Types of exercise

Expert reviewer, Dr Stephen Thompson, Sport and Exercise Medicine Consultant
Next review due September 2023

The main types of exercise include those that focus on aerobic capacity (cardiovascular fitness), strength, flexibility and balance. 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 try to incorporate a mix of these different types.

Here we look in more detail at each of the main types of exercise.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is any type of continuous activity that works your heart, lungs and muscles. Examples include brisk walking, cycling, running, swimming, dancing and football.

Taking part in regular aerobic exercise will improve your cardiovascular fitness (or endurance) levels and has numerous other benefits for your health. These include reducing your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers as well as improving mood and sleep. Combining aerobic exercise with a balanced diet is also important for maintaining a healthy weight or losing excess weight if you’re overweight or obese.

There are many types of aerobic exercise, so choose one that suits you. Here are some examples of aerobic exercise and the benefits of each.

  • Walking fast enough to feel slightly out of breath is great aerobic exercise for everybody, no matter what age you are. It’s a good choice if you’re not currently doing much exercise, as you can easily build it into your everyday life.
  • Cycling is good for improving your fitness and for building strength – particularly in your leg muscles – while putting minimal pressure on your joints. It helps with balance and is a good way of getting around: it’s faster than walking and more environmentally friendly than a car or bus journey.
  • Running or jogging is a more vigorous form of aerobic activity than walking or cycling. This means you don’t need to do as much to get the same health benefits. The only equipment you need to get started is a good pair of running shoes. If you’re new to running, following a running programme can help.
  • Swimming is a great form of exercise for people of all ages and abilities. It exercises your whole body and doesn’t put any stress on your joints. It’s also a great choice if you have any problems with your joints, such as arthritis.
  • Fitness classes such as aerobics, water aerobics and spinning give you a fantastic workout and can be a great way to meet people. You might find that a group-based activity gives you more motivation. Classes are held for all ages and abilities. Check out what’s available in your local area.
  • Team sports such as football, are a great form of aerobic exercise. They’re an excellent way to stay motivated because you all rely on and support each other. There are plenty of team sports at all levels to choose from – and they’re a great opportunity to socialise while improving your fitness.
  • Aerobic exercise machines such as treadmills, exercise bikes, cross-trainers and rowing machines are another way to stay fit and healthy. A gym will provide a good range of these machines. Alternatively, you can invest in your own equipment so you can keep fit in the comfort of your own home.

How much should I do?

Any amount of aerobic exercise will be beneficial to your health. But good targets to aim for are:

  • two-and-a-half hours (150 minutes) a week for activities of moderate intensity
  • one-and-a-quarter hours (75 minutes) a week for activities of vigorous intensity
  • smaller amounts of activities of very vigorous intensity

Each of these will give you the same benefits. Or, you can mix it up with a combination of all three.

If you’re trying to lose weight, you may need to do more exercise than this in combination with reducing your calorie intake. You can adjust the intensity and amount of your exercise according to your goals, motivation and the level of fitness you wish to achieve. It’s best to start gently and gradually increase how much you do.

  • Moderate intensity means the activity will make you feel warm, breathe harder and your heart beat faster. But you should still be able to talk without pausing. Although it depends on personal fitness, a typical example might be brisk walking or cycling.
  • Vigorous intensity means the activity will make your breathing and heart rate much faster and you probably won’t be able to talk without pausing for breath. Typically, this could mean playing football, swimming or running.
  • Very vigorous intensity means the activity will make your breathing and heart rate increase even more. You can probably only do this sort of activity in short bursts – for example, sprinting up hills.

HIIT (high intensity interval training) is an increasingly popular type of exercise that involves short bursts of high intensity activity alternating with short bouts of light exercise. HIIT can help to improve your overall fitness, and a real bonus is that it doesn’t take very long. You can even follow a HIIT workout at home so it’s easy to fit into a busy day.

Strengthening exercises

Strengthening activities focus on building up or maintaining strength in your major muscle groups – for example, your arms and legs. Doing exercises to improve strength is important throughout life. It helps to develop muscle strength and healthy bones in childhood, and to maintain these as an adult. In later life, strengthening exercises help to delay the natural decline in muscle mass and bone strength. Having strong muscles helps to maintain good posture and prevent problems such as low back pain.

Strengthening exercises might involve equipment such as resistance bands or machines, and lifting weights. But there are plenty of everyday activities such as heavy gardening or carrying shopping that will help to develop your muscle strength. You could also try following a home workout of strengthening exercises using either household items or do your own bodyweight workout.

Be careful not to overdo it. Whether you’re lifting weights in the gym or bags of shopping at home, build up gradually. To help avoid injury, don’t go for the heaviest weight you can lift straight away.

Certain types of exercise can help to strengthen your bones. Weight-bearing or high-impact activities such as running, skipping and jumping, create an impact on your body and help to stimulate bone growth and repair. This is particularly important for children, whose bones are still growing, and for older people, whose bone density tends to decline.

How much should I do?

Aim to do some strengthening exercises at least twice a week. You can combine this with other forms of exercise – for instance, an aerobic exercise can help with strength too. Or you may prefer to focus on strengthening activities separately.
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Flexibility exercise

Exercises that improve your flexibility (that is, how well your joints move or their range of motion) can help to keep you mobile and active. This type of exercise involves slowly stretching your muscles, without jerking or bouncing them.

Activities that help with flexibility include yoga and Pilates. These involve gently easing and stretching your body into different positions, and then holding position while concentrating on your breathing. As well as improving your flexibility, these activities help with strength and balance. They may help you to relax too. You may be able to find yoga and Pilates classes locally. Alternatively, you can follow a routine at home, like our 15-minute morning yoga routine in this video.

Even just doing some gentle stretches will help with flexibility. Hold stretches for between 10 and 60 seconds and repeat two or three times. 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. It can be useful to do this after other forms of exercise, like cycling or jogging, when your muscles are still warm.

How much should I do?

Activities that improve flexibility are helpful for everyone, but are particularly important for older adults. If you’re over 65, aim to do this type of activity on at least two days a week. Don’t forget, you can combine this with other forms of exercise too.

Balancing exercises

Activities that test your balance are good for general mobility, and can help to reduce your risk of falling as you get older. Examples include dancing, t’ai chi, and racquet sports such as tennis. You can also do simple exercises at home to help improve your balance. For example, try:

  • standing on one leg
  • walking backwards
  • walking on your toes – try to do 10 steps at a time, and use a wall to support yourself if necessary
  • calf raises – while standing, slowly raise your heels off the ground and hold for a few seconds (hold onto a table or chair if necessary)
  • toe raises – while standing, slowly raise your toes off the ground and hold for a few seconds (hold onto a table or chair if necessary)

How much should I do?

As with flexibility exercises, balancing exercises are particularly important for older adults. If you’re over 65, try to incorporate exercises that improve balance into the activities you do twice a week.

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  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, September 2020
    Expert reviewer, Dr Stephen Thompson, Sport and Exercise Medicine Consultant
    Next review due September 2023