Physical Activity
Overview |Health benefits |Prevalence |Costs |Key Resources |Contacts
Children at Play by Lauren Lank - Strategies to increase physical activity are a key public health priority. Physical activity is defined as ‘Any force exerted by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure above resting level’. In practice this includes all sorts of activities, from walking or cycling for transport, gardening, housework, play and dance as well as sport or deliberate ‘exercise’.

Physical activity is a critical public health issue due to two inter-related factors:
  • Lack of physical activity is associated with significant risks to many aspects of health.
  • There is a high prevalence of physical inactivity.
Health benefits of physical activity
  • The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) underlined the importance of action on physical activity in his report At least five a week. This report provided the UK’s most authoritative and up to date summary of the evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health.
  • Increasing activity levels will contribute to the prevention and management of over 20 conditions and diseases including coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer, positive mental health and weight management.
  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, and cancer are the major causes of death in England, together accounting for almost 60% of premature deaths.
  • Inactive and unfit people have almost double the risk of dying from coronary heart disease. Physical activity is also an independent protective factor against coronary heart disease.
  • Increasing activity levels also has beneficial effects on musculoskeletal health, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, back pain and osteoarthritis.
  • Physical inactivity, along with unhealthy diets, has contributed to the rapid increases in obesity in both adults and children.
  • Regular physical activity reduces the risk of depression and has positive benefits for mental health including reduced anxiety, and enhanced mood and self-esteem.

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Prevalence of physical activity

Adults are recommended to undertake a minimum of 30 minutes of at least moderate-intensity activity on most days of the week. The Health Survey for England showed that in 2006 only 40% of men and 28% of women met this guideline. However, the survey showed that physical activity has increased among both men and women since 1997.

Seventy per cent of boys and 61% of girls aged 2–15 years are sufficiently active to meet the recommendations for their age (at least 60 minutes of at least moderate-intensity activity each day).

SEPHO's report on physical activity showed that there was no significant difference between levels of physical activity in the region and across the country as a whole.

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Costs of inactivity

The Department of Health has estimated the annual costs to the NHS as a result of physical inactivity as between £1billion and £1.8billion. The cost of lost productivity to the wider economy have been estimated at around £5.5billion from sickness absence and £1billion from premature death of people of working age. Taken together these costs total approximately £8.3billion every year.

The Department or Health’s new physical activity plan has also provided estimates of the primary and secondary care costs attributable to physical inactivity for PCTs and strategic health authorities in England. This showed an average healthcare cost of physical inactivity for each PCT of £5millon per year.

Much of the decline in overall physical activity is due to trends in our society that reduce opportunities for activity, such as increased car travel and car ownership, a decline in walking and cycling, fewer manual jobs, more labour-saving devices, and a rise in sedentary leisure activities such as watching TV and videos. Also lack of time is a very common stated barrier to physical activity.

There is evidence that public health action on a number of levels is helpful in increasing levels of physical activity. These include advocacy for policy and environmental changes; developing strategies such as local transport plans; involving primary care; running community programmes; targeting adults over 50; targeting young people via a whole school approach and ensuring proper monitoring, evaluation and data collection.

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Key Resources

The following is a collection of data, information and reports on physical activity. Please note that these resources will open in a new window.

The primary website for practitioners in the field of physical activity is Well Being South East, an online resource for practitioners working to promote healthier lifestyles.

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Paul Jarvis
Physical Activity Development Manager
07889 046106
Postal address: <GOSE: 5350>

Julie Foxton
Physical Activity Coordinator for the Early Years
Department of Health - South East
07500 124744
Postal address: <GOSE: 5350>

For further information you may wish to visit the following websites:

Information compiled by Nick Cavill. Last review Feb 2009.