Types of exercise

Expert reviewer, Dr Leon Creaney, Sports and Exercise Medicine Consultant
Next review due March 2021

We all exercise for different reasons and in different ways. Maybe you do weight training to build up your strength, yoga to relax or football to improve your fitness. Each of these benefits your health in different ways.

Whatever your motivation for exercise, the best way to ensure all-round fitness and health is to do a mix of three different types. The three main types of exercise are aerobic, strength and flexibility exercise.

Aerobic exercise

For a healthy heart, lungs and muscles, it’s important to take part in regular aerobic exercise. This will also improve your fitness levels. Combine aerobic exercise with a balanced diet and you’ll be on the right track to maintaining a healthy weight too.

There are lots of types of aerobic exercise out there so you can choose one that suits you. Swimming, athletics, cycling and football are among the most popular sports in the UK and these are all excellent forms of aerobic exercise. If you fancy trying out any of these, take a look at our Other helpful websites section below to find out how to get involved. 

Here are some examples of aerobic exercise and the benefits of each.


Benefits: Swimming exercises your whole body and doesn’t put any stress on your joints. It’s a great choice if you have any problems with your joints, such as arthritis.


Benefits: Cycling is good for improving your fitness and strengthening your upper leg muscles. It also helps with balance and is a good way of getting around – much faster than walking!

Team sports

Benefits: Team sports, such as football, are an excellent way to stay motivated because you all rely on and support each other. There are plenty to choose from and they are a great opportunity to socialise while improving your fitness.

Brisk walking

Benefits:Brisk walking (fast enough to feel slightly out of breath) is great aerobic exercise for everybody, no matter what age you are. It’s also a good choice if you’re just starting to exercise as you can easily build it into your everyday life.

Running and athletics

Benefits: Running burns more calories than walking and improves your fitness. You need hardly any equipment (apart from a good pair of running shoes) and you can vary your routes to make it more enjoyable. Listen to some good tunes to keep going! Athletics is one of the easiest sports to get into because you don’t need much equipment and you can really get your heart rate going. You can compete in events all over the country to stay motivated.


Benefits: This is the definition of aerobic exercise and can be a fantastic workout and a great way to meet people too.


Benefits: An endurance sport, triathlon brings together running, cycling and swimming for an intense workout.

High intensity interval training (HIIT)

Benefits: HIIT (high intensity interval training) is an increasingly popular type of exercise that involves several short bursts of high intensity (effort) activity. You alternate these with short bouts of light exercise. You can do a HIIT workout when cycling, swimming, walking, rowing or using a cross trainer, for example. HIIT can help to improve your overall fitness, and a real bonus is that it doesn’t take very long so is great to pack into a busy day.

How much should I do?

How much aerobic activity you should do each week depends on the intensity. For moderate-intensity activities, aim for two-and-a-half hours (150 minutes) a week. For vigorous-intensity activities, an hour-and-a-quarter each week is a good target. It's also thought that even smaller amounts of very vigorous activity can help you to gain the same benefits of exercise. So try it out, or mix it up with a combination of all three. 

Moderate intensity means:

  • your breathing is faster
  • your heart rate increases
  • you feel warmer

Vigorous intensity means:

  • your heart rate is much faster
  • your breathing is much faster
  • you probably won’t be able to talk without pausing for breath

Very vigorous intensity means:

  • Your heart rate and breathing increases further still and you’re working at, or near, maximum effort and capacity


If you’re really trying to improve your fitness, or to lose weight, you might need to increase your effort levels and do more vigorous exercise. You’ll also need to combine exercise with a lower calorie diet if you want to lose weight.

Adjust the intensity of your exercise depending on your personal goals, your motivation and the level of fitness you wish to achieve. It’s best to start gently and gradually increase your effort level. If you go too hard too fast, you might get what’s called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is when the muscles you’ve used ache one to three days after you’ve exercised. So it’s best to gradually increase how much you do so you give your body the chance to get used to the activity. As you get fitter, you may need to work harder to raise your heart rate and feel breathless, which is a good thing.

Generally speaking, any amount of aerobic activity is good for you and the more you do the better still.

Strength (resistance) exercise

Strength training involves moving your muscles against some kind of resistance, which is why you’ll sometimes hear it called resistance training. You can use:

  • rubber (resistance) bands
  • free weights (such as dumb-bells)
  • weight-lifting machines
  • your own body weight (such as doing press-ups)

Doing some regular strength training will bring a range of health benefits such as:

  • helping you to improve your strength, posture and balance
  • keeping your bones healthy
  • keeping your blood pressure healthy

Having more muscle burns up lots of calories too, so building it up will help you to stay a healthy weight.

If the gym isn’t for you, lots of everyday activities like heavy gardening or carrying shopping can help tone and strengthen your muscles. For example, you might be surprised to hear that mowing the lawn burns more calories than the same time spent playing badminton. Try our 15-minute exercise routine or these simple exercises you can do at home to help you get started.

How much should I do?

Aim to do some strength training two or more times a week and work all the major muscle groups in your body. Don’t just go for the heaviest weight you can lift. Find the right weight for you and work your muscle until it is tired. Rest and then repeat the exercise. Begin by doing just one set of repetitions and then try building this up over time to three or four sets. Then start over with a slightly heavier weight, and so on.

If you haven’t done this sort of exercise before, you might like to get some professional advice at your local gym. They can help you to lift weights properly so you don’t injure yourself.

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Flexibility exercise

Flexible muscles allow us to keep mobile and active. It’s important to do some regular exercises to improve your range of motion. Flexibility exercises involve slowly stretching your muscle groups without jerking or bouncing.

There’s a range of activities that incorporate flexibility exercises, which include:

  • yoga
  • Pilates
  • tai chi

These all focus on suppleness and flexibility. You gently ease and stretch your body into different positions, and then hold these while concentrating on your breathing. You might be surprised at how much they can increase your flexibility and strength. Some of these may also help you to relax and improve your balance.

It’s thought that yoga may offer a host of health benefits. Research suggests it may help with low-back pain and, if you’re doing it along with other types of exercise, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.

How much should I do?

Aim to do some flexibility exercises at least two or three times a week to stretch all the major muscles in your upper and lower body. When you’re doing them, hold your position for between 10 and 60 seconds and do two or three repetitions. Try to hold the stretch for longer with each repetition you do. It shouldn’t hurt – if it does, it could be a sign you’ve injured yourself so be careful and take things gradually.

Activities that improve flexibility are particularly important if you’re older. If you’re over 65, aim to do these types of activities on at least two days a week.

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Related information

Tools and calculators

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    • Start active, stay active. GOV.UK., last updated 11 March 2016
    • Active people survey. Sport England., published December 2016
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    • Athletes. England Athletics., accessed 30 January 2018
    • Wise words – cycling and health. British Cycling., accessed 30 January 2018
    • Triathlon. UK Sport., accessed 20 February 2018
    • Personal communication, Dr Leon Creaney, Sports & Exercise Medicine Consultant, 15 February 2018
    • High-intensity interval training. American College of Sports Medicine., published 2014
    • Obesity: identification, assessment and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), November 2014.
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    • Yoga: in depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health., last updated June 2013
    • Wieland LS, Skoetz N, Pilkington K, et al. Yoga treatment for chronic non-specific low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 1. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010671.pub2
  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, March 2018
    Expert reviewer, Dr Leon Creaney, Sports and Exercise Medicine Consultant
    Next review due March 2021