The Best Exercises For Women

The Best Exercises For Women

By: Heather Hirsch, MD • Posted on October 21, 2014 • Updated April 22, 2020

The most important part of maintaining a good BMI is diet, but physical activity is necessary to maintain good muscle tone and cardiovascular health. Being physically active has numerous health benefits, including:

  • elevated mood
  • improved sleep
  • improved immune system
  • boosts self-esteem
  • helps us build passion for exercise

Physical Activity and Women

Physical activity is an individualized choice, and will depend on personal preference, schedules and even weather. Importantly, all women should seriously consider weight bearing activity, as this is truly the best for building overall muscle tone, for bone health, and more muscle means you burn more calories at rest.

Research has shown that health benefits are obtained with the following physical activity:

  • 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week
  • 1 hour and 5 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity per week
  • A combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days per week

Breaking up physical activity into groups is helpful to determine which would be best for you.

Muscle Strengthening Activities

Muscle is beautiful, and a girl has to move those muscles! Move over skinny, as strong is the new sexy! Strength training can be intimidating as most women are worried about ‘bulking up.’ If this applies to you, remember that women don’t have near the levels of testosterone as men that causes them to become bulky.

Also, women often don’t know where to start. If this is you, most gyms offer personal trainers which you can utilize for a few sessions and then take off on your own. You can also work on muscle tone with just your own body weight, and could do strength-training activates at home with videos from youtube. A resistance band and kettle bell in your home can take you very far. If you find working out in groups more effective, look for local boot camp classes or even crossfit, which are high-intensity workouts but have the added benefit of being short. Remember, when starting a weight training program, it is normal at first to gain a few pounds, which can be discouraging. However, with a new program affecting your body, weight gain can come from water retention and an increase in both muscle and bone mass. Throw away the scale and use your tape measure to record inches lost, as this is a better tracker of progress than the scale.

Ask yourself the following to see what is best for you:

  1. Are you limited on time? Try short-duration and high intensity workouts (cross fit, boot camp, z-gym classes online)
  2. Are you limited on cash? Buy a resistance band and some weights and use the internet for class in the comfort of your own home.
  3. Are you new to muscle and resistance training? Try hiring a personal trainer to help you for a few sessions and then create your own from the information gained.
  4. Are you motivated in groups? Try toning classes at your local gym or try crossfit.

Remember, muscle strengthening has more long lasting and sustainable results than all other forms of physical activity!

Cardiovascular Activity

Cardiovascular exercise is great to burn calories, reduce stress, improve recovery time, and can be used to carve out a moment of alone time during a busy day.

Cardiovascular activity slows the aging process, boosts the immune system, and is a great balance to resistance training. Examples of cardiovascular exercise include the following:

  • Running/walking
  • Swimming/pool aerobics
  • Biking/spinning class
  • Dancing/Zumba
  • Local step classes/aerobic classes
  • Cross-training such as the elliptical, stationary bike, circuit training
  • Group sports such as softball, golf, kickball

You are more apt to stick with something that you enjoy doing. You are even more apt to sick with something if you join a local group or club. Most cities have running clubs, and are motivating places to make new friendships while building strength. Most clubs are open to all levels, so if you are new, it may be inspiring and a welcomed change.

Planning a race is a great way to keep up with your goals, stay motivated and have fun! There are different race courses and lengths. If you have mastered a 5K or half-marathon, why not go for a full marathon? Training for a race during a busy year actually helps most people better prioritize their time, stay on their diets, and proves to have higher overall satisfaction rates! Or, why not try a triathlon? This allows you to graze in several types of cardiovascular exercise and keeps your muscles guessing. This is the same reason it is good to mix up the type of cardiovascular exercise that you engage in, as you will start to burn less and gain less muscle with repetitive moments.

If you feel you would be better in a group setting, most gyms will offer different types of cardiovascular group exercises such as:

  • Step classes
  • Aerobics
  • Zumba
  • Spinning classes

Ask yourself the following questions when choosing cardiovascular exercise:

  1. Are you motivated by setting goals? Sign up for a local race, such as a 5K, biathlon or triathlon.
  2. Do you do better in groups? Try some local aerobics, step or dance classes.
  3. Are you social or an outdoor lover? Try joining a local running, biking or hiking club.


Stretching is a crucial intermediate when participating in any type of physical activity. Stretching promotes not only flexibility, but increases muscle strength and tone and is key in preventing injuries. Remember to stretch both before and after exercise. Yoga is a great from of stretching, and some classes can double for resistance training. There are many kinds of yoga, from gentle hatha yoga to the more vagarious vinyasa yoga and finally to “hot yoga” aka bikram yoga. Yoga has a host of benefits, including:

  • restorative sleep
  • improved flexibility
  • focus on “looking inwards”

Try adding some yoga to your routine, or if you find it is your passion, continue yoga daily.

Pilates is another alternative that can be similar to yoga in its more restorative nature, but also focuses on strength training. Other forms similar to yoga exist in fusion classes, such as yoga and spinning, or ballet classes, where there is an emphasis on small fine movements.

Remember, it is important to tailor your exercise regimen to your schedule, your personal goals and your overall health goals. Taking even just twenty minutes per day (up to one hour a day) to sweat and increase your metabolic rate, and to build strong muscles and bones is important in taking care of yourself, something that must be done in order to take care of others!

Mix up your exercise regimen to keep from getting bored and to continually use new muscles and test your limits. Don’t be afraid to weight train, as women do not get bulky! Put away your excuses, be proud of what your strong body can do, and I bet you will never finish a workout that you weren’t happy you completed.

Be Strong, Be Healthy, Be in Charge!

-Heather Hirsch MD, MS, NCMP
Physician, Menopause & Midlife Clinic
Brigham and Women's Hospital
Harvard Medical School

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