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Physical Activity, Exercise and HIV

October 23, 2015

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Physical Activity, Exercise and HIV

Table of Contents

What Are Physical Activity and Exercise?

Physical activity is any activity that gets your body moving. It includes any activity that is part of your daily life -- from sweeping and cleaning to carrying groceries, gardening, walking, dancing, riding a bicycle, lifting weights at the gym, stocking shelves in a store, or tossing a ball around with friends.

Exercise is a type of physical activity. Exercise is activity that is planned and done on a regular basis (e.g., several times a week) for enjoyment or for improving any aspect of physical fitness -- strength, flexibility, or endurance. There are two main types of physical activity or exercise that the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommends for adults: aerobic (cardiovascular or "cardio") and muscle-strengthening (resistance).


Labeling something a physical activity or an exercise is not nearly as important as understanding that the human body was designed to move, and stays healthier when doing physical activity. In other words, being active with your body -- whether it is through small amounts of activity throughout the day or scheduled blocks of time for more strenuous movement -- contributes to a longer, healthier life. Even small changes in your normal life can greatly enhance your activity level and your health: taking the stairs instead of the elevator, carrying instead of wheeling groceries through the store, walking a short distance instead of driving the car.

It is important to know that neither expensive equipment nor difficult techniques are necessary in order for you to be physically active. Aerobic activity can be as simple as walking or cleaning your home with some added pep in your step. If it is unsafe or uncomfortable outside, try walking the stairs in your building or stepping up and down off the first step of a sturdy step-stool.

Muscle-strengthening activities can be simple, too. All it takes is your body and a floor -- for sit-ups, push-ups, or deep-knee bends. If you want to lift weights, try cans of food, jugs of water, or a spare brick. There are many ways to be safely physically active without spending a lot of money or going special places.

Benefits of Exercise and Being Physically Active

There are many ways in which physical activity can improve your health -- it can build and maintain muscle, increase your endurance, and strengthen your heart. In addition, there are many benefits of exercise that are especially helpful for people living with HIV (HIV+). Being physically active and having an exercise routine can:

  • Increase muscle mass and prevent muscle loss. It is important to note that women rarely 'bulk up' or build large muscles without serious weight training regimens over long periods of time. Women's bodies have low levels of testosterone -- the hormone that can lead to bulky muscles. Also, many exercises can tone existing muscle without adding bulk.
  • Reduce fat around the waist (for more information, see The Well Project's article, Lipodystrophy and Body Changes)
  • Lower total cholesterol and LDL (the "bad" cholesterol)
  • Raise HDL (the "good" cholesterol)
  • Lower triglycerides (a type of fat in the bloodstream)
  • Help control blood sugars
  • Reduce depression
  • Strengthen bones (help prevent bone disease)
  • Strengthen the immune system
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Reduce stress
  • Give you more energy throughout the day

There is also a connection between muscle mass and immune function. People who exercise often have higher CD4 counts and fewer side effects from HIV and HIV drugs.

Because powerful new HIV drugs are allowing many people living with HIV to live long, full lives, many of the medical problems facing people living with HIV now have more to do with diseases of aging than HIV-related illnesses. Being physically active is important in preventing aging-related health issues. In addition to the benefits listed above, there is strong evidence to suggest that being physically active lowers your risk for:

  • Breast cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Colon cancer

How Much and What Type of Physical Activity Do You Need for Health Benefits?

According to the DHHS, there are two types of physical activity that adults need each week to improve their health -- aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

Aerobic (Cardiovascular, "Cardio") Activity

Aerobic exercise uses oxygen to burn fat in your body. This is why people who are trying to lose weight often do a lot of aerobic exercise. It is also called cardiovascular exercise, because it raises your heart rate and makes your heart stronger. Besides burning fat, it can increase your endurance so that you do not get tired as quickly when you are active. Aerobic exercises can also lower cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugars.

Aerobic activity is often described in terms of its intensity, or how much effort it takes to do something. During moderate intensity activity, your breathing and heart rate become a bit higher and you will likely be a bit sweaty at the end. Another way to think of moderate intensity activity is any activity during which you can talk but not sing. During vigorous intensity activity, a person cannot say more than a few words without pausing for a breath, since vigorous effort causes your heart rate and breathing to increase substantially.

Examples of moderate aerobic activity include:

  • Brisk walking (> three miles per hour, but not race walking)
  • General gardening (e.g., weeding, raking leaves)
  • Biking (< ten miles per hour)
  • Water aerobics

Examples of vigorous aerobic activity include:

  • Running, jogging, or race walking
  • Swimming laps
  • Jumping rope
  • Aerobics (including dancing)
  • Heavy gardening (e.g., digging holes, hoeing)
  • Cross-country skiing

To see substantial health benefits, the DHHS recommends that adults need to do at least:

  • 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week OR
  • 75 minutes (one hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous intensity aerobic activity per week OR
  • an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic activities

Aerobic activity should be done for at least ten minutes at a time; however, how you reach your total weekly goal is up to you. For example, if you aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, you could do 30 minutes of activity five days a week or ten-minute periods of activity 15 times throughout your week.

It is important to ask your health care provider if you have any conditions that might make it a bad idea to do aerobic activity -- especially muscle wasting or very little body fat.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.


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