Essential Elements and Benefits of Physical Fitness

A group of people are shown sitting on yoga mats and participating in a stretching exercise.

Becoming and staying physically fit is an important part of achieving optimal health. A well-rounded exercise program can improve your health in a number of ways. It promotes weight loss, strengthens muscles and bones, keeps the heart and lungs strong, and helps to protect against chronic disease. There are four essential elements of physical fitness: cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and maintaining a healthful body composition. Each component offers specific health benefits, but optimal health requires some degree of balance between all four.

Some forms of exercise confer multiple benefits, which can help you to balance the different elements of physical fitness. For example, riding a bicycle for thirty minutes or more not only builds cardiorespiratory endurance, it also improves muscle strength and muscle endurance. Some forms of yoga can also build muscle strength and endurance, along with flexibility. However, meeting fitness standards in all four categories generally requires incorporating a range of activities into your regular routine. As you exercise regularly, your body will begin to change and you will notice that you are able to continue your activity longer and with greater ease.

The Essential Elements of Physical Fitness

Cardiorespiratory Endurance

Cardiorespiratory endurance is built by aerobic training, which involves activities that increase your heart rate and breathing such as walking, jogging, or biking. Aerobic exercise is continuous exercise (lasting more than 2 minutes) that can range from low to high levels of intensity. It increases heart and breathing rates to meet increased demands for oxygen in working muscles. Regular, moderate aerobic activity— about thirty minutes at a time for five days per week—trains the body to deliver oxygen more efficiently, which strengthens the heart and lungs and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Strengthening your heart muscle and increasing the blood volume pumped each heartbeat boosts your ability to supply your body’s cells with oxygen and nutrients, to remove carbon dioxide and metabolic wastes. It also leads to a lower resting heart rate for healthy individuals. In addition to the benefits of aerobic training for cardiovascular health, it is also an excellent way to maintain a healthy weight.

Muscle Strength

Muscle strength is developed and maintained by weight or resistance training, often called anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic exercise consists of short duration, high intensity movements that rely on immediately available energy sources and require little or no oxygen during the activity. This type of high intensity training is used to build muscle strength with short, high-intensity activities. Building muscle strength and endurance is not just crucial for athletes and bodybuilders—it’s important for children, seniors, and everyone in between. The support that your muscles provide allows you to work, play, and live more efficiently.

A set of small free weights and a resistance band are shown on a wooden table top.

Strength training often involves the use of resistance machines, resistance bands, free weights, or other tools. However, you do not need to pay for a gym membership or expensive equipment to strengthen your muscles. Homemade weights, such as plastic bottles filled with sand, can work just as well. You can also use your own body weight and do push-ups, leg squats, abdominal crunches, and other exercises to build your muscles. If strength training is performed at least twice a week, it can help to improve muscle strength and to increase bone strength. It can help manage health conditions like diabetes, arthritis, dementia, hypertension, and many others. Strength training can also help you to maintain muscle mass during a weight-loss program.1

Flexibility

Flexibility is the range of motion available to your joints. Yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and stretching exercises work to improve this element of fitness. Stretching not only improves your range of motion, it also promotes better posture, and helps you perform activities that can require greater flexibility, such as chores around the house. In addition to working on flexibility, older adults should include balance exercises in their regular routine. Balance tends to deteriorate with age, which can result in falls and fractures.2

Body Composition

Body composition is the proportion of fat and fat-free mass (which includes bones, muscles, and organs) in your body. A healthy and physically fit individual has a greater proportion of muscle and smaller proportion of fat than an unfit individual of the same weight. Although habitual physical activity can promote a more healthful body composition, other factors like age, gender, genetics, and diet contribute to an individual’s body composition. You can refer back to Unit 7 for a detailed discussion on body composition, how it is measured, and how it is used as an indicator for health.

The Benefits of Physical Activity

Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to achieve optimal health. Individuals who are physically active for 150 minutes per week lower the risk of dying early by 33 percent compared to those who are inactive.3 The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans were issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide evidence-based guidelines to Americans aged three and older about how to improve health and reduce chronic disease risk through physical activity. You can review the guidelines here, including recommendations for children, adolescents, and adults.4

Key Guidelines for Adults

• Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.

• For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.

• Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.

• Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

Source: 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans

Improving your overall fitness involves sticking with an exercise program on a regular basis. If you are nervous or unsure about becoming more active, the good news is that moderate-intensity activities, such as brisk walking, are safe for most people. Also, the health advantages of becoming active far outweigh the risks. Physical activity not only helps to maintain your weight, it also provides a wealth of benefits—physical, mental, and emotional.

Physical Benefits

Mental and Emotional Benefits

Longer life: A regular exercise program can reduce your risk of dying early from heart disease, certain cancers, and other leading causes of death.

Mood improvement: Aerobic activity, strength-training, and more contemplative activities such as yoga, all help break cycles of worry and distraction, effectively draining tension from the body.

Healthier weight: Exercise, along with a healthy, balanced eating plan, can help you lose extra weight, maintain weight loss, or prevent excessive weight gain.

Depression relief: Exercise can produce antidepressant effects in the body. Studies have shown that physical activity reduces the risk of and helps people cope with the symptoms of depression.

Cardiovascular disease prevention: Being active boosts HDL cholesterol and decreases unhealthy triglycerides, which reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Cognitive skills retention: Regular physical activity can help people maintain thinking, learning, and judgment as they age.

Management of chronic conditions: A regular routine can help to prevent or manage a wide range of conditions and concerns, such as metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, arthritis, and certain types of cancer.

Better sleep: A good night’s sleep is essential for clear thinking, and regular exercise promotes healthy, sound sleep. It can also help you fall asleep faster and deepen your rest, promoting better mental and emotional wellbeing.

Energy boosts: Regular physical activity can improve muscle tone and strength and provide a boost to your cardiovascular system. When the heart and lungs work more efficiently, you have more energy.

Strong bones: Research shows that aerobic activity and strength training can slow the loss of bone density that typically accompanies aging.

Table 10.1. Physical and emotional benefits of exercise.

The FITT Principle

One helpful tool for putting together an exercise plan is the FITT acronym. FITT stands for:

Frequency – how often you exercise

Intensity – how hard you work during your exercise session

Time – how long you exercise for

Type – what kind of exercise you do

You can manipulate the principles of FITT to better meet your exercise goals and to boost your motivation to exercise. You will be more likely to stick to a workout plan that has flexibility and works with your lifestyle. By changing up the types of exercise you do, varying the intensity of your workouts, and by choosing days of the week and times of the day that work best with your schedule, you can create a plan for success with your exercise goals. As you design your physical activity plan, make sure to outline the components of the FITT principle to establish more detailed goals and create purpose for your workouts.

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Nutrition: Science and Everyday Application by Alice Callahan, PhD, Heather Leonard, MEd, RDN, and Tamberly Powell, MS, RDN is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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