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Physical activity: introduction

Physical activity is movement of the body that uses energy. There are many different types of physical activity including exercise, sport, play, dance, and active living such as walking, housework and gardening.

Health benefits

Regular physical activity of at least moderate intensity provides general health benefits across a range of diseases and across all ages. In particular, there is strong evidence that the greatest health benefits happen when the least active people become moderately active. Some of the health benefits of physical activity are:

  • Reduced risk of all-cause mortality (DoH, 2011; Warburton et al, 2006).
  • Reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, depression, cognitive decline, high blood pressure, obesity and osteoporosis (DoH, 2011; Warburton et al, 2006).
  • Reduced risk of premature mortality for those with type 2 diabetes (Warburton et al, 2006).
  • Improved strength, coordination and balance. This is particularly important for older people, as it reduces their risk of falls and helps them to maintain their capacity to carry out common activities of daily living (Lord and Castell 1994).
  • Healthier workers. Physically active employees have fewer days' sick leave, lower staff turnover and fewer industrial injuries (‘Let's make Scotland more active’, Physical Activity Task Force 2003).

It follows that physical inactivity is a significant risk factor for ill health. But emerging evidence also suggests that sedentary behaviour may increase the risk of some health outcomes, independently of physical activity levels (DoH, 2011). Physical inactivity was estimated to have cost the NHS in Scotland £94.1 million in 2010-2011 (Foster et al 2013).

Recommended levels

In 2011, new national UK physical activity guidelines were published by the four home countries. The primary aim of this work was to bring the individual home countries’ physical activity guidelines into line with the most recent scientific evidence. As the table below shows, it focused on the preventative health benefits of physical activity in four population groups: early years (under 5s); children and young people (5-18 years); adults (19-64 years); and older adults (65+ years). 

Moderate intensity activity raises the heartbeat and leaves the person feeling warm and slightly out of breath – the equivalent of brisk walking activity. The new UK guidelines note that comparable benefits may be achieved through accumulating a shorter length of time spent in vigorous activity, and emphasise the added value of exercise to improve muscle strength. The importance of minimising time spent being sedentary is also highlighted.

Table 1: UK physical activity guidelines
Age group Guidelines

Early years - children under 5 years

  • Physical activity should be encouraged from birth, particularly through floor-based play and water-based activities in safe environments.
  • Children capable of walking unaided should be physically active daily for at least 180 minutes (three hours), spread throughout the day.
  • Minimise amount of time spent being sedentary (being restrained or sitting) for extended periods (except time spent sleeping).

Children and young people aged 5 to 18 years

  • Should engage in moderate to vigorous activity for at least 60 minutes and up to several hours every day.
  • Vigorous activities, including those that strengthen muscles and bones, should be carried out on at least three days a week. Extended periods of sedentary activities should be limited.
  • Should be active daily.

Adults aged 19-64 years

  • Should engage in at least moderate activity for a minimum of 150 minutes a week (accumulated in bouts of at least 10 minutes) - for example by being active for 30 minutes on five days a week.
  • Alternatively, 75 minutes of vigorous activity spread across the week will confer similar benefits to 150 minutes of moderate activity (or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity). Activities that strengthen muscles should be carried out on at least two days a week.
  • Extended periods of sedentary activities should be limited.

Adults aged 65 years and over

  • In addition to the guidance for adults aged 19-64, older adults are advised that any amount of physical activity is better than none, and more activity provides greater health benefits.
  • Older adults at risk of falls should incorporate activities to improve balance and coordination on at least two days a week.


Page last updated: 14 September 2017

© Scottish Public Health Observatory 2014