality of your sleep, alleviate stress, improve depression and anxiety, and reduce the risk of injury from slips and falls. Exercise can also increase your lean muscle mass and strengthen your bones, reducing the risk of muscle loss and osteoporosis in the elderly.
Despite the well-known health benefits, most people are not active enough. Even just a little bit of physical activity is beneficial, as the greatest improvement in health happens to those who are inactive but begin performing some physical activity on a regular basis.
Physical Activity Guidelines
- Do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week OR
at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity OR
a proportional combination of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity
- Perform strength training targeting the major muscle groups on two days per week
- Reduce the time spent sitting. Add physical activity breaks to interrupt periods of activity.
- People who cannot meet the requirements should be as active as their current health allows them to.
Examples of Aerobic Activities
Moderate-intensity activity makes you breathe a bit harder than normal, like a brisk walk or cycling at a regular pace. At this intensity you can still speak, but not sing.
- Brisk walking
- Heavy cleaning (washing windows, vacuuming, mopping)
- Mowing the lawn
- Bicycling with light effort
- Exercise classes
- Recreational swimming
Vigorous-intensity physical activity that makes you breathe much harder than normal, like running, basketball, soccer or intense manual labour. At this intensity it is difficult to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.
- Carrying heavy loads
- Bicycling with heavy effort
- Basketball or soccer
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
The key to fitness is to be active more often, and with greater intensity.
- Any additional time spent being active is beneficial for your health.
- Increasing the intensity of your workouts adds to the health benefits.
About Exercise for Weight Loss
A combination of aerobic and resistance exercises done on a regular basis improves weight loss and body composition. The combination of the two is important to maximize lean muscle gains and fat mass loss.
- Increasing the intensity of your aerobic exercise increases the health benefits of exercise and the total amount of fat you burn.
- Strength training increases the amount of lean mass, stimulates muscle growth, and improves body composition, especially in combination with a high-protein diet.
Exercise is a key contributor to success in those who have achieved long-term weight loss. However, a successful weight loss strategy must include a healthy diet that limits calories in a sustainable way. You might feel the need to compensate for the calories burned in exercise with larger portions or extra snacks, but this should be avoided as they will hamper your weight loss goals.
Tips to Reach Your Fitness Goals
- Start low and build slow. Any increase in time spent being physically active is an improvement.
- Pick exercises that you enjoy doing the most.
- Exercise with your friends or family.
- Try jogging or walking at a brisk pace. It can be done all year long with the right clothing, and has a low risk of injury.
- Add physical activity to your daily routine.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Walk home with your grocery shopping.
- Ride your bike to the office.
- Schedule time for your physical activity.
- Keep a notebook or digital record of your workouts to track your progress.
Fitness tests are valuable tools to help you monitor your progress, and to identify strengths and weaknesses. However, such tests aren’t mandatory, and you won’t need them to get incredible health benefits out of your exercise. Try some of the tests we recommend below, or select your own fitness benchmarks that align with your personal goals.
Your cardiorespiratory fitness refers to the combined fitness of your heart, lungs, vessels and muscles. One measure of cardiorespiratory fitness is your body’s maximum capacity for oxygen during intense exercise, or better known as VO2 max. Measuring VO2 max is the gold standard to assess cardiorespiratory fitness, and it is a good indicator for the health of your heart.
However, measuring VO2 max directly isn’t always practical. General tests of aerobic fitness are often more relevant to personal fitness goals, such as improving the time it takes you to complete a five kilometer run.
Tests for VO2 max
- Direct tests in a medical or fitness lab. This test involves measuring the exchange of gases in the air you breath while you exercise at high intensity on a treadmill or stationary bike. You can take this test in some sport therapy or medical centres, but they may not be covered by medical insurance.
- Rockport Walk Test. This simple test involves walking a mile and measuring your heart rate. However, it is most suitable for people who have a low fitness capacity. You can try this test by following the instructions here: https://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/rockport.htm
- Online questionnaire. This test estimates your VO2 max based on some of your body’s measurements like resting heart rate and waist circumference. You can complete this questionnaire here: https://www.worldfitnesslevel.org/#/
Aerobic Fitness Tests
- Run, swim, cycle or row a set time or distance. Pick your preferred exercise and give it your highest sustainable effort. You can do this outdoors, or indoors with gym equipment. Repeat this test under the same conditions to track your progress.
- Shuttle run or beep tests. This test involves running between two markers placed 20m apart, while listening to cues that get progressively faster. Perform the shuttle run test by following the instructions here: https://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/20mshuttle.htm. You can find the beep test audio on Youtube, Spotify and elsewhere online.
There are many ways to measure the power of your muscles. You can measure your muscle strength by testing the maximum force those muscles can exert at once, or you can measure your muscle endurance by testing the number of repetitions you can complete until fatigue. Most strength tests target one part of the body or a single muscle group, so you could combine several tests to assess your full body fitness.
Testing the limits of your strength is a great way to track your progress, but they aren’t the most efficient ways to improve your muscle’s maximum capacity. Be sure to get adequate recovery following strength testing.
Any strength test should be performed with good form and within your capabilities, being careful not to risk injuring yourself. Those who are new to strength training can try the suggested at-home strength tests which don’t require any gym equipment.
- One-rep max. This involves lifting the most weight possible to complete a single repetition at maximum effort with good form. This can be performed with squat, deadlift or other movement of your choice. A 5-rep max or 10-rep max test might be more suitable for your goals.
- Maximum repetitions. This involves repeating an exercise until your muscles are fatigued and you cannot repeat any more repetitions with good form. Try this test with pull-ups, push-ups or another movement of your choice, with or without added weight. You can perform a similar test for time if you choose an exercise such as plank hold or flexed-arm hang.
At-Home Strength Tests
- Max repetitions of squats until you need to pause, using a chair or box to sit down to. See full instructions here: https://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/home-squat.htm
- Max repetitions of push-ups until you need to pause, performing the push-ups from your knees if you need to. See full instructions here: https://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/home-pushup.htm
Your Fitness Tests
- Select one or two aerobic fitness and strength fitness tests to evaluate your current fitness level.
- Incorporate exercises to improve your aerobic and strength fitness into your regular training.
- Repeat your fitness tests after 6 weeks or longer to see how you’ve improved.
Maximizing Your Fitness
For some, getting a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and full-body strength training twice a week might not be realistic for time-constrained adults.
However, you can quickly cultivate health benefits from short training sessions as long as you are willing to work out at a fairly hard level. This is especially true for improving cardiorespiratory fitness, where aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping harder will translate into heart healthy benefits, like better VO2 max. Your strength training program can also be hacked to maximize health benefits from minimal time investment.
The key to better health through fitness is to do more, with more intensity. Our fitness recommendations below suggest you should exercise at high effort, but remember, this level of intensity should be something that is difficult for you. High effort is something you could not keep up for a long period of time. Select the workouts that are challenging for you, but that you can do with good form.
High-Intensity Interval Training
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a training regimen that alternates periods of near-maximal effort exercise with short recovery periods. HIIT doesn’t refer to a specific workout, and it isn’t limited to specific types of exercises. It can be applied to endurance training for running, rowing or skipping rope, as well as strength training with squats, push-ups, or other movements of your choosing. Moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) is the opposite of HIIT. This is a more familiar exercise that is done at a constant pace for a long period of time, such as a 50-minute jog.
One example of a HIIT protocol is the 4×4 interval training program we have shared below. This is an example of a program that has been tested in a research lab and has been shown to provide health benefits, such as increased VO2 max. After completing a warmup, you run at a high intensity that is challenging for you for one minute. The next three minutes are active recovery, meaning you continue running but at a much slower pace. Repeat these intervals three more times for a complete cardio workout.
Another popular example of HIIT are Tabata protocols. Here you perform an exercise, such as push-ups, at high intensity for 20 seconds with 10 second breaks. Repeat this for a total of eight times for an intense four-minute workout.
Benefits of HIIT
HIIT is safe and can be introduced into your routine gradually, according to your abilities. Depending on the exercises you include in your HIIT workout, it can be a great aerobic and strength workout. HIIT is an effective way to improve cardiorespiratory fitness and increase VO2 max. HIIT can also improve body composition by reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass.
Shorter high-intensity workouts increase the effort required from your heart, making HIIT more challenging. MICT can also provide these benefits to heart health and weight loss, however, increasing the effort of your exercise will have a greater effect on your metabolism. These effects translate into getting the same benefits from HIIT in a smaller amount of time.
The key to building strength is to overload your muscles. Overload is when the effort placed on your muscles is greater than normal. You can overload your muscles by lifting enough times with high effort. Your muscles adapt to the overload by reinforcing your muscle fibres with more protein. Performing progressively tougher strength exercises will make you stronger and elevate your metabolism, among many other health benefits.
There are many strength training protocols online, and it might be a challenge to pick out one that suits you. These strength recommendations are appropriate for most people interested in developing their fitness for their health, but may find it difficult to dedicate a lot of time to physical activity.
You can lift heavy or lift light.
Lifting heavy weights may seem intimidating, but you can build strength with lighter weights that you feel comfortable with. Lifting light weights, done at a considerably high effort, can increase your maximal strength. You can use your body weight, resistance bands, gym weights or household objects, like a gallon of water or grocery bags.
You need at least one heavy set.
Doing one set of heavy exercise will help generate as much strength gains as someone who did three sets of the same heavy exercise. A single set, performed with enough effort, provides the greatest benefits. The overload created by a single heavy set can be enough to create strength improvements. Adding one or two more sets is recommended, but will have diminishing returns on strength gains. However, if your goal is to increase the size of your muscles (muscle hypertrophy), then increasing the training volume is beneficial.
More sets are better, but not by much more, so if you are short on time you can get an efficient strength workout by training each muscle group with one challenging set.
High effort is the key.
Regardless of the weight you chose, you should lift hard enough that you have a hard time lifting it again. Perform between 3 and 20 repetitions of an exercise in each set. Adjust the weight if you are struggling to reach three repetitions with good form, or if you hit twenty repetitions but feel as if there are quite a few more left in the tank.
Training to failure, where you cannot possibly perform one more repetition with good form, can produce greater training adaptations, but requires a longer period for adequate recovery. Instead, training at a very hard effort that is difficult to maintain, but should not feel impossible to attempt another repetition, is safer and allows for a greater training volume.
Strength Training Tips
- All weights provide substantial gains in strength, but using heavier weights will have a greater contribution to the maximum weight you can lift.
- The greater your training volume (total number of repetitions and sets for a single muscle groups) tend to benefit size gains.
- Progressively add a little bit of weight to your workouts every week.
- Always practice good form to avoid damage. If a movement is new or unfamiliar to you, ask a trainer at your gym for feedback and take a video of yourself. Your form should be consistent at light and heavy weights.
Every workout should include a warmup and a cooldown.
- At least 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, at 50-60% of maximum effort to get you sweating.
- Spend additional time doing dynamic stretches with the muscle groups used in your workout
- Dynamic stretches are stretches with slow deliberate movement, such as bending with a straight back to slowly touch toes and standing up again.
- At least 5 minutes of movement at a light pace, 50% of maximum effort or less
- Stretch the muscle groups used in your workout
Choose workouts that suit your needs and goals from the tables below!
Alfred Rütten & Klaus Pfeifer (Eds.). National Recommendations for Physical Activity and Physical Activity Promotion. Erlangen: FAU University Press, 2016 https://opus4.kobv.de/opus4-fau/home
Physical activity and sedentary behaviour. EU Science Hub. https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/health-knowledge-gateway/promotion-prevention/physical-activity
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/
The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomized trial.BMC Public Health. 2012; 12: 704.
Aerobic or Resistance Exercise, or Both, in Dieting Obese Older Adults. N Engl J Med. 2017 May 18; 376(20): 1943–1955.
Aerobic Capacity (VO2 max)
The Effect of Training Intensity on VO2max in Young Healthy Adults: A Meta-Regression and Meta-Analysis.Int J Exerc Sci. 2016; 9(2): 230–247.
VO2max Trainability and High Intensity Interval Training in Humans: A Meta-Analysis.PLoS One. 2013; 8(9): e73182.
Importance of Assessing Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Clinical Practice: A Case for Fitness as a Clinical Vital Sign: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.Circulation. 2016 Dec 13;134(24):e653-e699.
High-Intensity Circuit Training Using Body Weight: Maximum Results With Minimal Investment. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal: May/June 2013 – Volume 17 – Issue 3 – p 8–13.
Evidence for HIIT Benefits in Cardiac Rehabilitation Grow.Circulation. 2019 Aug 6;140(6):514-515.
Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment.PLoS One. 2016; 11(4): e0154075.
Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease.J Physiol. 2012 Mar 1; 590(Pt 5): 1077–1084.PLoS One. 2012; 7(8): e42747.
The physiology of interval training: a new target to HIIT.J Physiol. 2016 Dec 15; 594(24): 7169–7170.
Effects of HIIT and MICT on cardiovascular risk factors in adults with overweight and/or obesity: A meta-analysis.Open Access J Sports Med. 2018; 9: 1–17.
Does Training to Failure Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy?Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2019 – Volume 41 – Issue 5 – p 108–113
Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Dec;31(12):3508-3523.
Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082.
Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: a meta-regression.J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1890-901.
Higher effort, rather than higher load, for resistance exercise-induced activation of muscle fibres. J Physiol. 2019 Sep;597(18):4691-4692.
The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 Jan;31(1):25-30.