May is Physical Fitness and Sports Month, a perfect time to keep that promise to start a regular exercise program. Yet, it seems many Americans never quite take that first step. A progress report on Healthy People 2000 goals released in mid-April claims that about 24 percent of Americans never exercise. Illinoisans are even less likely to get exercise. Approximately half (44.4%) of the state's citizens lead sedentary lifestyles, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health's 1995 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Study. (Sedentary, as defined by BRFSS, means that these individuals engage in no physical activity.)

What are the benefits of a regular exercise program?

Breaking out of a sedentary lifestyle and making exercise a regular part of your life can have impressive benefits. It can increase the amount of blood your heart can pump, lower your heart rate when you are at rest, improve your cholesterol level, lower your blood pressure and reduce body fat. Regular exercise also can help you mentally by making it easier to manage stress, leaving you more energetic, making daily chores easier to accomplish, helping you sleep better and improving your self-image. The best part about these benefits is that they are accessible, to some degree, to almost any individual who builds exercise into his or her daily routine.

Regular exercise does not have to entail expensive fitness club dues or high-priced equipment to fill your spare bedroom. It can be as simple as walking. One expense you should afford yourself, however, is the correct shoe for your activity. Walking shoes should not be used for running; running shoes should not be used to play basketball or tennis.

How do I get started?

Before starting an exercise program, you should heed some basic principles:

  • Be sure to check with your physician. Most people who wish to start a gradual, sensible exercise program do not need to see a doctor before they start. However, if you have a health problem like high blood pressure, if you have pains or pressure in the chest or shoulder area, if you tend to feel dizzy or faint, if you get very breathless after a mild workout, or if you are middle-aged or older and have not been active, check with your doctor first.
  • Choose an activity that you enjoy. If you do not like what you are doing, you probably will not stick with your program. And remember, light activities, if done daily, can help you become more fit. Physical activity can be fit into your daily routine in small but important ways: take a walk at lunch or after dinner, use the stairs instead of the elevator, get off the bus one or two stops early and walk the rest of the way to your destination, park farther away from the store or office, ride a bike, work in the yard or garden, or go dancing.
  • Build variety into your program. A program that includes several fitness activities--for example, weight training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, running on Mondays and Wednesdays, and swimming on Fridays and Sundays--will help maintain your interest and will help you exercise different muscle groups.
  • Train with regularity. Fitness is cumulative. Increased strength and flexibility result from regular physical activity. Sporadic exercise, especially if intense, can result in injury.
  • Soreness from an intense workout should not last more than 24 hours. If it does, you should re-examine how you are performing the activity and the intensity of your workout. Listen to your body; it will tell you if you are overdoing it.
  • More is not necessarily better. Your body needs time to rest between workouts. Try to alternate between hard and easy workouts.

What phases make up a good workout?

Regular exercise has four phases:

  • Warming up elevates your pulse slowly. Start at a fairly light pace and gradually increase it until you begin to perspire--about five to 10 minutes. A good warm-up will help prevent muscle strains and raise the internal body temperature, which makes muscles more flexible.
  • Stretching improves the flexibility of your joints, making movement easier and injuries less likely. Stretches should be done slowly and without bouncing. Move until you can feel the muscle stretch but not to where you feel any pain. Hold the position for several seconds (10-20) and repeat three to five times. Stretch before and after you exercise.
  • The aerobic phase is the most important part of your daily exercise routine because this is when you temporarily elevate your resting heart rate. This phase involves three factors. The frequency of your exercise program is an important factor. In order to improve your fitness level, you should try to exercise at least three times per week. The length of time you exercise is important. The body needs approximately 20 minutes to reach its fat-burning stage. (Individuals who are extremely out of shape and those who have cardiac or respiratory problems are exceptions to this rule and should start with shorter workouts. These people, especially those who are out of shape, may be able to gradually increase the length of their workouts.) Theintensity of your workout is crucial and should be determined by your level of fitness. Your workout should increase the number of times your heart beats to about 60 percent to 80 percent of its maximum rate.

There are a number of ways to calculate this target heart rate. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends this formula: Subtract your age from 220 to determine your maximum heart rate. Multiply this number by 0.6 and 0.8 to arrive at your target heart rate zone. For example, a 40-year-old's target zone would be 108 to 144 beats per minute. However, if you have respiratory or cardiovascular problems, your range may be lower; check with your physician first.

  • During cool down, you should reduce your pace slowly so that your heart rate and blood pressure decrease slowly. This is the final phase of your workout.

Calories Burned During Physical Activities

Calories Burned Per Hour*

Activity Men** Women**

Light Activity 300 240
Cleaning house

Playing baseball

Playing golf

Moderate Activity 460 370
Walking briskly (3.5 mph)


Cycling (5.5 mph)


Playing basketball

Strenuous Activity 730 580
Jogging (9 min./mile)

Playing football


Very Strenuous Activity 920 740
Running (7 min./mile)



* May vary depending on a variety of factors, including environmental conditions.

** Healthy man, 175 pounds; healthy woman, 140 pounds.

Source. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Third Edition, 1990 (adapted from McArdle, et al., "Exercise Physiology," 1986).

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