Chapter 50: Exercise

Lumen Learning, Dave Dillon

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

– Dan Montano

Regular Exercise: Health for Life

The importance of getting regular exercise is probably nothing new to you. The health benefits are well known and established: Regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits by reducing your risk of many health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and it can also increase your chances of living longer, help you control your weight, and even help you sleep better.

As a busy college student, you may be thinking, I know this, but I don’t have time! I have classes and work and a full life! What you may not know is that—precisely because you have such a demanding, possibly stressful schedule—now is the perfect time to make exercise a regular part of your life. Getting into an effective exercise routine now will not only make it easier to build healthy habits that you can take with you into your life after college, but it can actually help you be a more successful student, too. As you’ll see in the section on brain health, below, exercise is a powerful tool for improving one’s mental health and memory—both of which are especially important when you’re in school.

A bicyclist rides across a rugged landscape in front of ragged mountains with clouds high above in the blue sky
Peak performance

The good news is that most people can improve their health and quality of life through a modest increase in daily activity. You don’t have to join a gym, spend a lot of money, or even do the same activity every time—just going for a walk or choosing to take the stairs (instead of the elevator) can make a difference. The following video describes how much activity you need.

Video: Physical Activity Guidelines – Introduction

Fight or Flight

Our bodies have an automatic “fight or flight” reaction when we perceive a threat. Fighting or running is physical exercise and the result is metabolizing our excessive stress hormones and bringing our bodies and minds back to a more relaxed state. Even though we do not suffer from the same threats cavemen and cavewomen incurred many years ago, we still perceive threats and we still suffer from stress. Exercise has many physical and mental benefits in addition to lowering stress.

Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to be healthy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, its benefits include: controlling weight, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, reducing risk for type two diabetes, reducing risk of cancer, strengthening bones and muscles, improving mental health and mood, increasing chances of living longer[1]. One assignment I give my students is to have them record all food and drinks consumed in one week, along with keeping records of how much exercise and how many hours of sleep take place. Some students know exactly what they are putting into their body and how they are treating it. But most are surprised at how little one or more of these important aspects are sufficient. Try it. Think of it as an opportunity to see what you actually put into your body, how much exercise and rest you give it.

Author’s Story

I had not prepared for an astronomy final exam. The night before the exam, I stayed up all night cramming, and regurgitated information I had learned onto the test. Immediately after the exam, I ordered a large pepperoni pizza, ate the whole thing in one sitting, and then slept for 15 hours. Regardless of the exam result, this example represents what not to do. In the long run, human bodies cannot do things like that without consequence. With the lifestyle I live now, being married, parenting kids and working full-time, there is no way that I could have done that and been able to function well with my responsibilities the next day. In addition, it was not healthy for my body.

After a class I was speaking with a student about diet and nutrition and our conversation led to a discussion on the contrast of what some students give their children to eat versus what they eat themselves. It reminded me of the 5-2-1-0 graphic my children recognize at their pediatrician visits. It stands for (each day) 5 or more fruits or vegetables, 2 hours or less recreational screen time, 1 hour or more of physical activity, 0 sugary drinks (more water). Of course, it is designed for kids. But many students would do well for themselves to keep the 5-2-1-0 recommendation in mind[2].

Our bodies are more prone to getting sick if they are not well taken care of. Getting sick in the middle of an academic term can have devastating effects on the academic performance.

A much better way to go (as I painfully learned) is to make a schedule, stick to it, prepare and review periodically, get adequate sleep, eat well, and be on an exercise plan.

For optimal concentration levels, work performance and test scores, proper nutrition and adequate sleep have a large effect. My personal opinion is that exercise helps clear the mind, which is so important in our current generations’ overwhelming bombardment of information around us.

Physical Fitness and Types of Exercise

Physical fitness is a state of well-being that gives you sufficient energy to perform daily physical activities without getting overly tired or winded. It also means being in good enough shape to handle unexpected emergencies involving physical demands—that is, if someone said, “Run for your life!” or you had to rush over and prevent a child from falling, you’d be able to do it.

There are many forms of exercise—dancing, rock climbing, walking, jogging, yoga, bike riding, you name it—that can help you become physically fit. The major types are described below.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate, works your muscles, and raises your breathing rate. For most people, it’s best to aim for a total of about thirty minutes a day, four or five days a week. If you haven’t been very active recently, you can start out with five or ten minutes a day and work up to more time each week. Or, split up your activity for the day: try a brisk ten-minute walk after each meal. If you are trying to lose weight, you may want to exercise more than thirty minutes a day. The following are some examples of aerobic exercise:

  • A brisk walk (outside or inside on a treadmill)
  • Dancing
  • A low-impact aerobics class
  • Swimming or water aerobic exercises
  • Ice-skating or roller-skating
  • Playing tennis
  • Riding a stationary bicycle indoors

Strength Training

Strength training, done several times a week, helps build strong bones and muscles and makes everyday chores like carrying heavy backpacks (or grocery bags) easier. When you have more muscle mass, you burn more calories, even at rest. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Join a class to do strength training with weights, elastic bands, or plastic tubes (if your college has a gym, take advantage of it!)
  • Lift light weights at home

Flexibility Exercises

Flexibility exercises, also called stretching, help keep your joints flexible and reduce your risk of injury during other activities. Gentle stretching for 5 to 10 minutes helps your body warm up and get ready for aerobic activities such as walking or swimming. Check to see if your college offers yoga, stretching, and/or pilates classes, and give one a try.

Being Active Throughout the Day

In addition to formal exercise, there are many opportunities to be active throughout the day. Being active helps burns calories. The more you move around, the more energy you will have. The following strategies can help you increase your activity level:

  • Walk instead of drive whenever possible
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Work in the garden, rake leaves, or do some housecleaning every day
  • Park at the far end of the campus lot and walk to class

Benefits of Exercise and Physical Fitness


Exercise, even after age fifty, can add healthy, active years to one’s life. Studies continue to show that it’s never too late to start exercising and that even small improvements in physical fitness can significantly lower the risk of death. Simply walking regularly can prolong your life.

Moderately fit people—even if they smoke or have high blood pressure—have a lower mortality rate than the least fit. Resistance training is important because it’s the only form of exercise that can slow and even reverse the decline of muscle mass, bone density, and strength. Adding workouts that focus on speed and agility can be especially protective for older people. Flexibility exercises help reduce the stiffness and loss of balance that accompanies aging.


Diabetes, particularly type 2, is reaching epidemic proportions throughout the world as more and more cultures adopt Western-style diets (which tend to be high in sugar and fat). Aerobic exercise is proving to have significant and particular benefits for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes; it increases sensitivity to insulin, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, and decreases body fat. In fact, studies show that people who engage in regular, moderate aerobic exercise (e.g., brisk walking, biking) lower their risk for diabetes even if they do not lose weight. Anyone on insulin or who has complications from diabetes should get advice from a physician before embarking on a workout program.

Brain: Mood, Memory, Creativity

In addition to keeping your heart healthy, helping with weight loss, and helping you live longer, regular exercise can also improve your mood and help keep depression and anxiety at bay. The following video explains why and challenges you to give it a try:

Video: Exercise and the Brain

If you still aren’t persuaded, check out this slightly longer but excellent Tedx Talk, which describes how aerobic exercise can improve your cognitive functioning, memory, and creativity:

Video: Exercise and the Brain, Wendy Suzuki, TEDx Orlando 2001

Activity: Develop an Exercise Program


  • Plan a regular exercise program that works for you.


  • Sometimes getting started is the hardest part of being physically active. The important thing is to find activities you like to do, so you’ll stick with them. Watch the following video, which can help you understand how much activity you need to do on a regular basis and how you can get going on a sensible routine. The video includes personal stories from people—even busy people like you—who have discovered what works for them.
  • List 3 physical activities that you enjoy doing or would like to try doing on a regular basis.
  • Identify any special requirements or equipment you need before doing them (for example, gym membership, running shoes, etc.).
  • Set a realistic, weekly exercise time goal for yourself (150 minutes or more per week is ideal, but start with what you can really do).
  • Using a digital or printed calendar, plan and label the days of the week, times, and places that you plan to exercise. Specify the activity or activities that you intend to do. (For example: Monday, 6–7 a.m., 30 min on stationary bike, college gym; Wednesday, 2–3 p.m., 60 min speed-walking with Maya, Riverside Park; Saturday, 1–2 p.m, lift weights, college gym.)
  • Track your progress for one week, recording the amount of time you actually exercised. If you engaged in any unplanned physical activities (say you ended up riding your bike to school instead of taking the bus), include those, too.
  • Write about your experience in a short journal entry (1–2 pages) and reflect on what you learned:
    • What kinds of exercise did you engage in, and which did you enjoy the most?
    • What was your weekly time goal? Did you meet it?
    • What worked or didn’t work?
    • What might you need to change in order to make exercise a regular habit?
  • Follow your instructor’s instructions for submitting assignments.

Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Original:

Content previously copyrighted, published in Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skills and Time Management Strategies (by Dave Dillon), now licensed as CC BY
CC licensed content, Shared previously.

All rights reserved content:

  • Physical Activity Guidelines. Provided by: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license
  • Exercise and the Brain. Provided by: WatchWellCast. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license
  • TEDxOrlando – Wendy Suzuki – Exercise and the Brain. Provided by: Tedx Talks. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license
  • Physical Activity Guidelines. Provided by: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license

Public domain content:

Adaptions: Removed image.  Relocated learning objectives.

  1. “Physical Activity and Health,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018,
  2. “Is your child at risk for obesity?,” CACM Health Center,


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Chapter 50: Exercise Copyright © 2021 by Lumen Learning, Dave Dillon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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