Types of Exercise
Our page on The Importance of Exercise explains why you need to exercise in general. It sets out the benefits of exercise, including to strength, brain function and heart and mental health. It touches upon exercise intensity—how hard you are exercising, as measured by the effect of the exercise on your breathing and heart rate, and ability to talk—and suggests some forms of exercise that may fit into different categories of intensity.
This page builds on that introduction to provide more information about four important types of exercise that have different effects on your body. It explains why each is important, and gives you some ideas for examples of each form of exercise to help you to get started.
Four Types of Exercise
The four main types of exercise are:
Endurance, also known as cardio or aerobic exercise, which increases your general fitness;
Strength training, also known as resistance or muscle-building exercise, which increases your muscle strength;
Balance exercises, that may also include some lower-body strength exercises, which improve your ability to balance; and
Flexibility exercises, which improve your overall ability to move your body around.
Generally speaking, when most people talk about ‘exercise’, they tend to mean either endurance or strength training. This is especially true for people who use gyms. However, yoga and Tai Chi are well-known forms of exercise that increase balance and flexibility.
All four are important for your overall health, and particularly as you get older and may start to lose both fitness and muscle tone.
Exercise to improve endurance is what most people think of when they are told that they should ‘exercise more’. The obvious forms include running, swimming, cycling, walking, playing tennis or other racquet sports, dancing and even gardening, especially activities like raking or digging.
Basically, any activity that raises your heart rate for a prolonged period can be considered to be endurance exercise, because it improves your cardiovascular fitness.
Aerobic exercise has huge benefits for overall health, both mental and physical. It can help you to avoid chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, and improve your well-being. Health authorities around the world generally recommend at least 150 minutes of this type of exercise each week, done at an intensity that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe faster.
The importance of reducing sedentary time
It’s not just the amount of exercise that matters. Recent studies in Japan suggest that the amount of time you spend sitting (sedentary time) also matters for overall health.
The basic rule is that more sitting is less good for you.
This is true even for people who always achieve their 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise per week.
If you have to spend a lot of time sitting, for example, for work, it is a good idea to try to break up the time.
Get up and stretch, and walk around at least once an hour. Keep moving as much as possible.
There are two main approaches to aerobic exercise: ‘steady state’ and intervals.
Steady state is exactly what it sounds. You simply do the same type of exercise at more or less the same pace for a period of time. This is the classic ‘going for a jog’-type exercise.
Intervals are when you alternate periods of high and low intensity exercise. For example, you might swim a length of the pool as fast as you can, then swim three lengths slowly enough to catch your breath, then repeat 10 times more. Alternatively, you might run as fast as you can for 30 seconds, then jog for two minutes, over a period of 15 to 20 minutes.
You can read more about interval training in our guest post on Effective Training Techniques for Weight Management.
Starting endurance exercising
The first rule of starting any form of exercise is not to overdo it.
Take it easy at first, and work up to more intense and vigorous exercise. If you try to do too much, you may injure yourself.
For example, if you want to take up running, start by going for a short walk a few times a week. Build up to longer walks, then start to jog a short section of your walk. Programmes like Couch to 5K can help you to build up safely and gradually. The same principles apply to any sport: build up gradually and listen to your body.
Strength training increases your overall muscle strength. It helps to prevent injury by ensuring that your body is strong enough to do what you ask of it in other sports, or in life generally. It is particularly helpful for older people to do some resistance training, because we tend to lose muscle and bone density as we grow older.
Strength training includes weight training, but also exercise such as use of a resistance band, or even just using your own body weight or gravity to work against.
Strength training can focus on either particular muscle groups, or be general, to strengthen all your muscle groups. The exercises that you do will affect which muscle groups are strengthened.
Starting strength training
Before you start, it is worth seeking out a professional who can advise you on the right type of exercise for you, and the sort of weights you should be using.
Gyms employ physical trainers who can help, and physiotherapists may also provide advice about exercise to help with particular conditions or muscle problems.
In strength training, the general practice is to do two or three sets of 10 or 15 repetitions of each type of exercise. Usually, to build or maintain muscle, you need to be working with weights such that you can manage those two or three sets of 10 or 15 repetitions, but you couldn’t do much more. It is better to use weights that are a little too light than too heavy: build up gradually to give your body a chance to get used to the idea.
It is also a good idea not to exercise the same muscle group(s) two days in a row. Give your body time to recover.
WARNING! Care needed!
You can seriously hurt yourself by overdoing strength training, so it is a good idea to take professional advice first.
It is also not advisable to do weight training before you are fully grown.
Balance exercises are designed to improve your balance.
They are especially important for older people, because good balance helps to reduce the risk of falling. However, everyone can benefit.
Many of us do balance exercises a lot of the time without thinking about it: if you ride a bicycle, you are practising balance all the time. However, if you don’t, and especially if you find it hard to balance, it may be worth trying some exercises.
Suitable exercises include:
Standing on one leg. Start small: 10 seconds or so, and work up to longer. Try to stand still, without wobbling about too much. Hold out your arms to the sides if necessary.
Walking along a line (heel-to-toe walk). Pretend you are walking along a narrow line drawn on the ground. As you walk, place the heel of each foot against the toe of the other foot, in a straight line. Keep your chin up and your shoulders back. It is fine to hold out your arms for balance, and it may also be worth doing this near a wall at first in case you wobble.
Standing from a seated position, without arm holds.
Tai Chi is also a form of exercise that helps to strengthen your balance, because it involves moving your body slowly and deliberately.
Top tip! Take precautions against falling
When you first start doing balance exercises, especially if you are a bit unsteady on your feet, it is a good idea to do them with someone else present, in case you fall or wobble.
You can also use a wall or piece of furniture (kitchen worktop, table, back of a sofa) to help you balance.
The final area of exercise is work to improve your flexibility, which basically means stretching.
Flexibility, like balance, is especially important for older people, because joints and muscles become less flexible with age. Flexibility makes it easier to do basic tasks like doing up shoelaces or looking over your shoulder when reversing your car.
Yoga is the classic example of flexibility exercise. However, any form of stretching will have an effect.
Starting flexibility exercises
TOP TIP! Get advice first
If you have never done any stretching or flexibility exercises, then get advice first.
Do a beginners’ yoga class, or get some advice from a physiotherapist so that you understand what you are doing. There are plenty of online resources that can help too, but there is no substitute for a professional opinion.
As with other exercise, you can hurt yourself by overstretching, so it is a good idea to take some basic precautions. For example, try to ensure that your muscles are warmed up before stretching, and never stretch so far that it hurts.
A Basic Rule
In fact, if there is one basic rule that you take away from this page, it should be this:
Exercise is good, but you can overdo it, especially at first!
You aren’t going to be able to run a marathon (immediately) if you have never even walked down the road. Always take time to build up your abilities in your chosen form of exercise, and take professional advice about how to do that.