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Benefits of exercise


Expert reviewer, Dr Naveen Puri, Associate Clinical Director and Lead Medical Appraiser at Bupa
Next review due August 2024

Regular exercise and activity have many benefits for your body and your mind. Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. It can help you manage your weight, reduce your risk of developing many health conditions and prevent mental health problems. It’s often sociable, can help you feel less isolated and stay independent in the long run.

Exercise benefits everyone

You can benefit from exercise, no matter how old you are. There are benefits of exercises for kids that can last a lifetime. But older people get huge benefits from keeping active too. Whatever your age or ability, the more time you spend being active, the greater the benefits are likely to be.

Whatever your stage of life, there are plenty of different options to try. Being active doesn’t have to mean going to the gym, heading out for a run or playing a sport. It can be as simple as having a brisk walk to and from work instead of getting in the car. What’s important is to sit less and move more, whatever activity you choose. Any activity is better than none but the more you can do, the better.

What type of exercise should I do?

Guidelines recommend that you take as much opportunity as you can to be active. Every minute of activity counts, and the type of activity you do could come from these main areas.

  • Active travel. This means using a bike or walking to get to and from the places you need to go.
  • Active recreation. These are activities that are part of your daily life – for example, walking the dog, carrying heavy shopping and doing the housework. For children, it can mean play, games and time spent at the playground.
  • Sport. This means both organised sport such as your local five-a-side football, and an exercise class or activity you do yourself such as jogging or cycling.

The UK guidelines for physical activity recommend three areas to focus on.

  • Strengthening activity. This is activity that will improve your muscle strength, bone health and balance. Yoga and Pilates and using weights at the gym are all strengthening activities.
  • Cardiovascular activity. This is sometimes called aerobic activity. These activities make you breathe harder and faster and make your heart and muscles work harder. Cardiovascular activities include swimming, brisk walking and cycling.
  • Reducing sedentary time. This means sitting down less. If you spend a long time working at a desk, for example, it’s a good idea to get up regularly and do some activity.
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How much exercise should I do?

The amount of activity you should aim to do varies depending on your age. These are the main UK guidelines.

  • All adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week. Or you could do 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise over the course of the week. You can do this in short blocks of time, such as 10 or 15 minutes at a time. You can also mix up the intensities and do some moderate and some vigorous exercise. You should do strengthening exercises at least twice a week. Older adults should also do activities that help with balance – for example, tai chi or dancing – twice a week.
  • Children between 5 and 16 should do an hour of activity every day. This should be a mix of cardiovascular and strengthening activities, spread across the day. Activities can include PE lessons at school, active play and walking or cycling to and from school.
  • Babies and children up to age 5 should be active for at least 3 hours a day. That might sound like a lot, but it can include play activities as well as walking, toddling and crawling. Babies under one also need to spend half an hour a day on their tummies.

If you don’t currently do any exercise or haven’t done for a while, it needn’t take much effort to get started. Doing some physical activity is better than doing none. Even doing a little more exercise than usual can help reduce your risk of some long-term health conditions.

Whether you’re just starting or have always been active, it’s a good idea to take steps to stay injury-free. Take things gradually to start with and build up from there. Even if you’ve been inactive, your chances of an injury are very low as long as you build up the amount of activity you do slowly. Make sure you’re wearing the right clothes, especially footwear. Warm up before exercise and cool down afterwards. It’s also important to eat the right foods to provide the fuel you need to exercise, and to drink enough water to keep you hydrated.

Why do I need to keep active?

Being as active as possible has lots of benefits and reduces your chance of getting some long-term health conditions. There are social benefits to exercising too, it can help you to feel less isolated and more socially connected. Exercising regularly:

  • improves your strength, balance and movement skills
  • helps you maintain a healthy heart, muscles and bones
  • reduces your risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers
  • helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risk of becoming overweight
  • reduces anxiety and depression
  • boosts your mood and feeling of wellbeing
  • helps you sleep better

You can read more about these benefits below.

Keep your heart healthy

There are lots of benefits of exercise on the heart. Being active is one of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of developing stroke or heart disease. Cardiovascular activity is the type of exercise that works best to keep your heart and circulation healthy.

Being active can help to lower your chances of developing four of the main risk factors for heart disease and stroke:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • type 2 diabetes
  • being overweight or obese
  • unbalanced cholesterol levels

Exercise can also help you stay well if you have any of these conditions and prevent further health problems.

Exercise tip

To reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, embrace the benefits of walking and walk whenever possible. Think to yourself, can I do this journey or part of it on foot? Find ways to add activity to your day – it doesn’t need to be structured exercise. If you’re not used to exercising, start small and build up, doing a little more each day. You could walk with a friend or call and talk to someone while you walk. Variety is important to stop you getting bored. So try new places to walk and change where you go each day.

Keep your muscles, bones and joints strong

Regular exercise keeps your muscles, bones and joints healthy. It can help to improve your strength, balance and co-ordination. In early adulthood, being active helps you to develop the maximum strength in your bones and muscles. In middle age, it helps you stay strong and flexible. And when you reach older age, physical activity helps to you stay independent and enjoy life to the full.

Regular exercise can help with the following.

  • For older people, regular exercise can help to reduce the chance of having a fall or of breaking your hip.
  • Being active helps to reduce pain in conditions such as osteoarthritis and eases lower back pain.
  • Becoming active or more active as you get older improves your walking ability and your ability to manage day-to-day activities.

Exercise tip

Strengthening exercises sometimes get forgotten, but they are as important as cardiovascular exercise. Any amount you do is better than none, but adults should aim to do strengthening activities on at least two days of the week. Circuit training, yoga and carrying heavy shopping are all strengthening activities. Or why not try our exercises that you can do at home?

Reduce your risk of cancer

You’re less likely to develop many types of cancer if you’re regularly active. This includes cancers such as breast and bowel cancer and cancer of the lining of the womb.

Exercise is also helpful if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer – both during and after treatment. Being active can help:

  • reduce some side-effects from treatment
  • help you stay a healthy weight
  • help you feel less tired and give you more energy
  • reduce feelings of anxiety and depression

Exercise tip

Children and young people sometimes spend a lot of time sitting – in the car, when playing online games or chatting to friends on social media. As with adults, any activity is better than none. If you have children, encourage them to be active from a young age. Any increase in the amount of activity your child does will benefit them. Starting healthy habits and routines when they are young may mean they’re more likely to continue being active long into adulthood. This will help reduce their risk of developing cancer throughout life.

Reduce your chance of type 2 diabetes

Being inactive is one of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes. That means you’re more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if you don’t do much activity. But on the positive side, the more active you become, the less likely you are to develop it. Doctors think that might be partly because if you’re active, you’re less likely to be overweight. Being overweight is another risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.

If you have type 2 diabetes, it’s also really important that you exercise. Regular physical activity can:

  • help to keep your blood glucose levels within your target range
  • help your body to manage insulin
  • lower your blood pressure
  • help you manage your weight
  • reduce your chance of developing diabetes-related problems

Exercise tip

If you have type 2 diabetes, being active is safe but you may need to take a bit more care. If you have any concerns that your blood sugar levels could be low before or after you exercise, speak to your doctor or nurse so that they can give you advice specific to your circumstances and level of diabetic control. Take care of your feet too. Wear socks and well-fitting shoes and don’t do high impact exercises if you have problems with your feet.

Improve your mental health and wellbeing

There are lots of mental benefits of exercise as well as physical ones. Being active can help prevent and treat some mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. It also gives you lots of other benefits that help you to generally feel better, including:

  • better sleep – regular exercise helps to improve the quality of your sleep and can help you fall asleep more quickly
  • being better able to manage stress 
  • a social life and connection to other people – try getting together with other people in a walking group or an online Zumba class
  • improved self-esteem and confidence
  • feelings of happiness
  • improving the way your brain works – which can reduce the chances of developing dementia in the future

Exercise tip

Being outdoors and active is a great way to improve your wellbeing. Go for a brisk walk in nearby woods or a park, or try your hand at a new outdoor sport. You will reap the physical benefits and being outside surrounded by nature can do wonders for your wellbeing and mental health.

Exercise helps to maintain a healthy weight

Doing regular exercise can help you to manage your weight. Physical activity uses energy from the foods you eat and helps to create a healthy energy balance. Exercise is essential for everyone for maintaining a healthy weight.

Being active can help you to lose weight, keep to a healthy weight or keep weight off that you’ve already lost. If you’re overweight and exercising but not losing weight, you still lower your chances of developing heart disease.

Be sure to maintain a healthy, balanced diet alongside exercise. This is important for your general health, but it also reduces the chances of an injury and it helps you recover after exercise.

Exercise tip

Getting started and then staying motivated can sometimes be hard, but there are lots of ways to build all kinds of activity into your day-to-day life. From walking to the shops to growing your own veg or doing Tai Chi classes, the most important thing to remember is to have fun!

Frequently asked questions

  • There are lots of benefits to being active, whatever your age and level of fitness. It can help to:

    • boost your mood, confidence and self-esteem
    • look after your mental health
    • improve your sleep
    • reduce your risk of long-term health problems such as type 2 diabetes, some cancers and heart disease
    • keep your blood pressure, weight and cholesterol levels healthy
    • keep your muscles and bones strong and reduce your risk of injuries and broken bones
    • improve your balance and coordination


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Related information

Reduce your chance of type 2 diabetes

Being inactive is one of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes. That means you’re more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if you don’t do much activity. But on the positive side, the more active you become, the less likely you are to develop it. Doctors think that might be partly because if you’re active, you’re less likely to be overweight. Being overweight is another risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.

If you have type 2 diabetes, it’s also really important that you exercise. Regular physical activity can:

  • help to keep your blood glucose levels within your target range
  • help your body to manage insulin
  • lower your blood pressure
  • help you manage your weight
  • reduce your chance of developing diabetes-related problems

Exercise tip

If you have type 2 diabetes, being active is safe but you may need to take a bit more care. If you have any concerns that your blood sugar levels could be low before or after you exercise, speak to your doctor or nurse so that they can give you advice specific to your circumstances and level of diabetic control. Take care of your feet too. Wear socks and well-fitting shoes and don’t do high impact exercises if you have problems with your feet.


  • Discover other helpful health information websites.

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    • Healthy living – exercise. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published November 2020
    • Health matters: physical activity – prevention and management of long-term conditions. Public Health England. www.gov.uk, published January 2020
    • UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines. Department of Health and Social Care. www.gov.uk, published September 2019
    • Noncommunicable diseases and their risk factors: Physical activity and young people. World Health Organization. www.who.int, accessed May 2021
    • Physical activity guidelines infographics. Department of Health and Social Care. www.gov.uk, published September 2019
    • Physical activity for early years infographic. UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines. Department of Health and Social Care. www.gov.uk, published September 2019
    • Physical activity for adults and older adults infographic. UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines. Department of Health and Social Care. www.gov.uk, published 2019
    • WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published November 2020
    • Musculoskeletal problems. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • Nutrition for sport and exercise. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, accessed May 2021
    • Winzer EP, Woitek F, Linke A. Physical activity in the prevention and treatment of coronary artery disease. J Am Heart Assoc 2018; 7(4). doi: 10.1161/JAHA.117.007725
    • Prevention of cardiovascular disease. Patient. patient.info, last edited August 2014
    • Physical activity: walking and cycling. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, published November 2012
    • Staying active. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed May 2021
    • Muscle and bone strengthening and balance activities for general health benefits in adults and older adults. Public Health England. www.gov.uk, published July 2018
    • Providing physical activity interventions for people with musculoskeletal conditions. Versus Arthritis.www.versusarthritis.org, published 2016
    • Types of cancer in 1.44 million adults. JAMA Intern Med 2016; 176(6):816–25. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.1548
    • Aune D, Norat T, Leitzmann M, et al. Physical activity and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis. Eur J Epidemiol 2015; 30(7):529–42. doi: 10.1007/s10654-015-0056-z
    • Diabetes mellitus. Patient. patient.info, last edited May 2016
    • Diabetes, diet and exercise. Patient. patient.info, last edited January 2016
    • Kredlow MA, Capozzoli MC, Hearon BA, et al. The effects of physical activity on sleep: a meta-analytic review. J Behav Med 2015; 38(3):427-49. doi: 10.1007/s10865-015-9617-6
    • The role of physical activity and sport in mental health. A Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK Joint Position Statement with the Sports and Exercise Psychiatry Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.fsem.ac.uk, published May 2018
    • Nature and mental health. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published May 2018
    • Obesity: identification, assessment and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, published November 2014
    • Personal communication, Dr Naveen Puri, Associate Clinical Director and Lead Medical Appraiser at Bupa, June 2021
  • Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Freelance Health Editor and Michelle Harrison, Lead Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, August 2021
    Expert reviewer, Dr Naveen Puri, Associate Clinical Director and Lead Medical Appraiser at Bupa
    Next review due August 2024

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