Health Tips > Prevention Plus > The Role of Physical Fitness in Overall Health

The Role of Physical Fitness in Overall Health

View All Section Pages

The Role of Physical Fitness in Overall Health

Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper teaches that “exercise is medicine,” and  research from The Cooper Institute backs him up. Physical fitness is defined as the body’s ability to perform specific tasks or activities for a duration without experiencing undue physical stress or fatigue. Physical fitness takes various forms, including cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility and agility. Maintaining a high level of physical fitness is important no matter your age, and it can adjust based on your body’s needs.

At Cooper Clinic, treadmill stress testing is used to determine cardiovascular fitness, assess the function and conduction system of the heart and identify possible underlying coronary artery disease. The results of the test directly correlate to the state of one's health, and the data is collected and used in the Cooper Center Logitudinal Study. Understanding your level of fitness is important, and Cooper Clinic Physician Riva Rahl, MD, explains the role of fitness in your overall health, especially as you age.

Types of Physical Fitness

“The first thing one should realize about fitness is it comes in various forms,” explains Dr. Rahl. “Though a ballerina may have a high level of flexibility while a body builder may have a high level of muscular strength, they both have physical fitness.”

Each individual may have a different physical fitness need, depending on their stage of life. An older person with frail bones would need a different exercise routine from someone who is recovering from a heart attack, and someone who needs to lose weight would need to perform different physical fitness from a person trying to maintain a healthy weight. “The physical activity guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week, including strength training twice a week,” says Dr. Rahl. “Strength training becomes more important as you age because of the need to reduce muscle loss and improve functional movement, including simple tasks such as getting out of a chair or walking up stairs.” It's important to first talk with a physician and then work with a trained fitness professional to help build an appropriate workout program tailored for specific health needs. 

Additionally, striking a balance between cardio training and strength training is important as you age. Sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass as one ages, can be combated by increasing the frequency of strength training as one gets older, while still maintaining consistent cardio training.

The health benefits of physical fitness vary based on the activities you perform, but no matter which activities you choose, your body always benefits. Dr. Rahl often reminds patients of the following:

  • Bone health can be improved through strength training
  • Brain health can be boosted by both strength and cardio training
  • Blood pressure can be lowered with cardio training
  • Strength training lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol and cardio training raises good (HDL) cholesterol
  • A combination of cardio and strength training can assist with weight loss

Building Healthy Fitness Habits

Most habits take a few weeks to be established, and require patience and effort. Dr. Rahl offers several tips for those who have trouble finding and adhering to an exercise routine.

  • Don’t think of it as exercise–think of it as physical activity. This can mean walking, using the stairs and other simple activities, not just going to the gym.
  • Find an activity you love (or can at least tolerate) and focus on improving in that activity.
  • Identify your barriers and excuses and take steps to surpass them. For example, if you consistently use the excuse of not having the right apparel to go on a walk during your lunch break, make sure to pack a bag with clothes and appropriate shoes every night, and keep it in your car–just in case the opportunity to go on a walk presents itself.
  • Find an activity you can incorporate into your everyday routine. Walking is a great place to start. It can be done anywhere, is generally safe and doesn’t require equipment.
  • Find an accountability partner. You’ll be more likely to exercise if you have a friend waiting on you or a trainer you’re paying to work alongside.
  • Use a fitness tracker, app or calendar to schedule and track your activity time.
  • Don’t start out too hard, too fast. Work your way up and reach small goals in an attempt to conquer a larger goal.

Healthy habits can be formed early. Children often look to their parents to learn behavior patterns. “Sometimes active children grow into more sedentary adolescents. This greatly decreases their ability to maintain a proper level of fitness as they age,” says Dr. Rahl. “On the other hand, children who grow into active adolescents are more likely to maintain a level of fitness as young adults and into midlife.”

Fitness and Complications from Aging

As one ages, complications may arise that call for an adjustment in his or her fitness routine. “Oftentimes, avid runners experience difficulty in transitioning from running to walking as they age, become pregnant or experience an injury,” explains Dr. Rahl. “I always tell my patients that there was a time before they started running, then they made a decision to start. Now it’s just time to find some other form of activity to incorporate into their routine.”

It's a good idea to consult your physician when making changes in a fitness routine or adjusting your fitness habits due to lifestyle changes and aging. A physician can assess your current level of fitness, identify underlying health issues and make recommendations for the best types of physical activity to help you reach your health goals.

For more information about Cooper Clinic preventive services, visit or call 972.560.2667.

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Marketing and Communications.