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Benefits of exercise

Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Study after study shows the benefits it can have. Not only does regular exercise help you manage your weight and reduce your risk of developing diseases, it can help prevent and treat mental health problems. It can boost your wellbeing and mood, and is a great way to unwind from the stresses of life.

Here, we talk through each specific benefit of exercise and give you easy tips to get moving more often.

The benefits of exercise

Exercise benefits everyone

No matter what your age, everyone benefits from exercise. Getting children active from an early age can instil healthy habits that will last into adulthood. Older people and seniors also hugely benefit from keeping active.

Just over 30 percent of children aged two to 15 are now classed as either overweight or obese. So 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.
  • It helps children maintain a healthy weight.
  • It gives them an opportunity to interact with other people and make friends.
  • It can help children manage symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Whatever stage of life you’re currently at, there are plenty of different exercise options to try. Exercise doesn’t just mean going to the gym or heading out for a run. It may be as simple as walking to and from the shops instead of getting in the car or getting off the bus a few stops earlier.

If you don’t currently do any exercise, 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. And it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. By becoming more active throughout your day, you can quite easily achieve the recommended activity levels.

"Sedentary lifestyles, jobs and long commutes have put us more at risk of the dangers of inactivity compared with previous generations. Exercising between 30 and 60 minutes per day is enough to off-set those risks and keep us healthy.”

Dr Laurence Heslop – Lead Physician, Bupa MSK services.

Why do I need to keep active?

Not being active enough greatly increases your risk of developing many diseases. Being as active as possible provides a whole host of benefits. Exercising regularly:

You can read more about each of these benefits further down the page.

Whether you’re just starting or have always been active, make sure you take steps to stay injury-free. Also, it’s important to eat the right foods to provide the fuel you need to exercise, as well as drinking enough water to keep you hydrated.

With so many health supplements and protein products available from supermarkets, health shops and the internet, it’s easy to be tempted. A wholesome, balanced diet is the best plan of action for most people, but if you’re considering taking any dietary supplement, you should discuss this with you GP first.

Keep your heart healthy

Exercise is one of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of developing stroke or coronary heart disease. In fact, regular exercise can reduce your chance of cardiovascular disease by a third. Every year in the UK, over 41,000 people die from stroke and around 74,000 from coronary 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 have it. If you have high blood pressure, you’re more likely to have a stroke or heart failure.


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.

Exercise tip

To reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, walk whenever possible. Think to yourself, can you do a particular journey, or part of that journey, on foot? Think twice before mindlessly hopping into the car. Find ways to add activity to your day – it doesn’t need to be structured exercise. If you already walk, try upping the pace. Weather and work permitting, go for a walk at lunchtime. Even a 15-minute brisk pace is better than sitting by your desk.

Keep your muscles, bones and joints strong

Regular exercise keeps your musculoskeletal system healthy (your muscles, bones, joints and other connective tissue).

Training with weights (or using your body weight to exercise) improves the function of your muscles and helps keep your bones strong and healthy. Physical activity in younger people and children can increase bone mineral density and helps to maintain strong bones. After age 20, you can help prevent bone loss by exercising regularly. Maintaining good muscle and bone strength throughout life is really important to help prevent injury, falls and fractures. This is especially important as you age and to prevent osteoporosis. But if you already have osteoporosis, it’s better to choose weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or dancing.

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, certain exercises can help to reduce it.

If you have osteoarthritis (a common form of arthritis), it’s very important to keep your joints moving and to do some strengthening exercises. Moderate aerobic activity, such as walking, swimming and cycling, can help to treat and reduce pain caused by osteoarthritis.

Exercise tip

Try to do forms of exercise that strengthen your bones and muscles three times a week. For example, do some resistance exercises with weights, take part in a dance class or try your hand at a water sport!

Reduce your risk of cancer

You’re less likely to develop certain cancers if you meet the weekly recommended amount of exercise (150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week).

Your risk of breast and bowel cancer can be up to 25 percent lower if you’re active compared with people who aren’t. Also, if you’re a woman and are regularly active, you have a third less risk of developing womb cancer than women who are inactive.

Some studies have shown that exercise may also reduce your risk of other cancers, such as lung and prostate cancer. But there isn’t enough evidence as yet to say this for certain.

Keeping active and exercising regularly will, on the whole, help you maintain a healthy body weight, This, in turn, reduces your risk of cancer, because being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for developing cancer.

Exercise tip

Children today are spending less time outside than previous generations. Active play not only helps keep a child healthy, it also promotes learning. If you have children, encourage them to be active from a young age. Starting healthy habits and routines when they are young means they are more likely to continue being active long into adulthood. This will help reduce their risk of developing cancer throughout life.

Reduce your chance of diabetes

It’s estimated that around 3.2 million people in the UK have diabetes, but doing physical activity can help to prevent it. Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes – exercising regularly helps you maintain a healthy weight, and therefore reduces your risk of becoming overweight or obese, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

If you have diabetes, it’s really important that you exercise. Regular physical activity can help keep your blood glucose levels within your target range, control your body’s sensitivity to insulin and lower your blood pressure. It also reduces your chances of developing diabetes-related problems.

Exercise tip

If you have diabetes, keep a diary of your blood glucose levels, and when and how long you’re physically active for. You’ll be able to see how exercise affects your blood glucose, as well as track your progress. But make sure you talk to your GP before starting a new exercise routine if you have diabetes.

Improve your mental health and wellbeing

Exercising regularly isn’t only good for your body – it’s good for your mind. 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.

Exercise can help relieve stress and anxiety, and improve your mood. This is because exercise has an effect on certain chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, which can affect your mood and thinking.

Joining a walking club or Zumba class is a great way to meet people and be sociable, which can do wonders for your wellbeing. Exercising with others is also motivational, meaning you’re more likely to stick at it.

You’re likely to feel happier, calmer, have an improved self-image and a better sense of wellbeing if you're physically active. Exercise can also help you get a better night’s sleep.

Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. If you have a long-term physical illness, you’re at risk of developing a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression. And vice versa – having a mental health problem puts you at a greatest risk of heart disease and respiratory diseases. So, to that end, staying physically active protects both your physical and mental health.

Exercise tip

Use the great outdoors to get active. Go for a brisk walk in nearby woodlands or a park, or try your hand at a new outdoor sport. Not only will you reap the physical benefits, but being outside surrounded by nature and beautiful scenery can do your wellbeing and mental health wonders.

Manage your 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 overweight or obese if you’re active. If you’re overweight or obese, regular exercise can help you lose excess weight, and therefore reduces your risk of developing a range of health problems.

Be sure to maintain a healthy, balanced diet alongside exercise. This is not just important for your general health, but also to help recover after exercise. Cutting out certain food groups, such as carbohydrates, or eating too much of one food can cause more harm than good. With so many ‘fad’ diets about, it can be easy to go for a ‘quick win’, but the key to long-term weight management (and therefore good health) is balance.

Exercise tip

There are so many ways to incorporate activity into your day-to-day life. From walking to the shops, to cycling the children to school. Read about how other people stay active in their daily life and draw fresh inspiration to get you and your family moving.

Bupa’s Dr Laurence Heslop gives us some inspiration to draw from:

“Remember, six weeks is often all it takes to create a new habit. Manage your expectations and plan for the first three months of exercise. Be patient and expect slow gains to start with and be sure to have regular rest days. Over exercising in the first few days or weeks can leave you feeling stiff, sore and even unwell. The best way to start is to think about frequency then duration and finally intensity. Start one or two days per week, slowly progressing to every other day. Once you’re exercising regularly, start to increase the duration, usually no more than 10 percent per week. Finally, work on the intensity of your exercise, if you walk, start walking at a faster pace. Starting to exercise too hard or too fast risks developing muscle soreness, especially if you’re not a regular exerciser. Lastly, be sure to do something you enjoy – you’ll be more likely to stick at it and maintain a healthy routine.”


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  • Other helpful websites Other helpful websites

    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.
    • Child obesity. Public Health England., accessed 14 June 2016
    • Physical activity and young people. World Health Organization., accessed June 2016
    • Physical activity. World Health Organization., updated January 2015
    • Nutrition for sport and exercise. British Nutrition Foundation., last reviewed December 2015
    • Healthy hydration guide. British Nutrition Foundation, updated January 2016
    • Cardiovascular disease statistics 2014. British Heart foundation., published December 2014
    • Hypertension – not diabetic. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised October 2015
    • High cholesterol. British Heart Foundation., accessed July 2016
    • Lipid modification – CVD prevention. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised October 2015
    • Physical activity: walking and cycling. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), November 2012.
    • Exercise for bone health. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases., published May 2015
    • Low back pain in adults: early management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), May 2009.
    • Exercises for osteoarthritis. Arthritis Research UK., accessed 16 June 2016
    • Liu L, Shi Y, Li T, et al. Leisure time physical activity and cancer risk: evaluation of the WHO's recommendation based on 126 high-quality epidemiological studies. Br J Sports Med 2016; 50:372–8. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-094728
    • Breast cancer risk factors. Cancer Research UK., last reviewed May 2016
    • Robsahm TE, Aagnes B, Hjartåker A, et al. Body mass index, physical activity, and colorectal cancer by anatomical subsites: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Eur J Cancer Prev 2013; 22(6):492–505. doi: 10.1097/CEJ.0b013e328360f434
    • Moore SC, Gierach GL, Schatzkin A, et al. Physical activity, sedentary behaviours, and the prevention of endometrial cancer. Br J Cancer, 2010; 103(7):933–8. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6605902
    • Physical activity facts and evidence. Cancer Research UK., last reviewed March 2015
    • Adult obesity and type 2 diabetes. Public Health England., published July 2014
    • What I need to know about physical activity and diabetes. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases., published August 2014
    • Physical activity and mental health. Royal College of Psychiatrists., published November 2014
    • Physical activity and sport. Mind., published 2015
    • Mackerron G, Mourato S. Happiness is greater in natural environments. Global Environmental Change, 2013. doi: Full access to paper here:
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    Reviewed by Alice Rossiter, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, August 2016.
    Peer reviewed by Dr Laurence Heslop – Lead Physician, Bupa MSK services.
    Next due for review: September 2018.

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