Exercise is any activity requiring physical exertion done for the sake of health. Activities range from walking and yoga to lifting weights and martial arts.


Regular exercise as a way of promoting health can be traced back at least 5,000 years to India, where yoga originated. In China, exercises involving martial arts, such as t’ai chi, qigong, and kung fu, developed possibly 2,500 years ago. The ancient Greeks also had exercise programs 2,500 years ago, which led to the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. Other exercise routines have been in use throughout Asia for hundreds of years.

Only within the last 100 years have the scientific and medical communities documented the benefits that even light but regular exercise has on physical and mental health.

The earliest forms of exercise stressed activities that involved stretching and light muscle resistance. Next came martial arts that promoted self-defense. In nearly all forms of Asian exercise routines, some type of meditation was a major component because the ancients believed physical and mental health went together.

The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations advocated vigorous physical activity since exercise was associated with military training. The Greeks also believed that a healthy body would promote a healthy mind.

“Physical culture” was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Medical journals showed exercise machines in the 1800s in Europe and North America. Although weight training became popular with a small number of people in the 1940s, it was not until the 1960s that regular exercise programs began to flourish throughout the United States.

Gymnasiums, once used mainly by male weight lifters and boxers as training facilities, now are common throughout the United States. Today’s gyms and health clubs offer a wide range of exercise activities for men and women that can fit every lifestyle, age group, and exertion level.


The medical community recognizes that regular exercise, along with a proper diet, is one of the two most important factors in maintaining good physical and mental health, and in preventing and managing many diseases. Most certified physical trainers advocate at least 20 minutes of exercise at least three times a week. But for people who have a sedentary lifestyle, even walking for 10 minutes a day has health benefits. One study of 13,000 people followed for more than eight years showed that people who walk 30 minutes a day have a significantly reduced risk of premature death than people who did not exercise regularly.

Walking and other cardiovascular exercises can reduce the risk of heart disease, some cancers, hypertension (high blood pressure), arthritis, osteoporosis, stroke, and depression. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2001 that running just once a month could help keep bones strong. In addition to physical benefits, a 2001 study showed that exercising just 10 minutes a day can improve mental outlook.

A study released in 2003 reported that exercise combined with behavioral therapy may even help manage the symptoms experienced by Gulf War veterans. Specifically, exercise helped improve symptoms related to fatigue, distress, cognitive problems, and mental health functioning.

In the same year, the American Heart Association released a statement saying that exercise was beneficial even for patients awaiting heart transplants. Another study showed that women who participated in strenuous physical activity over a number of years could reduce their risk of breast cancer. Finally, research showed that men and women age 40 to 50 who exercised moderately for 60 to 90 minutes a day were less likely to catch a cold than those who sat around.


Exercise comes in many forms, but there are three basic types: resistance, aerobics, and stretching. Yoga and martial arts are basically muscle stretching routines, walking and running are primarily aerobic, and weight lifting is mainly resistance. However, exercises such as swimming are considered crossover activities since they build muscle and provide a good aerobic, or cardiovascular, workout. Certified physical trainers usually advocate a combination program that involves stretching, aerobics, and at least some resistance activity for 30-60 minutes a day three times a week.

Stretching and meditative exercises

The most common types of alternative health exercises are the ancient disciplines of yoga and the martial arts (such as t’ai chi and qigong).

YOGA. The ancient East Indian discipline of yoga is probably the most widely practiced exercise advocated by alternative health practitioners. This may be because there is a heavy emphasis on mental conditioning as well as physical exertion.

Yoga is the practice of incorporating mind, body, and spirit through a series of physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. It improves muscle flexibility, strength, and tone while calming the mind and spirit. Most contemporary stress reduction techniques are based on yoga principles.

There are a variety of yoga styles, each with its own unique focus. In the United States, hatha yoga is the most practiced. The pace is slow and involves a lot of stretching and breathing exercises. Much like the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, hatha yoga strives to balance the opposite forces of ha (sun) and tha (moon).

Astanga, or power yoga, involves more intense yoga postures done in rapid succession. Its vigorous workout is especially good in developing muscle strength. Iyengar yoga promotes body alignment while kripalu yoga develops mind, body, and spirit awareness. Pranayama yoga is a series of breathing exercises designed to increase vitality and energy.

Yoga helps strengthen the heart and slow respiration. Studies have shown it is beneficial in treating a variety of conditions, including heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, depression, fatigue, chronic pain, and carpal-tunnel syndrome.

A 2001 study at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio looked at yoga’s effect on people suffering from lower back pain and pain due to conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. After a four-week period, investigators noted that yoga helped lessen pain, improve participants’ moods and decreased pain medication requirements.

There are four main groups of yoga postures, also called asanas: standing, seated, reclining prone, and reclining supine. Other groups include forward bends, back bends, side bends, twists, inverted, and balancing. Within each group there are dozens of different yoga poses at beginning and advanced levels.

MARTIAL ARTS. While the words “martial arts” may be associated with conflict, they usually are graceful exercise movements that keep the body and mind strong and healthy. They can be performed by young and old. Martial arts range from simple stretching and meditative exercises to complicated and demanding exercises requiring more physical activity and mental concentration.

Probably the most popular among alternative health participants is t’ai chi, derived from the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and based on the concept of yin and yang. T’ai chi has a self-defense aspect based on counteracting an opponent’s attack and then counterattacking, all in the same movement. As an exercise to maintain health, t’ai chi strengthens muscles and joints. It requires deep breathing techniques that increase blood circulation, benefiting the heart, lungs, and other organs. New research states that t’ai chi may improve physical functioning, like bending and lifting, in older age.

Another martial art growing in popularity in the United States is qigong (pronounced chee kung), although it has several forms that are more Taoist and Buddhist than martial. Qigong is a gentle exercise program that can increase vitality, enhance the immune system, and relieve stress when performed regularly. In China, there are hospitals that use qigong to treat terminal illnesses, particularly cancer.

Cardiovascular and aerobic

Aerobic, also called cardiovascular, exercises use a variety of muscle groups continuously and rhythmically, increasing heart rate and breathing. Specific aerobic activities include walking, jogging, running, bicycling, swimming, tennis, and cross-country skiing. Another popular form is aerobic dance exercise. Routines should last 10-60 minutes and be performed at least three times a week. Aerobic exercise is especially beneficial for losing weight and building endurance.

Aerobic exercises can be done outside a formal setting, with little or no equipment. However, since boredom is a frequent cause for stopping exercise, it often is beneficial to participate in exercise classes or join a gym or health club. Exercising with a group often helps with motivation. Also, health clubs usually offer a variety of stationary aerobic equipment, such as bikes, treadmills, stair climbers, and rowing machines.


Resistance exercises generally are accomplished by lifting weights such as barbells and dumbbells, or by using a variety of resistance machines. They can also be done using only the body as resistance, such as doing push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. Resistance exercise is particularly good for building muscles.

For patients with kidney disease, weight lifting offers added benefit. Chronic kidney disease can lead to muscle wasting, which is compounded by low-protein diets that may be described for these patients. A 2001 study demonstrated that resistance training can improve muscle mass in kidney disease patients.

Unlike aerobics, which can be done daily, weightlifting exercises require a period for the muscles to rest and rebuild. A total-body workout should be done every other day, or two to three times a week. A more advanced workout would exercise the lower body muscles one day and upper body muscles the next. It is also important to do 5-10 minutes each of warm-up and cooldown exercises, which will help increase flexibility and decrease soreness and fatigue.


No advance preparations are required for exercising. However, a trainer can test a person’s strength level and outline an appropriate program. Proper shoes are essential, especially for running. Any exercise should start with a warm-up of 5-10 minutes.

Anyone considering a regular exercise program should consult first with a doctor, and possibly a sports podiatrist, to avoid strain and injury. Persons with serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, AIDS, asthma, and arthritis should only begin an exercise regimen with their doctor’s approval.


In most people, the main exercise precaution is to avoid strain and overexertion. Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous to be beneficial. People with certain chronic health problems should take special precautions. Diabetics should closely monitor their blood sugar levels before and after exercising. Heart disease patients should never exercise to the point of chest pain.

Exercise can induce asthma. It is essential for people with asthma to get their doctor’s permission before starting an exercise program. It also is important for people to be shown the proper form in any activity to avoid strain and possible injury, especially when using exercise equipment. People also should know what parts of the body might be stressed by a particular exercise. They can then use supplemental exercises or stretches to add balance to the exercise program.

Side effects

The primary adverse effects of exercising can be sore muscles and stiff joints a day or two after beginning an exercise routine. These pains may last for several days. Other minor problems can include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea, usually indicating the exercise routine is too strenuous. A person can agitate old injuries or create new ones by improperly using equipment or wearing inadequately cushioned shoes.

Research & general acceptance

There almost is universal acceptance by allopathic and homeopathic health practitioners that exercise can be beneficial to overall good health. Thousands of studies during the past several decades link regular exercise to reduced risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, hypertension, and osteoporosis. For example, a 1998 study by Harvard University of more than 11,000 people showed that people who exercise for an hour a day cut their risk of stroke in half over people who do not exercise regularly.

Training & certification

No special training or certification is required for exercising. People who want help in developing an exercise program should consult a certified physical trainer.