Think you don’t have the time or money to exercise as much as you should? Think again.

A new nationwide survey shows at least one-fourth of successful exercisers have full-time jobs, young children at home, or both, and walking is the most popular form of physical activity.

The survey, conducted among more than 20,000 Consumer Reports readers, reveals the secrets of successful exercisers — those people who most closely meet the national recommendations for physical activity by exercising at least a half-hour per day at least three days a week.

The results show that sticking to an exercise routine doesn’t have to be boring or expensive, and it could be a lifesaver. For example:

—58 percent of successful exercisers report doing three or more different activities per week.

—30 percent of successful exercisers used a fitness facility or gym at least three times a week. More than half of those who worked out regularly used exercise to treat depression, a heart problem, back pain, or diabetes and said they and their doctors agreed that exercise helped a lot.

Experts say that to reap the most health benefits from exercise, you need to strive for at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, preferably spread out over five days. If you do, the health benefits include a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, some types of cancer, and dementia.

However, if your goal is weight loss, you’ll need to aim for 250 to 300 minutes a week.

Tips from Successful Exercisers

In the survey, which appears in the January issue of Consumer Reports, researchers polled 21,750 readers about their exercise habits.

Thirty-eight percent of the respondents were classified as “successful exercisers” and performed moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes at least three days a week (usually more). That group includes 12% the researchers classified as “hard-core” exercisers who exercised at least five days a week and had kept it up for at least five years.

The survey showed that 36% were “unsuccessful exercisers” who did a little exercise but not enough to reap the health benefits. Many people in this group said they wished they exercised more regularly. Fifteen percent of the respondents were considered sedentary.

Researchers found walking was by far the most popular form of physical activity among successful exercisers. In addition, two-thirds of hard-core exercisers walked at least three days a week.

When asked how they fit physical activity into their hectic schedules and stuck to their routines, successful exercisers offered this advice:

—Get out of your car. Many said they walked or bicycled regularly to work. Others arranged their lives so that they could do errands on foot regularly, such as living within walking distance of a grocery store.

—Find activities you enjoy. You’ll be more likely to stick to a routine if you enjoy it. More than half of successful exercisers said they usually or always got “a feeling of joy or exhilaration” from their physical activity.

—Find time to exercise. Successful exercisers recommend working out at the same time of the day, finding a convenient location to exercise, and planning ahead to schedule workouts.

—Use weights. Successful exercisers of all ages were 10 times more likely to use free weights to build muscle strength than those who didn’t exercise regularly.

When starting an exercise program, researchers say it’s important to start slowly, and then gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workout. But the good news is that the survey results also show that once people get into the exercise habit, they naturally gravitate toward longer, more strenuous workouts.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Consumer Reports, January 2005: pp 12-21. News release, Consumer Reports.