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Physical Activity

Physical activity is essential to a woman’s health. Being active reduces your risk for many health conditions, improves your mood and helps you sleep better. You can take part in safe enjoyable exercise at any age.

Being active

Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving, including carrying out everyday activities – such as doing housework, grocery shopping or walking to work – as well as scheduling regular exercise – like walking or swimming into your weekly activities.

Different types of physical activity

Aerobic activities,also known as cardio, increase your heart rate and make you breathe harder. You can talk but not sing when doing moderately-intense activities. With vigorously-intense exercise, you will not be able to say more than a few words without catching your breath.


Examples of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercises:

  • jogging
  • dancing
  • swimming
  • bike-riding

Strengthening activities work your muscles and bones. Working with resistance or weight (including your own body weight) builds muscle and helps bones grow stronger. Weight-bearing activity reduces your risk of developing osteoporosis (a disease of weak bones common in women).


Examples include:

  • lifting weights
  • using resistance bands (long rubber strips or tubes)
  • doing squats, sit-ups or push-ups
  • carrying groceries or your child.
 

Balance and flexibility are important for maintaining mobility throughout our lives. Particularly as women get older, problems with balance may make you reluctant to walk on uneven surfaces or go out after dark. Working on balance and flexibility can help keep you active and doing the things you want to do.


Examples include:

  • balancing on one foot while brushing your teeth;
  • learning Tai Chi;
  • practicing yoga or pilates;
  • regular stretching;
  • walking a straight line heel-to-toe.
Go to the US National Institute on Aging to learn some balance exercises you can do at home.
 

To get the most health benefits out of physical activity, do a combination of aerobic, strengthening and flexibility activities every week. Many activities, such as running and climbing stairs, increase your heart rate, build stronger muscles and challenge your balance at the same time.

Why be physically active?

Health benefits for women include:
  • reducing your risk of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • strengthening your mental wellness by improving mood, reducing stress, and helping you sleep better
  • helping you achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • improving flexibility, strength and balance, which can help prevent falls
  • reducing your risk of breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers and osteoporosis (a disease of weak bones)
  • reducing depression and anxiety, as well as negative moods that result from PMS (premenstrual syndrome). 
Women & exercise

Statistics tell us that Canadian women and girls are less physically active then men and boys. Most of us are not physically active enough to achieve the health benefits that being physically active can provide.

The Canadian Physical Activity guidelines for adults recommend:

at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity per week, in 10 minute or more time periods. 
Estimates show approximately 14 out of 100 Canadian women meet these recommendations. 

Women’s activity patterns

Research suggests women often engage in different types of exercise and face different barriers to getting exercise than men.

When asked, women in Canada report that the most common activities they enjoy include:
  • walking
  • gardening
  • home exercises
  • dancing
  • swimming.

Barriers to getting regular exercise

It can be challenging for women to find the time for exercise given the social and economic realities of our lives. Many women, for example, combine both paid work (a job) and unpaid work (housework, childcare) in the home.

Barriers to being physically active include:
  • being the primary caregiver to children and aging adults
  • lack of time 
  • lack of money
  • lack of access to fitness and recreational centres 
  • lack of safe facilities or safe neighbourhoods.

Research shows older women, physically challenged women, women with lower incomes or who are newcomers are the least physically active due to the many different social, economic and access barriers they experience.

Body image & exercise

Many women have a complex relationship with exercise, body image and self-esteem. This is in part because the media, reflecting social values:

  • promotes thin body standards for women
  • minimizes other benefits of physical activity like health improvement, making social connections, having fun, etc.
  • promotes “working out” as a way to lose weight and improve a woman’s appearance
  • emphasizes dieting as the best method of weight control.

Women often report that the primary reason for participating in fitness programs is to lose weight and improve appearance. This may lead to a loss of self-esteem if a woman does not lose weight or she is unable to shape her body to meet society’s standards. 

If you struggle with your body image, get support. Talk to your healthcare provider or find resources and support groups in your community.

Being active with a chronic illness or disability

Physical activity offers health benefits for everyone. However, you may not be able to follow general recommendations for physical activity if you have mobility issues or a chronic illness like osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). 

Women are more likely to experience mobility issues or chronic conditions than men, especially with age. Regular exercise can help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. 

Talk to your healthcare provider to find out what exercises are safe for you to do.  

Visit Living with Illness for more information about living with a chronic condition. 

Throughout your life

Make physical activity a regular part of your life, no matter your age or current activity level.

Daily exercise provides you with many benefits in addition to helping you establish lifelong healthy physical activity habits. Regular exercise can:

  • give you more energy
  • boost your self-esteem and reduce stress, anxiety and depression
  • help you build strong bones for life
  • help you maintain a healthy weight.

The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend:

  • Girls (5 to 11 years of age) should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to-vigorous-intensity physical activity every day.
  • Adolescents (12-17 years) should get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity each day.
  • Do vigorous aerobic (cardio) activities – swimming, running - at least three days a week.
  • Do strength-building activities – stair climbing, lifting weights - at least three days a week.
  • Both groups should also engage in several hours of light physical activity every day.

 Physical activity guidelines for adults over 18:

  • Get at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity every week.
  • Get active for 10 minutes or more at a time, this counts towards your weekly total.
  • Do strength-building activities to strengthen your muscles and bones at least two days per week.

Ways to get active

Increasing your physical activity can be as simple as getting off the bus early and walking the rest of the way to school.

Find activities you enjoy: try organized sports, like swim clubs or soccer or volleyball. Try a Zumba, aerobics or yoga class. Find free exercise programs online you can do at home.

Do short bursts of exercise throughout your day: climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator, walk or bike to school, take the dog for a walk before or after school, dance in your bedroom; take walks around the school grounds with friends during lunch.

Make time for exercise: schedule in regular physical activity and try to stick to it, even if school work and other demands are heavy. Exercise will improve your mood and ability to concentrate on schoolwork.

Body image & activity

Research shows that when girls become teenagers, their physical activity levels often drop. Girls tend to drop out of organized sports, like soccer, and engage in very little physical activity outside of gym class at school.

Pressure on girls about body image starts to increase at adolescence. Media messages tell adolescent girls and women they should control their bodies through diet and exercise to improve their “feminine” qualities.

You may feel pressure from friends and family, and from the media, to look and behave a certain way. This can affect your self-esteem, self-acceptance and your attitudes toward food and exercise.

Get help if you are struggling with your body image, self-esteem and issues around food and exercise.

Check out the resource section on the sidebar for helpful links.

 

The key to being physically active is to find activities you enjoy and can do regularly.

The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults (18-64):

  • Get at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity every week.
  • Get activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more which counts towards your weekly total.
  • Do strength-building activities at least 2 days per week.

Ideas to help you become active

  • Do short activities throughout the day, such as three 10-minute walks instead of 30 minutes all at once.
  • Park your car farther away or get off the bus early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Exercise with a friend or family member to motivate each other.
  • Do yard work or household chores.
  • Vary your activities - do yoga one day and swim the next.
  • Make exercise fun and social – go out dancing with friends.
  • Find activities to do inside in the winter or if it is unsafe to be active outdoors - look for indoor fitness classes or exercise at home to a workout video.

Pregnancy, parenthood & exercise

Pregnancy is a time when many women want to improve their health habits, including being physically active. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC) recommends that during a low risk pregnancy, both aerobic (cardio) and strength-building (weight-lifting) exercises are safe for mother and baby, even if you did not exercise before you were pregnant. Talk to your healthcare provider before you begin a new exercise program during your pregnancy. Visit Exercise & pregnancy for more information.


Mental health, exercise & mothering

Parenthood can be tiring but exercise can give your mental health a boost. Research shows getting regular physical activity reduces anxiety and depression, which can occur in women during the postpartum period.


If you are overwhelmed with the changes and additional stress in your life after having a baby, are crying daily, feeling anxious or having mood swings for more than 2 weeks in a row, you may have postpartum depression.


Visit Reproductive Mental Health for services and resources offered by the BC Reproductive Mental Health Program operated by BC Mental Health and Substance Use services, another PHSA agency.


Parenting & Exercise

Getting your body moving does not mean you need to join a gym or set aside a lot of time. Much of what you do with your child counts as exercise – carrying your baby, lifting your toddler, chasing them in the playground or around the house – all of these count towards your 150 minutes of recommended activity each week.

Be realistic. Even 10 minutes of activity fit into various parts of your day will improve your health.


Ideas for staying active during early parenthood

  • Play with your children outside – throw a ball in the park, climb the playground jungle gym, chase each other around the backyard.
  • Meet up with other parents and go for brisk walks in your neighborhood pushing your child in a stroller.
  • Do pull-ups, push-ups, squats and other body-weight exercises in the playground.
  • Find a parent and baby exercise group at your local recreation centre or mall.
Midlife is a time of change for women. Your metabolism (how quickly you burn calories) slows down and you begin to lose muscle mass. Many women experience weight gain as hormone changes tend to cause fat to deposit around your stomach. Exercise can help you cope with these changes by improving your mood, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping you maintain your weight.

Menopause

Women in perimenopause, the time of changes in your body leading up to menopause, and menopause (12 months after your last period) often experience hot flushes, problems sleeping, tiredness and other symptoms.

Maintaining a regular exercise program can improve your overall health and well-being by:
  • reducing your risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes
  • helping you maintain a healthy weight and minimizing midlife weight gain
  • increasing your bone mass and reduces your risk of osteoporosis (disease of weak bones)
  • reducing low back pain
  • reducing stress, anxiety, depression and improving mood.

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults (18-64):

  • Get at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity every week.
  • Get activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more which counts towards your weekly total.
  • Do strengthen-building activities at least two days per week.

Ideas for becoming more active

It is never too late to start exercising. The key is to start slowly and find activities you enjoy. You do not need to go to a gym to make physical activity part of your life. Even moderate physical activity that gets your heart to pump faster without being out of breath brings health benefits.


Some ideas on how to be more active:

  • Take a brisk walk.
  • Do vigorous yard work- pull weeds in the garden, rake leaves, mow the lawn.
  • Do housework – work up a sweat scrubbing the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Find an exercise class at your local recreational centre or fitness club.
  • Ask a trainer at your local gym to set you up with a strength training routine you can follow on your own.
  • Take up swimming, cycling, running, hiking, anything that makes you feel good.

Bone health

Strength training and weight-bearing activities are important to do during your midlife years. These activities can slow down the loss of bone mass and prevent osteoporosis, a condition common in older women.

Visit Bone Health for more information.

 

Physical activity can significantly improve your quality of life as you age. Research indicates that postmenopausal women (after your menstrual cycle ends for good) who get regular exercise see benefits that include:

  • maintaining a healthy body and healthy weight
  • slowing down the loss of bone mass and reducing risk for osteoporosis
  • improving their mental health and reducing risk of depression.

If you are over the age of 65, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends you:

  • get at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity every week
  • any activity that you do for 10 minutes or more counts towards your weekly total
  • do strengthen-building activities at least two days per week.

Ideas for becoming more active

Women tend to stop exercising as they get older due to fear of falling and breaking a bone. A good exercise program can reduce your risk of falls by improving your muscle mass, strength, balance, and coordination.


A mix of aerobic, strength and balance exercises will help keep you in good shape and make you feel good about yourself.

If you have poor mobility and are worried about falling, you can do physical activities that improve your balance and prevent falls such as:

  • brisk walking
  • hiking
  • swimming
  • lifting weights
  • using resistance bands (long rubber strips)
  • joining a Tai Chi class
  • joining a group exercise class at your local recreational centre or fitness club.

Exercise & osteoporosis

Osteoporosis, a condition of weak bones, is common among older women. Doing weight-bearing exercise is a proven way to keep your bones strong and reduce your risk for falls and broken bones.


Osteofit is a certified exercise program in BC for people at risk of bone fractures and falls. It was developed by clinicians and researchers at BC Women’s Hospital and is available in many communities throughout the province.

 
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