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Are You Exercising Enough?

Fitting in tennis or pickup basketball once in a while is just peachy. It's fun, you get out of the house and keep out of trouble, and you get to rub rackets or shoot hoops with friends.

But as far as fitness and health benefits go, don't count on reaping just rewards if breaking sweat is regularly on the backburner.

"A little bit does a little bit, but more significant exercise means physiological changes," Jack Goodman, a University of Toronto professor of exercise physiology, says about how much exercise is enough.

Regular exercise has come to mean getting in at least 30 minutes' worth of movement three times a week, or enough activity to get the heart going at a good rate every other day.

It's the most effective way to keep insulin levels in check (which is important in preventing and controlling diabetes), prevent certain cancers, boost heart and circulatory health as well as immune-system function, lower cholesterol and strengthen bones. The psychological benefits include reduced stress and anxiety and a boosted self-esteem.

Only about one-third of Canadians are active enough to get such health benefits, according to the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. Goodman, who helped develop exercise guidelines for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, says intensity is the key to physiological change.

"We tell people to go out and breathe heavily and induce a sweat, but to still be able to maintain conversation" while being active.

That weekly basketball or tennis game, added to walking to the store instead of driving, or climbing stairs instead of using an elevator, can go a long way towards keeping you mobile and healthy.

Remember this too: If you don't use it, you not only lose it, but risk being worse off when you get back in the exercise saddle. Weekend workout warriors are at high risk of injury because they're not primed for the physical punishment.

For optimal health, it's best to accumulate 60 minutes of light physical activity - like light walking, volleyball, easy gardening or stretching.

It also points out that people who work out more vigorously, like doing brisk walking, biking, swimming or water aerobics, need only go at it 30 to 60 minutes a day to achieve the same results. Once you get to more vigorous activity, like aerobics, jogging, sprinting or racing, time needed drops to less than 30 minutes - to get optimal-health benefits.

"Physical activity doesn't have to be very hard to improve your health," says the handbook. "After three months of regular physical activity, you will notice a difference - people often say getting started is the hardest part."

To get the most health benefits, mix endurance movement (such as walking and swimming), with stretching and strength (like weight-training) activities.

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