Summer Throwdown Week 2: Physical Fitness

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OK, so you’ve added more physical activity into your daily or weekly routine. You’re riding your bicycle to and from work, you started taking a yoga class, etc., whatever you’re doing to get moving is great — keep it up! — but are you doing enough physical activity to meet the recommended guidelines?

Before we get into the details of the guidelines, it’s important to understand some key terms related to this topic. First, physical activity is any bodily movement that results in energy expenditure above resting levels. Physical activity is not only riding your bicycle or taking a yoga class, but it’s also taking the stairs and cleaning the house.

Exercise, on the other hand. is physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive with the objective to improve or maintain physical fitness. If you think back to your old geometry lessons, we could relate the terms physical activity and exercise to rectangles and squares. Physical activity is a rectangle and exercise is a square. You can be doing physical activity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it counts as exercise.

Now that we’ve made a distinction between physical activity and exercise, it’s time to talk about physical fitness. Physical fitness is the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigor and alertness and without undue fatigue. There are five components to physical fitness – cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular fitness (a combination of muscular strength and endurance), flexibility, and body composition.

Being physically fit means that you’re addressing all areas of physical fitness. If you’re only focusing on how many steps your Fitbit tells you that you achieved on a particular day, you may be meeting the recommended guidelines for cardiorespiratory fitness, but you’re missing the mark in other areas of physical fitness, including muscular fitness, flexibility, and so on.

Now that we’ve got the basics covered, let’s take a look at the 5 components of physical fitness and their associated recommended guidelines. Please note that these guidelines are for apparently healthy adults. If you have a medical condition, please consult with your physician before beginning an exercise program.

Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Cardiorespiratory fitness is a measure of how well your heart, lungs, and muscles perform during exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that most adults engage in moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise training for 30 minutes per day on 5 days per week for a total of 150 minutes per week and vigorous-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise training for 20 minutes per day on 3 days per week for approximately 75 minutes per week.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that moderate intensity exercise should feel somewhat hard. While doing moderate-intensity exercise “your breathing quickens, but you’re not out of breath; you develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes of activity; and you can carry on a conversation, but you can’t sing.” Vigorous exercise intensity should feel challenging. While doing vigorous-intensity exercise “your breathing is deep and rapid; you develop a sweat after a few minutes of activity; and you can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath.”

Muscular Fitness

Muscular fitness is comprised of strength and endurance. Muscular strength is the maximum amount of force that a muscle can exert against some form of resistance in a single effort (for example, a one repetition maximum bench press). Muscular endurance, on the other hand, is the ability of a muscle to repeatedly exert force against resistance (for example, one minute of push-ups).

The ACSM recommends that most adults engage in muscular fitness exercise training that includes exercises targeting the major muscle groups of the chest, shoulders, back, hips, legs, trunk and arms on 2-3 days per week.

The ACSM reports that “most individuals respond favorably (hypertrophy and strength gains) to two to four sets of resistance exercises per muscle group, but even a single set of exercise may significantly improve muscle strength and size, particularly in novice exerciser.”


Flexibility refers to the degree to which a joint moves through a normal, pain-free range of motion.

The ACSM recommends that most adults complete a series of flexibility exercises for each major muscle group (for a total of 60 seconds per exercise) on 2-3 days per week.

When stretching, get to the point of mild discomfort, but not pain. Hold that stretch for a total of 60 seconds. Note that you can break up the stretch session on a particular muscle or muscle group by completing shorter sets multiple times (2 sets with 30 seconds each or 4 sets with 15 seconds each).

Body Composition

Body composition is the relative proportion of lean- and fat-mass tissue in the body. Lean mass refers to bones, tissues, organs, and muscle. Fat mass can be either essential or nonessential fat. “Essential fat is the minimal amount of fat necessary for normal physiological function,” according to ACSM. “For males and females, essential fat values are typically considered to be 3% and 12%, respectively. Fat above the minimal amount is referred to as nonessential fat. It is generally accepted that a range of 10-22 percent for men and 20-32 percent for women is considered satisfactory for good health.”

To reach and maintain a healthy body composition, participation in regular physical activity and exercise (cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness activities) as well as a healthy balanced diet are key.

It sounds like a lot of exercise to do when it’s spelled out, but with planning and motivation it’s completely possible. Also, if you’re just starting out don’t feel like you have to do it all, in fact, the ACSM says that “adults who are unable or unwilling to meet the exercise targets outlined here still can benefit from engaging in in amounts of exercise less than recommended.” It’s important to just get moving and your bike ride to work or your evening yoga class is a great place to start. Build from there by adding something new and before you know it you’ll be meeting the guidelines.

Jessica Norman is a fitness coordinator in Recreational Sports Programs at the IMA. She led UW’s Guinness World Record attempt for the world’s largest exercise ball class.