Physical activity is any deliberate muscle movement that uses energy. It can be structured exercise — like sports, a gym session, or going for a run — or part of your work, your leisure time, or any other movement you do during your day.
There are different types of physical activity, and they’re often categorized based on the kind of movement they involve and how intensely you do them.
Physical activity can be divided into the following types:
Aerobic: like running, swimming, or going for a brisk walk. This can be broken down further into low, moderate, and vigorous intensity.
Strengthening: such as pushups, lifting weights, or digging in the garden.
Flexibility: for example, stretching exercises or yoga.
Balance: including yoga, tai chi, or walking heel to toe.
Each type of physical activity brings its own health benefits, and it’s important to try to include them all in your weekly routine.
Some of the health benefits of being physically active include a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, as well as improved mental health and better sleep.
Being physically active is one of the key ways to take care of your health, along with diet, sleep, mental health, and social and lifestyle habits. At ZOE, our research looks at how these factors work together to impact your overall well-being.
The ZOE program focuses on your body’s unique responses to the foods you eat and how these can affect your health.
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Read on to learn about different types of physical activity and which might suit you best.
Types of physical activity
While there are almost endless examples of physical activity, they’re usually grouped together based on what type of movement you’re doing or how intense it is.
Does it speed up your heart rate or your breathing? Are particular muscles or muscle groups burning? Does it involve stretching or balancing? These are all clues as to what type of exercise you’re doing.
1. Aerobic exercises
Aerobic exercise, also known as cardiovascular or “cardio,” includes anything that gets your breathing and heart rate up. Everyone can benefit from this type of movement, regardless of their age or physical abilities.
Aerobic exercises can help improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and your sleep. Over time, these exercises can also reduce your risk of developing many chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Aerobic exercises can be grouped into low, moderate, or vigorous intensity, based on how much they increase your breathing and heart rate. One way to test an activity’s intensity level is to do the talk test. Whether you can sing or talk during the activity can give you clues about how hard you are exercising.
Low intensity activities
If you can talk and sing during an activity, you’re exercising at a low intensity.
While great for any age or fitness level, low intensity exercises can be particularly beneficial for beginners, older adults, people with joint pain, or those recovering from injury. These types of activities can still benefit your health and may help you stick with your physical activity goals.
Examples of low intensity activities include:
vacuuming, mopping, and other house-cleaning activities
washing the car
Moderate intensity activities
Moderate intensity activities get your heart pumping. During these activities, you should be able to talk but not sing.
Most adults and children can benefit from moderate intensity activities because many of the health benefits of aerobic exercise begin in this range. Older adults or those with a history of health conditions should talk to their doctor about an appropriate intensity level for them.
Examples of moderate intensity physical activities include:
swimming or water aerobics
doing yard work
Vigorous intensity activities
If you’re out of breath and can only string a few words together at a time, you’re in the vigorous intensity range.
Some people prefer this level of physical activity, as it brings the same health benefits in less time. However, if you are new to exercise or if you have any health complications, you may want to speak to your doctor before attempting any vigorous activity.
Some examples of vigorous intensity activities include:
running or biking at a fast pace
doing heavy yard work, such as prolonged digging or shoveling
playing basketball or tennis
While everyone can benefit from aerobic activity, it’s important to start at the right level for you and gradually increase the intensity as your fitness improves.
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2. Strengthening exercises
As well as aerobic exercises, it’s also important to include muscle-strengthening exercises in your workout routine.
These exercises help maintain muscle and bone mass and are an important part of healthy aging. Women in particular can benefit from strengthening activities, as bone and muscle loss are common during and after menopause.
Strengthening exercises can be done with or without equipment, in a gym, or at home. There are many different activities that can help strengthen your muscles, so choose which work for you and your lifestyle. Some examples include:
working with resistance bands
doing push-ups or sit-ups
doing heavy yard work or gardening
doing some forms of yoga
Just as with aerobic activities, make sure to start at a comfortable level and slowly increase the amount you do. Pregnant women, older adults, and those with health conditions should discuss which strengthening activities are most appropriate with their doctor.
3. Flexibility exercises
Adding movements that help with your flexibility is also important for your overall health. These activities can help prevent injury, reduce body aches, and increase range of motion.
Examples of flexibility exercises include:
Make sure to get your muscles warmed up with 5–10 minutes of movement before stretching them. This sends blood and oxygen to your muscles and allows them to stretch more easily.
You could also do your flexibility exercises after other physical activity or as part of your cool down. Remember, stretching should not be painful. To avoid injury, only push your muscles as far as is comfortable.
4. Balance exercises
Some balancing exercises include:
walking heel to toe
standing on one foot, then repeating with the other
standing up from a seated position
How much exercise should you do?
The current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise each week.
That’s the equivalent of 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. And you can even split those 30 minutes into shorter amounts — say, three 10-minute sessions — if you prefer.
Another option is to do at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise each week.
As well as cardio, you should aim to do strengthening activities at least twice a week.
For older adults, it’s important to include multicomponent physical activity each week, which combines balance exercises with cardio and strength training.
While these recommendations can be a great goal to work toward, remember that any movement is better than none at all. Start at the right level for you and gradually increase the amount of activity you do as your fitness improves.
You should also pick activities you enjoy. If you dread working out in a gym, go on a nature hike or exercise at home. If running isn’t your thing, try swimming or joining a dance class.
Choosing activities that work for you and your lifestyle can help to make physical activity a sustainable and enjoyable part of your everyday life.
The term physical activity covers any kind of movement you choose to make, including during organized exercise time and any other daily activities.
There are different types of physical activity — including aerobic, strengthening, flexibility, and balance — and you can do them at varying levels of intensity.
Each kind comes with its own health benefits, so it’s good to include them all in your weekly routine.
Current guidelines recommend that adults aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise each week, but it’s important to start at a level that’s right for your personal fitness and mobility and build from there.
Another important way to improve your overall health is by eating the right foods for your unique metabolism.
The ZOE at-home test helps you do this by looking at your blood sugar and blood fat responses to food, as well as your gut health.
You can take a free quiz to find out more.
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