Physical activity – common questions

Key points on common questions about physical activity

  • Many embarking on exercise  have heard of aerobic, anaerobic and resistance activities.
  • Find out about the differences between these types of exercise and the benefits they provide. 
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Aerobic activities are good for your lungs and heart.

Aerobic activities require oxygen for your muscles to generate the energy to perform, sometimes for long periods. They vary in intensity from light (eg, housework, yoga) to moderate (eg, brisk walking, playing actively with the children) to vigorous (eg, running, most competitive field sports).

Regular aerobic activities:

  • improve the function of your heart, lungs and muscles to make it easier to do daily activities such as washing the car and vacuuming
  • improve mental health, sleep, overall wellbeing and quality of life
  • increase levels of social interaction if activity is done with others
  • can help you maintain a healthy weight and prevent weight gain (if combined with healthy eating).

Aerobic activity may not be the most effective way to lose weight (unless done for at least 1 hour per day and combined with healthy eating).

Silhouetted woman walking along sandy beach waterline

Image credit: Healthify He Puna Waiora, NZ

Anaerobic activities are good for improving strength, speed, power and muscle mass. 

Anaerobic activities involve contracting/relaxing muscles at very high-intensity (90% or more of your maximum heart rate) for up to about 2 minutes. Anaerobic activities include sprinting, weightlifting and other resistance activities.

Some of the endurance activities mentioned in aerobic activities may require periods of anaerobic activity, eg, during a sprint finish or sports game.

Resistance activities are good for maintaining or increasing muscle tone and strength, power and endurance.

Any physical activity that provides resistance to your muscles maintains or increases muscle strength, power, endurance and (lean) mass. Resistance activities may help you to increase the tone of your muscles. They may also help you maintain a healthy weight or lose weight (if combined with healthy eating).

Examples of resistance activities include:

  • push-ups, sit-ups and squats at home
  • weightlifting or other gym-based activities
  • carrying children or heavy bags of shopping
  • waka ama/oe vaka, rock climbing, aqua aerobics/jogging, walking up hills, climbing stairs and digging in the garden.

Exergames are computer games with a physical activity component such as dance games, fitness games, tennis, ten pin bowling, baseball and football. As the name suggests, they're a combination of exercise and gaming. 

If done at a moderate intensity, they may contribute to Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora's recommendation of at least 2 1⁄2 hours of moderate or 1 1⁄4 hours of vigorous physical activity spread throughout the week.

You can also get virtual reality apps that focus specifically on exercise, but by playing some other virtual realist games you might find yourself getting some ‘exercise by mistake’!

There are lots of other activities you can do if you don’t like sport or the gym. What’s important is to choose activities you enjoy, as these are easier to stick to. Activities like walking, cycling and swimming are all low or no cost and can be enjoyed outside.

Activity guides on walking, cycling and water activities are available in English and te reo Māori from HealthEd(external link)

Benefits of walking

  • Ideal for people of all ages and fitness levels.
  • You can make it easy or hard, but a brisk pace for 10 minutes or more produces more benefits.
  • Relatively easy on the muscles and joints with a low risk of injury.
  • Can be done alone or in a group (if you like to socialise).

Benefits of cycling

  • Ideal for people of all ages and fitness levels.
  • Low impact on your muscles.
  • Benefits your health and the environment.
  • A great family pastime.
  • The quickest form of transport for journeys less than 5km.

Aotearoa New Zealand has many fantastic places to cycle, including Ngā Haerenga (the New Zealand Cycle Trail)(external link).

Benefits of swimming and water activities

  • Are soothing and therapeutic.
  • Low impact (your joints and muscles are under less strain under water).
  • Use nearly all the body’s muscle groups (when using full swimming techniques)
  • Excellent during pregnancy and for people with health conditions such as osteoarthritis and obesity as your body is supported.

Benefits of dancing

  • Good for overall health as it increases your breathing and heart rate.
  • You can do it alone at home or with others, which can reduce stress levels and increase psychological wellbeing.
  • Improves core strength, flexibility and coordination (depending on the dance and intensity).

High-intensity intermittent [or interval] training (HITT) involves short periods of high intensity activity with a brief recovery period in between.

HIIT can improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness, strength, power and speed. As well, HIIT can increase heart health and insulin sensitivity, and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and abdominal fat.

HIIT can be undertaken for numerous activities individually, such as cycling, running, swimming or rowing, or for a combination of activities.

If you’ve been inactive for a long time, are overweight or obese, have a low base fitness level and/or have certain medical conditions you may wish to consult your healthcare provider before doing higher intensity activities.

Many gyms, leisure centres and community centres offer group activity classes run by a fitness instructor. They can be a good way for you to get moderate to vigorous activity into your day and can motivate you to be active if you enjoy the class.

Boot camps, which are often held outside, can be a good way to increase fitness if the structure and level are correct for you and if safe practices are applied (such as building up to the appropriate level gradually).

If you have medical conditions and have a low physical fitness level, or you have been physically inactive for some time, consult your healthcare provider before taking part in group activity classes or boot camp.

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