Doing regular physical activity can make you feel good about yourself and it can have a number of benefits for your health. For example, it reduces the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, some cancers, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Regular physical activity also helps to control weight, and may help to ease stress. Ideally, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on at least five days of the week. You should also aim to do a minimum of two sessions of muscle-strengthening activities per week, although these should not be on consecutive days.
Physical activity is any activity that you may do that helps to improve or maintain your physical fitness as well as your health in general.
It can include:
Adults should aim to do a mixture of aerobic activities and muscle-strengthening activities.
During the daytime, all age groups should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting).
Children and young people (aged 5-18 years):
Adults (aged 16-64 years):
Older adults (aged 65 years and older):
Aerobic activities are any activity that makes your heart and lungs work harder. To gain health benefits, government experts in the UK suggest that you should do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week.
The amount of physical activity that you do may need to be a little more in some situations:
In addition to the above aerobic activities, adults should also aim to do a minimum of two sessions of muscle-strengthening activities per week, although these should not be on consecutive days.
Muscle-strengthening activities can include climbing stairs, walking uphill, lifting or carrying shopping, digging the garden, weight training, Pilates, yoga or similar resistance exercises that use the major muscle groups. Ideally, the activities and exercises should not only aim to improve or maintain your muscle strength, but also aim to maintain or improve your flexibility and balance. A session at a gym is possibly ideal, but activities at home may be equally as good. For example, stair climbing, stretching and resistance exercises can be done at home without any special clothing or equipment.
A session should be a minimum of 8-10 exercises using the major muscle groups. Ideally, to help build up your muscle strength, use some sort of resistance (such as a weight for arm exercises) and do 8-12 repetitions of each exercise. The level (weight) of each exercise should be so that you can do 8-12 repetitions before the muscle group gets tired. So, for example, for the upper arm muscles, hold a weight in your hand and flex (bend) your arm up and down 8-12 times. This should make your arm muscles tire.
You can do the exercises one after another to complete a session. Or, you can split a session up over a day in, say, bouts of 10 minutes.
If you are over the age of 65 you should still aim to do the same amount of aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activity as younger adults, depending on your ability. As well as this, a particular goal for older people should be, where possible, to do activities to help with flexibility and balance.This is to help reduce the risk of falls, and injury from falls. Examples of activities to help flexibility include yoga, housework such as vacuuming, and DIY. Examples of activities to help balance include dancing, tai chi or keep fit classes. Special keep fit classes for older people are available in many areas and will usually include activities for flexibility and balance.
Children and teenagers should get at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per day. The 60 minutes can be made up from various shorter sessions and a mixture of different activities. For example, a mixture of play, Physical Education (PE) at school, games, dance, cycling, a brisk walk to school, sports, various outdoor activities, etc.
It is safe to continue to do some physical activity during pregnancy. However, the type of activity that you choose needs to be appropriate. A separate leaflet called 'Pregnancy and Physical Activity' discusses this in more detail
The health benefits of doing regular physical activity have been shown in many studies. You are likely to get the most benefits to your health if you are someone who is not very active at all and you become more active. However, there are still benefits to be gained for anyone who increases their physical activity levels, even if they are already doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most days.
Overall, people who do the recommended levels of physical activity can reduce their risk of premature death by 20-30%. Other health benefits include the following:
Your risk of developing coronary heart disease, such as angina or a heart attack, is much reduced if you are regularly physically active. Inactive people have almost double the risk of having a heart attack compared with those who are regularly physically active.
If you already have heart disease, regular physical activity is usually advised as an important way to help prevent your heart disease from getting worse. Special rehabilitation physical activity programmes exist if you have had a heart attack or have another heart problem. These are supervised by physical activity specialists who can help you do physical activity safely.
Physically active people are less likely to have a stroke. One study found that women aged 45 and older who walk briskly (at least three miles per hour), or who walk for more than two hours a week, reduce their risk of stroke by a third compared with less active women.
Regular physical activity has been shown to raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This is good cholesterol because it may actually help to protect against cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease). HDL cholesterol seems to help prevent patches of atheroma forming. These are like small fatty lumps that develop within the inside lining of arteries (blood vessels) and are involved in the development of cardiovascular disease.
Regular physical activity can help to lower your blood pressure levels if you have high blood pressure. It can also help to prevent high blood pressure from developing. High blood pressure is one of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
If you are regularly physically active then you have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than inactive people. The greater the amount of physical activity that you do, the lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If you have been diagnosed with impaired glucose tolerance (prediabetes), regular physical activity can help to prevent this from developing into diabetes. Also, if you already have type 2 diabetes, regular physical activity can help improve the control of your diabetes.
Physical activity helps you to burn off excess fat. Regular physical activity combined with a healthy diet is the best way of losing weight, and keeping that weight off.
Regular weight-bearing physical activity can also help to prevent osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). The pulling and tugging on your bones by your muscles during exercise stimulates bone-making cells, which strengthens your bones. If your bones are stronger, you have a reduced risk of breaking your bones when you are older. (Weight-bearing physical activity means physical activity where your feet and legs bear your body's weight, such as brisk walking, aerobics, dancing, running, etc.)
Physical activity has also been shown to help treat osteoarthritis and lower back pain in some people.
Regular physical activity can help to reduce your chance of developing cancer. It roughly halves your chance of developing cancer of the colon (bowel cancer). Breast cancer is also less common in women who are regularly physically active.
Physical activity is thought to help ease stress, boost your energy levels and improve your general well-being and self-esteem. It can also help to reduce anger. As well as this, physical activity can make you sleep better. (But do the activity during the daytime or early evening, not near to bedtime.)
Regular physical activity throughout life can help to keep you more mobile as you get older. Still being mobile is one of the things that helps older people remain independent and able to live by themselves at home. As mentioned above, as you get older, flexibility and balance exercises are important to help reduce your risk of falling and becoming injured. If you are aged over 70, you are less likely to fall and be injured if you are regularly physically active.
Regular physical activity may help to prevent some types of dementia. If you do have dementia, regular physical activity may also help to keep you mobile for longer.
Increasing physical activity levels has been shown to help people trying to quit smoking. It can help to reduce your desire to smoke and can also help with withdrawal symptoms.
There are many benefits to regular physical activity for children. It helps with healthy growth and development and, if children are physically active, they are less likely to become overweight, or obese, adults. A recent study found that teenagers who carry a gene for obesity are less likely to become overweight or obese if they are physically active for an hour a day. If an overweight child becomes an overweight or obese adult, they are more likely to develop health problems, including diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.
Regular physical activity also helps children to socialise and mix with others and helps with their psychological well-being. A study that took place in Southern California also found that children with average or above-average fitness levels did better in terms of their academic performance than children with below-average fitness levels. However, more studies are needed to confirm this potential benefit.
There are only a few reasons why physical activity may be harmful. A common wrong belief is that physical activity may be bad for the heart. On the contrary, physical activity is good for most people with heart disease provided they follow guidelines given by exercise specialists or health professionals. In general, if you gradually build up to do regular moderate intensity physical activity, the potential benefits to your health will greatly outweigh the small risks involved.
However, sometimes problems can occur with physical activity:
If you have a problem or medical condition that you are worried may be made worse by physical activity, then see a doctor before starting a programme to increase your physical activity levels. In particular, you should see your doctor before you start if you:
Physical activity is not just for young sporty types. It is never too late to start to gain the benefits, no matter how old or unfit you are.
A pedometer is a small device, usually worn on a belt, that counts the number of steps that you have taken, by sensing the motion of your hips. Many people find it a useful tool to help with motivation and monitoring when trying to increase their physical activity levels.
Wearing a pedometer on an average day can give you a baseline for the number of steps that you generally take. A very sedentary person will take between 1,000-3,000 steps per day. However, most people are in the range of 4,000-6,000 steps per day.
About 30 minutes of brisk walking should be around 3,000 steps. So, a good target could be to add 3,000 steps to your baseline number and aim for this. You may want gradually to build up by increments of 500-1,000 steps. The magic number to aim for in the end is at least 10,000 steps per day. It is thought that if you can manage this, it will help to keep you fit and healthy.
Recent research has suggested that a sedentary lifestyle in general may have adverse health effects even if you do the recommended amounts of moderate exercise. A sedentary lifestyle may still increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
It is not certain why this is and further research is needed. However, it is thought perhaps to be related to the effect that sitting down too much has on certain enzymes in the body which help to process fat and sugar.
So to combat this: