The importance of exercise

A regular exercise regime is essential for a healthy and happy lifestyle. Physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight range, improves body strength and fitness, and has positive psychological effects. People who exercise regularly generally live happier lives and are less stressed than those who do not.

Whether you are just beginning a healthy exercise regime or you are already at your peak fitness, there are some important steps that we all need to follow before, during and after exercising to protect ourselves from sports related injuries and other physical distress.

Medical advice before exercise

If you have been inactive for over 6 months, it is wise to seek advice form a medical professional before you jump onto the track and start running marathons! Especially if you have, or have had, any cardiovascular (heart), muscular or weight problems. A doctor, physiotherapist or sports trainer will be able to assess your current fitness level and help you set achievable goals.

For more information on medical advice before exercise, see Advising Patients About Aerobic Exercise.

Choosing an exercise program

Before you start exercising, you should have a general idea of what you want to gain from your exercise regime. You may be exercising to improve your fitness or body image, or you could be moving to a new city and want to make new friends, or all of the former! Whatever your goals and aims, there is a range of different sports that will help you achieve them.

Below is a list of different sports that you may like to consider when developing your fitness program. Remember, though, this is only a very small sample of sports. For a complete guide to the sports available in your area, see your local newspaper, recreation centre or gym!

Aims of exercise

Exercise goal How exercise achieves the goal Example exercises
Exercise for health Weight loss

To lose weight, the amount of energy that you intake through food and beverages must be exceeded by the amount you burn during exercise. All exercise will burn energy. The more intense the exercise, the more energy you will burn. The best weight loss activities are those that increase your heart rate the most. These activities should begin at a low intensity and be built up slowly.


  • Running
  • Riding
  • Swimming
  • Aerobics

To increase your fitness, you must constantly push yourself to improve from week to week. For example, if you are running 1 kilometre in 7 minutes, you would try to run the same distance in a shorter amount of time. After keeping at 7-minute kilometres for a week, try to run it in 6.5 minutes the next week. Once you can do this comfortably, try to improve your time again. Without constantly increasing your distance, speeds or weights, you will not get any fitter.


  • Endurance training
  • Kick boxing

A number of exercises are specially designed to improve muscle strength, flexibility and core stability.


Exercise for body image Toning

Lifting weights will help you to tone your muscles. Many women steer away from weight training for fear that they will ‘bulk up’. However, this will only happen if you lift very heavy weights several times a week. If you lift a medium weight two times a week, you will only tone muscle. See your sports trainer for a specialised program.

Swimming not only gives a great cardio workout, but is also one of the few sports activities that uses all major muscle groups. Therefore, it makes for a great shaping activity.


  • Resistance training
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Swimming
  • Tai chi
Building muscle

The most effective way to build muscle is to lift weights. Use a heavy weight with fewer repetitions of the action to build muscle. For example, if you want to tone your bicep muscles, use a medium intensity weight and do 50 bicep curls. If you want to bulk up your muscle, use a heavy weight and do 20 bicep curls.WARNING: Do NOT start weight training without the advice of a trained professional who will help you develop a personalised program and show you how to lift the weight correctly. Weight training can cause serious damage to bones, muscle, tendons and joints if done incorrectly.

  • Weight training
Exercise to make friends and have fun Exercise does not always have to be hard work. It can be a lot of fun and a great way to meet new people while getting fit at the same time.
  • Netball
  • Soccer
  • Hockey
  • Dancing
  • Other team sports

The best way to improve fitness and body image is to cross-train. Cross-training is a mixture of all different types of exercise. It stops you from getting bored with the one program, and also prevents you from putting too much strain on the same set of muscles, bones and joints. Being a good runner will not necessarily make you a good swimmer or cyclist without training. Cross-training will improve your overall fitness.

Many gyms provide personal trainers for members to assess your current fitness levels and body composition. They will also sit down with you and discuss what your aims are in terms of fitness and weight loss or muscle toning. The trainers will be able to design a programme for you that will enable you to achieve your goals in a reasonable amount of time.

Optimising sporting performance

Once you have had a medical assessment and have choosen an appropriate exercise program, there are a number of steps you can take to optimise your sporting performance. By taking note of the following pointers on food, drink and rest, you will be more likely to achieve your sporting goals, stay motivated and prevent injury.


It is very easy to become dehydrated during exercise, and therefore it is very important to drink enough fluids before and after physical activity. Dehydration can decrease blood pressure and heart rate, which can make you feel quite unwell. Dehydration also increases the risk of developing exercise-related health conditions, such as cold stress and heat illness.

When we sweat during exercise, we lose electrolytes. Electrolytes play a very important part in modulating water balance within your body. If your electrolyte levels are low, your exercise performance will be impaired and you will be more susceptible to exercise-related injury and heat illness.

You must ingest an adequate amount of fluids before and after exercise to minimise dehydration and replace electrolytes. About half a litre of water ingested in the two hours before exercise will help you stay hydrated, although the ideal amount of fluids depends on the expected duration and intensity of your workout. If you exercise for prolonged periods (e.g. long distance runs or cycles, footy games), you must drink during exercise as well.

The following fluids are most effective at replenishing and hydrating you:

  • Water: Essential for maintaining your body’s water balance and replacing the water lost through sweating.
  • Milk: Milk has been shown to provide sufficient hydration for athletes and recreational exercisers. Milk also helps to build lean muscle and speed up recovery.
  • Sport drinks: Useful for intense exercise. The average sport drink contains 250 kilojoules of carbohydrate per serve (mainly in the form of sugars) and is not necessary for a low intensity walk. The purpose of sport drinks is to replenish blood glucose, glycogen and electrolytes that are depleted during intense exercise. If these carbohydrates are not used up during the exercise, taking sport drinks will lead to weight gain.


To obtain the maximum benefit from exercise, your muscles need energy to sustain the workout. Without energy, muscles fatigue quickly, and your workout will be shorter and less intense Energy is also needed to maintain, grow and repair tissue after exercise. A healthy balanced diet is needed to maximise the energy available – you will only receive the most benefit from exercise with the right amounts and types of food.

Types of food for before exercise

The ideal time to eat is 1–3 hours before exercising. This gives your digestive system enough time to break down the food so it can be used for energy. Also, hormone levels are altered after eating, which can affect sporting ability. Hormone levels are usually balanced one hour after eating.

The type of food that should be consumed before exercise is slow release food, or food with a low glycaemic index (GI). Low GI food releases its energy slowly, providing you with energy for the duration of the exercise. Foods which are low GI include:

  • Apples
  • Nuts, legumes and beans
  • Wholemeal bread

On a day to day basis, the major food groups required for getting the most out of exercise is dairy, meat, breads and cereals, and fruits and vegetables. It is also important to include some salt in your diet to replace sodium lost through sweat. However, be careful not to overload on salt. The maximum amount of salt that should be ingested is 2300 mg/day for adults, and even less for children or people with high blood pressure.

How much food should you eat before exercising?

You do not need to eat extra food just because you are exercising. The amount of kilojoules of energy that are used during exercise should equal the amount consumed when eating in order to maintain your current weight.

Remember that not eating enough will lead to muscle and bone damage. Restricting your energy intake when exercising may appear to provide a quick weight loss solution, but it will decrease your metabolic rate so that, when you do eat, your body will not use up the energy from the food as readily. Therefore, excessively restricting your energy intake will not help you to keep the weight off in the long term. Also, without the energy provided by food, you will become fatigued. Fatigue leads to poor technique and a higher risk of injury.

Alcohol and exercise

Alcohol is very commonly associated with sport due to the celebratory nature of sporting and team achievement. However, alcohol has a negative effect on sporting performance, rate of injury, activity of skeletal muscles, and psychomotor skills. When drinking the night before an event, psychomotor skills are most noticably affected. Drinking after exercise impairs the body’s capacity to recover. A once-off celebration is not going to affect overall performance in future events, but it will have a short term affect on activities carried out in the preceding days.

Warming up before exercise

Warming up is extremely important. It prepares the muscles and heart for the exercise. Warming up, as the name suggests, warms up your muscles, decreasing the risk of damage during the exercise. A warm up is a short (5–10 minutes), low intensity exercise that should be done just before the main exercise. The warm up does not have to be the same sport as the main exercise. For example, if you are going for a swim, your warm up may consist of a 5 minute jog or jump rope.

When competing, the warm up is also used to mentally prepare the athlete for the race or game.

Pre-exercise stretching

The aim of stretching before exercise is to increase the range of the muscle and improve its performance during the activity. Stretching before sporting activities should be relatively simple and quick (no more than 10 seconds spent on each stretch). It is very important to remember that no stretching should be done before the muscles are warmed up. If muscles are not warm before they are stretched, there is an increased risk of tearing them.

For more information on types of stretches, see Exercise Stretches.

Dressing for exercise

Choose the appropriate footwear, clothes and protective equipment for your exercise to maximise sporting ability and reduce the risk of injury.

Protective equipment

ExerciseMany sports require the use of protective equipment, designed to protect certain “at risk” areas of the body while still allowing optimum sporting performance. Protective equipment is essential and, if not used properly, can lead to serious sporting injuries.

The following sporting equipment is recommended for these specific sporting activities:

  • Helmets: Bike riding, ice hockey, skateboarding
  • Mouth guard: Hockey
  • Shin and groin guards: Cricket, hockey
  • Gloves: Cricket, golf
  • Wrist guards: Rollerblading
  • Shoulder padding: Rugby
  • Eye protection: Squash, lacrosse


The clothing you wear must be breathable to allow proper air circulation and prevent overheating during exercise. Most often, sports retailers will stock cotton. The clothing will also need to be fitted in order to prevent chafing. Clothing should not retrict movement and should allow maximum flexibility. The clothing should also cater for the specific environment that the client is exercising in (e.g. wetsuit for cold water, sleeved top for tennis in the sun, etc).


Some sports require specialist footwear. Regardless of the type of shoe needed, it must be suited to your foot shape. Most sport suppliers will have trained staff who can assess your foot and leg shape. For example, if you have flat feet, you will need shoes with high arches. The sports trainer may also ask you to go for a mini jog down the length of the store to assess your running mechanics (what happens to your legs and feet when you run). For example, your knees may turn inward. From this information, they can suggest the best pair of trainers for you. As a basic rule, sport footwear should be replaced once a year.

There are special shoes for many sports, including:

  • Netball: These shoes have a thicker base that protrudes the outline of the shoe slightly, providing maximum grip on the court. This also reduces the risk of knee injury from the quick stops required during the sport.
  • Dancing: Dancing shoes are often the key component for the activity – what is tap dancing without the taps? There are two types of ballet shoes. For beginners, a basic pump (also used for jazz ballet) is sufficient. The pump is a light shoe with minimal padding. As ballet dancers progress, they require proper ballet shoes called “points”, which have a heavy wooden toe to provide a base for tiptoe work.
  • Running: There are many different aspects of a running shoe that must be considered when purchasing, such as the amount of flexibility in the shoe, the strength and firmness of the base, the support it provides the ankle, and so on. Serious runners may require spikes on the base of the shoe for extra grip.
  • Football: Football shoes are similar to running shoes, but with extra flexibility for quick sudden movements and kicking.
  • Cross-training: If you do not play one specific sport, the best option is a cross-trainer. These encompass elements from many different trainers.

These are just a few common examples of sport and shoe types. Every sport will have is own unique footwear. Speak to your coach or sports trainer for advice on what shoes you should be wearing.


Environmental factors influencing exercise

When exercising on the treadmill or with weights in the gym, environmental factors are not such a big deal – the temperature is controlled, there are always people there to help, and there will be a drink fountain available. However, there are many people who choose to exercise outdoors, and there are many sports in which there is no choice but to exercise in the weather. It is very important to monitor the weather and environment, as certain conditions can have a major impact on the success and safety of the exercise regime.

Sun protection during exercise

It is very important to protect yourself from the sun at all times, not just when exercising. Some basic sun sense rules to prevent sun damage are:

  1. Clothing: Always wear clothing that covers as much of your body as possible. When you are exercising in the heat, you will probably want to wear as little as possible. But if you choose lightweight clothing, you will not get too hot and will still be able to cover more of your body.
  2. Suncream: Use SPF 30+ suncream. Reappy the suncream every 2 hours. If you are swimming, use waterproof suncream and apply at least 30 minutes before getting wet.
  3. Hat
  4. Sunglasses: There are special sport glasses available from sports retailers that are designed to stay on while exercising.
  5. Shade: When you are having a break or are “on the bench”, stand in the shade as much as possible.

Exercising in the heat

Your body’s temperature naturally rises during exercise. When exercising outdoors in the sun on a hot day, your body’s core temperature rises dramatically. In some circumstances, this can lead to a form of heat illness. The major stages of heat illness are:

  • Heat cramps: Heat cramps usually occur in the stomach when exercising. These are distinctly different from muscle cramps. Heat cramps are predominately caused by the loss of salt through excessive sweating.
  • Heat exhaustion: Heat exhaustion occurs when the heart is not able to meet the demand to pump blood to the muscles and tissues required for the exercise. A person with heat exhaustion will not be able to continue exercising due to extreme fatigue. Symptoms may include any or all of:
  • Heatstroke: Heatstroke can be very dangerous if not recognised and treated immediately. It occurs when the body’s cooling mechanisms stop working and the core body temperature rises dramatically. Symptoms include abnormal behaviours and coma. If the core body temperature is not immediately reduced, brain damage or death may occur.
  • Fainting due to heat.

It is essential that you take the necessary precautions to prevent heat illness if you are planning to exercise in the heat. Focus on keeping your body’s core temperature at a safe level. Some tips include:

  1. Keep well hydrated
  2. Make sure you consume the recommended salt intake the night before or during the day to compensate for excessive sweating
  3. Wear loose fitting and lightweight clothing
  4. Exercise in the cooler times of day (before 9am and after 4pm)
  5. Perform shorter warm ups and warm downs
  6. Decrease the duration and intensity of the exercise if you are feeling overly hot
  7. Monitor the weather

Exercising in the cold

In Australia, we rarely experience conditions so cold that they provide a major risk for outdoor exercising (less than 0°C). However, we must still be aware of the risks involved with exercising in colder environments, namely cold stress. When the body is unable to maintain thermal regulation in extreme cold conditions, there is a risk of:

  • Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when the body’s natural defences against the cold (e.g. shivering, heat retention in body core) fail. Your normal body core temperature is usually 37°C. When this drops below 35°C, you are considered to be hypothermic.
  • Frostbite: Frostbite occurs when the tissues of the skin freeze. This can happen during prolonged exposure to cold weather, or after just a few minutes in extremely low temperatures. Cold winds increase the likelihood of frostbite because the movement of air removes body heat from the skin more rapidly.
  • Immersion foot: Immersion foot occurs when the feet are wet and cold for a long time. The feet will initially tingle and feel numb. This is a sign to dry and warm up the feet. If the condition progresses, the muscles and nerves of the foot may be seriously damaged. This condition can happen in any limb. It is most commonly found in the foot because feet are more likely to be immersed in water or snow.
  • Chilblain: Chilblain occurs when exposed to cold and wet conditions for a prolonged amount of time. Joints become inflamed and swollen. Initially, there is itchiness around the inflamed joints. As the condition worsens, the joints become very painful.

The greatest risk of developing cold stress is when exercising in cold water or rain. If you are planning to exercise in the cold, it is essential that you take the necessary precautions. Focus on keeping your body’s core temperature at a safe level. Some useful tips are:

  1. Keep well hydrated: Dehydration limits the body’s ability to generate metabolic heat.
  2. Wear insulative colthing that will not reduce your mobility
  3. Find shelter if it starts to rain and you are cold
  4. Monitor the weather


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