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Benefits of Exercise

Key points

  • Exercise can help improve both your physical and mental health.
  • Regular physical activity can help to prevent certain health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. It can also lower your risk of getting high blood pressure.
  • Being physically active can help you manage your weight.
  • You can build exercise into your daily routine; even a brisk walk to and from the shops counts.

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.

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?

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.

Cancer

  • 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.

Diabetes

  • 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.

Weight

  • 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

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.

Reviewed by Hemali Bedi, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2014.

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For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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