Physical activity: introduction

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:

  • Physical activity reduces the risk of all-cause mortality.
  • Physical activity reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
  • Physical activity is an effective treatment for peripheral vascular disease and high blood pressure.
  • Active people have a 30% to 40% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to inactive people (DoH, 2011). Also, for those who have already developed type 2 diabetes, the risk of premature death is much lower for active and fit patients than for inactive and unfit patients.
  • Physical activity promotes strength, coordination and balance. This is particularly important for older people, in reducing their risk of falls and helping them to maintain their capacity to carry out common activities of daily living. As a result, physical activity can help older people sustain an independent lifestyle for longer.
  • Physical activity is associated with a reduction in the risk of colon cancer and breast cancer.
  • Physically active employees have fewer days' sick leave, lower staff turnover and fewer industrial injuries.
  • Physical activity reduces the risk of depression and cognitive decline in adults and older adults.

Health risks of insufficient physical activity

Physical inactivity is a significant risk factor for ill health. Some of the health risks of inactivity are:

  • Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.
  • Inactive people have a greater risk of being overweight or obese, which is, in turn, associated with certain cancers, osteoarthritis and back problems.
  • Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes.
  • Inactive people have lower bone density and a higher risk of osteoporosis.
  • Inactive people have a higher risk of colon cancer.

Emerging evidence suggests that sedentary behaviour may increase the risk of some health outcomes, independently of physical activity levels (DoH, 2011).

Recommended levels

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.

In 2011, new national UK physical activity guidelines were published by the four home countries. This work commenced in response to the publication of new Physical activity guidelines for Americansin 2008. The primary aim of this work was to review whether the individual home countries physical activity guidelines were still consistent 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); 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 groupGuidelines

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 (3 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 3 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.