Exercise and Self-Care

by Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.

What does it mean to be self-caring? What can we do for ourselves that will produce more energy, more satisfaction, and serve as an alternative to all the addictive possibilities available to us? How does exercise fit into the picture?

Self-care requires that we take a daily preventative approach to the care of our bodies. Exercise is an essential underpinning of a healthy lifestyle, improving the capacity, strength, and flexibility of the body. An exercise self-care plan includes the goals of fitness, strength, and flexibility.

Fitness -- Vigorous exercise (heart racing and body sweating) for 20 to 60 minutes a day, three to six days a week, increases cardiovascular capacity, releases endorphins (which have a role in reducing stress and depression), and burns excess calories, leading to weight reduction. Brisk walking, jogging, cycling, aerobic dancing, swimming, stair climbing, and cross country skiing qualify as vigorous and restorative exercises, if done properly. Be sure to clear such an exercise program with your physician if you have not been exercising or are 40 years of age or older.

Recent research shows that even a minimal level of exercise is better than none. A regular routine totaling 20 to 30 minutes a day, six days a week will improve fitness. Choosing a type of exercise you really want to do will help you incorporate it into your lifestyle. Even then, it may take three months or more of practice before it becomes routine. Activities such as walking at lunchtime, dancing, gardening, tossing a ball, and climbing stairs can provide a sufficient amount of exercise to maintain body tone and alertness. The 1996 Surgeon Generalís Report made the recommendations in the diagram below.

Examples of Moderate Physical Exercise

More vigorous, less time

Medium vigor & time

Less vigorous, more time

Stair walking, 15 minutes

Swimming laps, 20 minutes

Walking 1 3/4 miles, 35 min.

Shoveling snow, 15 minutes

Water Aerobics, 30 minutes

Wheel wheelchair, 30-40 min

Running 1 1/2 miles,

15 minutes

Walking 2 miles in

30 minutes

Gardening, 30-45 minutes

Jumping rope, 15 minutes

Raking leaves, 30 minutes

Touch football, 30-45 minutes

Bicycling 4 miles

in 15 minutes

Pushing stroller 1 1/2 miles 30 minutes


45 minutes

Playing basketball,

15-20 minutes

Fast social dancing,

30 minutes

Washing windows or floors,

45-60 minutes

Wheelchair basketball,

20 minutes

Bicycling 5 miles in

30 minutes

Washing/waxing car,

45-60 minutes

Shooting baskets,

30 minutes

There is a limit to the amount of healthy exercise. When we exercise despite significant pain or give it a priority beyond good health and normal social, family, and work relationships, it may be serving another purpose. Some indications of too much exercise include: recurrent overuse injuries; excessive weight loss; resistance to reduce exercising when pain or injury occur; muscle soreness and breakdown; depressed immune system; and degenerative and arthritic changes.

Strength Ė Strength training maintains the mobility, flexibility and power of the bodyís muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. It is estimated that people who do not do strength training lose 35% of lean muscle mass and 20% of strength by the time they reach the age of 65. This loss of strength has a progressive impact, affecting the ability to do everyday things such as walking up stairs, carrying groceries, getting up or down from chairs or the floor, and maintaining balance. Strength training twice a week is recommended, including exercises that use all the major muscle groups. One indirect result of strength training is the ability to increase food intake without gaining weight because of muscle development. Harriet Nelsonís Strong Women Live Longer describes a scientifically based, user-friendly program of weight training helpful to both men and women.

Flexibility is defined as being able to move oneís joints through a maximum range of motion without pain. Our need for flexibility increases with age, especially for persons over 50 years of age, because of disuse of muscles. Disuse affects the ability to reach, carry, grasp, and balance. by building flexibility, we improve daily functioning and avoid unnecessary injury, pain, and surgery. Stretching exercises involving all muscle groups three times a week are recommended. Leg stretches after aerobic activities maintain flexibility and minimize pain and injury following exercise. As a general rule, stretches need to be held from a gentle pull to the point prior to discomfort, for at least ten and as much as thirty seconds, and for three to five repetitions. Stretching needs to be done following a five-minute warm-up activity and after all fitness and strength training to avoid injury.


Nelson, H. (1997). Strong women live longer. New York: Ballentine Books.

Physical activity and health: A report of the Surgeon General.†(1996). Atlanta: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Retrieved March 14, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/sgr.htm

--This article was adapted from Growing Ourselves Up: A Guide to Recovery and Self-Esteem, with permission of the author, Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.

Date published: 3/21/00 12:50:37 PM




Last updated: 30 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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