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Benefits of exercise

Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. People who lead an active life are more likely to live longer and less likely to develop serious diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Physical activity can ease the symptoms of certain long-term health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

Exercise not only improves your physical health, it also helps to reduce anxiety and lowers your risk of other mental health conditions such as depression.

Looking after your bones and muscles
Dr Tross talks about looking after your bones and muscles


  • Who needs to exercise? Who needs to exercise?

    People of all ages can benefit from doing some exercise. It’s important that regular physical activity is a part of life for children, adults and older people.

    It doesn’t have to be a vigorous workout and you can find ways to fit physical activity into your daily routine. It may be as simple as walking to and from the shops instead of getting in the car. If you have never exercised or haven’t for a while, it needn’t take much effort to get started. After all, doing some physical activity is better than doing none at all. Even doing a little more exercise than usual can help reduce your risk of certain long-term health conditions.

  • Why do I need to keep active? Why do I need to keep active?

    Doing regular aerobic activity, such as walking, swimming or cycling, can help prevent a number of long-term conditions. Aerobic exercise is anything that involves moving your body’s large muscles repeatedly, such as running and swimming. Whether you’re just starting or have always been active, make sure you take steps to stay injury free and able to perform to your best. Nutrition and hydration play key roles in this. It’s important to eat the correct foods to provide the fuel you need to exercise, as well as drinking enough water to keep you hydrated.

    Some of the health benefits of aerobic exercise are described below.

    Heart health

    • Exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Every year in the UK, over 41,000 people die from stroke and nearly 74,000 from coronary heart disease. Inactive people have an increased risk of dying from heart disease.
    • Doing regular exercise can help to reduce high blood pressure (hypertension). High blood pressure is common – three in 10 adults in the UK has it. If you have high blood pressure, you’re more likely to have a stroke or heart failure. If you’re at risk of high blood pressure, exercising may mean it doesn’t develop as soon as it might if you don’t.
    • You can help to improve the balance of your cholesterol by exercising. There are two types of cholesterol – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘bad’ cholesterol; HDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘good’ cholesterol. High levels of LDL and low levels of HDL increase your risk of heart disease. But the good news is, exercise is linked to higher levels of HDL cholesterol.

    Bones and joints

    • One in three people in the UK have lower back pain each year, but people who exercise are less likely to get it. If you have lower back pain, exercise can help to reduce it.
    • Moderate activity, including walking, swimming and cycling, can help to treat and reduce pain caused by osteoarthritis. This is a common form of arthritis, with about 8.5 million people in the UK affected by the condition.
    • Physical activity in younger people and children can increase bone mineral density and help to maintain strong bones. It also slows down bone degeneration later in life. Regular exercise can help to prevent osteoporosis – when your bones become brittle and more prone to breaking. But if you already have osteoporosis, it’s better to choose weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or dancing.


    • You’re less likely to develop certain cancers if you’re physically active. Your risk of breast and bowel cancer is about 25 percent lower if you’re active compared with people who aren’t. Some studies show that physical activity can reduce your risk of developing lung, prostate and endometrial (lining of the womb) cancers.
    • There is some evidence to suggest that exercise can help to reduce fatigue during and after treatment for breast or prostate cancer.


    • Over three million people in the UK have diabetes, but doing physical activity can help to prevent the condition. Exercise is also beneficial in reducing other factors that put you at risk of developing diabetes, such as obesity.
    • Exercise is good for you if you already have diabetes. Regular physical activity can help control your body’s sensitivity to insulin and lower your blood pressure.

    Mental health and wellbeing

    • Exercise can help prevent and treat some mental health conditions. It’s thought that physical activity can reduce your risk of developing depression and dementia. It may also help to treat depression if you already have the condition.
    • There is some evidence to suggest that exercise can help relieve stress and anxiety.
    • You’re likely to feel happier, have an improved self-image and a better sense of wellbeing if you're physically active. Introduce regular exercise into your routine and you may also be able to sleep better.


    • Doing regular exercise can help you to manage your weight. Physical activity burns up calories and helps to create a healthy energy balance. Exercise is essential for everyone for maintaining a healthy weight.
    • You’re less likely to be obese if you’re active. Physical activity may help you lose weight if you're overweight or obese. But even if it doesn’t help you lose weight, exercising is still beneficial for your health. You may find that combining exercise with a healthy diet is more effective at helping you lose weight.
  • Children and exercise Children and exercise

    With two in 10 children and adolescents in the UK now classed as overweight or obese, it’s more important than ever to get children active. Physical activity in childhood has a number of benefits. It stimulates the development of the muscles, bones and joints, as well as the heart and lungs. Exercise also helps children maintain a healthy weight and gives them an opportunity to interact with other people and make friends. Activities that put stress on children’s bones, including jumping and running, can help protect against osteoporosis in later life and maintain strong, healthy bones.

    Some evidence suggests that physical activity may improve how well children concentrate in school. However, the evidence is limited and more research is needed to be certain of how physical activity affects concentration in school.

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  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    • British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health
      01509 226 421


    • Start Active, Stay Active. A report on physical activity for health from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers. Department of Health, 2011. 
    • Physical activity. The World Health Organization., published February 2014
    • CVD risk assessment and management. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published December 2008
    • Physical activity and health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., accessed 23 April 2014
    • Physical activity advice for adults in primary care. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2006.
    • Eating for sport and exercise. British Nutrition Foundation., accessed 23 April 2014
    • Healthy hydration guide. British Nutrition Foundation., accessed 23 April 2014
    • Cardiovascular disease statistics. The British Heart Foundation., accessed 11 February 2014
    • Prevention of cardiovascular disease. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2010.
    • Simon C, Everitt H, van Dorp F. Oxford handbook of general practice. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010: 180−3, 356−8, 826, 997
    • Hypertension − not diabetic. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published April 2012
    • High cholesterol. The British Heart Foundation., accessed 31 March 2014
    • Low back pain. Early management of persistent non-specific low back pain. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2009.
    • Musculoskeletal lower back pain. BMJ Best Practice. , published 5 November 2013
    • Osteoarthritis. BMJ Best Practice., accessed 10 September 2013
    • Exercise and osteoporosis. National Osteoporosis Society., accessed 23 April 2014
    • Osteoporosis - prevention of fragility fractures. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published September 2013
    • Breast cancer risk factors. Cancer Research UK., published 22 April 2014
    • Protecting against bowel cancer. Cancer Research UK., published 30 September 2013
    • Tardon A, Lee WJ, Delgado-Rodriguez M, et al. Leisure-time physical activity and lung cancer: a meta-analysis. Cancer Causes Control 2005; 16(4):389−97. doi:10.1007/s10552-004-5026-9
    • Liu Y, Hu F, Li D, et al. Does physical activity reduce the risk of prostate cancer? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur Uro 2011; 60(5):1029−44. doi:10.1016/j.eururo.2011.07.007
    • Moore SC, Gierach GL, Schatzkin A, et al. Physical activity, sedentary behaviours, and the prevention of endometrial cancer. British Journal of Cancer 2010; 103(7):993−8. doi:10.1038/sj.bjc.6605902
    • Cramp F, Daniel J. Exercise for the management of cancer-related fatigue in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 11. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006145.pub3.
    • What is diabetes? Diabetes UK., accessed 31 March 2014
    • Depression in adults. The treatment and management of depression in adults. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2009.
    • Dementia. National institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2006.
    • Physical activity for a healthy weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., accessed 24 April 2014
    • Obesity in adults. BMJ Best Practice., published 15 August 2013
    • Physical activity and young people. The World Health Organization., accessed 24 April 2014
    • Obesity in children. BMJ Best Practice., published May 28 April 2013
    • Weight bearing exercise for women and girls. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons., published 2007
    • COPD. BMJ Best practice., published 17 January 2014
    • Obesity. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published October 2012
    • Curioni CC, Lourenco PM. Long-term weight loss after diet and exercise: a systematic review. International Journal of Obesity 2005; 29:1168−74. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803015
    • Tasker RC, ‎ McClure RJ, Acerini CL. Oxford Handbook of Paediatrics. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2013:400
    • Taras H. Physical activity and student performance at school. J Sch Health 2005; 75(6):214−8. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.2005.00026.x
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