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Benefits of exercise

Step right up! It's the miracle cure we've all been waiting for.

It can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%.

It’s free, easy to take, has an immediate effect and you don’t need a GP to get some. Its name? Exercise.

Click on the links below to find out if you're doing enough for your age:

Exercise is the miracle cure we’ve always had, but for too long we’ve neglected to take our recommended dose. Our health is now suffering as a consequence.

This is no snake oil. Whatever your age, there's strong scientific evidence that being physically active can help you lead a healthier and even happier life.

People who do regular activity have a lower risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some cancers.

Research shows that physical activity can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented,” says Dr Nick Cavill, a health promotion consultant.

Health benefits

Given the overwhelming evidence, it seems obvious that we should all be physically active. It's essential if you want to live a healthy and fulfilling life into old age.

"If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented"

Dr Nick Cavill

It's medically proven that people who do regular physical activity have:

  • up to a 35% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke
  • up to a 50% lower risk of type 2 diabetes
  • up to a 50% lower risk of colon cancer
  • up to a 20% lower risk of breast cancer
  • a 30% lower risk of early death
  • up to an 83% lower risk of osteoarthritis
  • up to a 68% lower risk of hip fracture
  • a 30% lower risk of falls (among older adults)
  • up to a 30% lower risk of depression
  • up to a 30% lower risk of dementia

What counts?

To stay healthy, adults should try to be active daily and aim to achieve at least 150 minutes of physical activity over a week through a variety of activities.

For most people, the easiest way to get moving is to make activity part of everyday life, like walking or cycling instead of using the car to get around. However, the more you do, the better, and taking part in activities such as sports and exercise will make you even healthier.

For any type of activity to benefit your health, you need to be moving quick enough to raise your heart rate, breathe faster and feel warmer. This level of effort is called moderate intensity activity. One way to tell if you're working at a moderate intensity is if you can still talk but you can't sing the words to a song.

If your activity requires you to work even harder, it is called vigorous intensity activity. There is substantial evidence that vigorous activity can bring health benefits over and above that of moderate activity. You can tell when it’s vigorous activity because you're breathing hard and fast, and your heart rate has gone up quite a bit. If you're working at this level, you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

A modern problem

People are less active nowadays, partly because technology has made our lives easier. We drive cars or take public transport. Machines wash our clothes. We entertain ourselves in front of a TV or computer screen. Fewer people are doing manual work, and most of us have jobs that involve little physical effort. Work, house chores, shopping and other necessary activities are far less demanding than for previous generations.

We move around less and burn off less energy than people used to. Research suggests that many adults spend more than seven hours a day sitting down, at work, on transport or in their leisure time. People aged over 65 spend 10 hours or more each day sitting or lying down, making them the most sedentary age group. 

Sedentary lifestyles

Inactivity is described by the Department of Health as a “silent killer”. Evidence is emerging that sedentary behaviour, such as sitting or lying down for long periods, is bad for your health.

Not only should you try to raise your activity levels, but you should also reduce the amount of time you and your family spend sitting down.

Common examples of sedentary behaviour include watching TV, using a computer, using the car for short journeys and sitting down to read, talk or listen to music – and such behaviour is thought to increase your risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, as well as weight gain and obesity. 

“Previous generations were active more naturally through work and manual labour, but today we have to find ways of integrating activity into our daily lives,” says Dr Cavill.

Whether it's limiting the time babies spend strapped in their buggies, or encouraging adults to stand up and move frequently, people of all ages need to reduce their sedentary behaviour.

“This means that each of us needs to think about increasing the types of activities that suit our lifestyle and can easily be included in our day,” says Dr Cavill.

Crucially, you can hit your weekly activity target but still be at risk of ill health if you spend the rest of the time sitting or lying down. For tips on building physical activity and exercise into your day, whatever your age, read Get active your way.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2015

Next review due: 13/07/2017


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The 8 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

ritabeveridge said on 22 November 2014

One of the most effective forms of fitness is Capoeira. Such an amazing and healthy activity to get into. Read about it here if you dont know what it is:

Iv been doing it for over ten years now and it keeps me so fit and healthy. I am hoping that i can raise awareness of it in the UK via my website

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NaviM said on 10 July 2014

An excellent short and precise article on benefits of health. I totally agree with the view that exercise is a miracle cure. This miracle cure is for free yet we don,t choose it.

I personally believe that alternative holistic healing systems such as Homeopathy and Sujok can undo much of the damage that we thrust upon ourselves by leading a poor lifestyle. The irony is that as the world gets richer our lifestyle
gets poorer. Exercise ignites the spark of health that we all desire.

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David Colquhoun said on 31 May 2014

At the risk of being repetitive, I have to point out that there is no good randomised data that shows exercise has much effect on all-cause mortality. It is simply unjustified to call exercise a miracle cure, and the amounts of exercise that are prescribed are little more than made-up numbers (like the 5, or is it 7, a day).

I think that exercise is fine if you like it. I did. I've done boxing, sailing, marathon running, mountain walking and enjoyed all of them. I also know many people who've lived into their 90s who've done none of those things.

It is entirely plausible that I liked running because I was thin, rather than that I was thin because I ran. Also, it is not impossible that the fact that I'm on my third hip prosthesis and have an nasty scoliosis round an old vertebral fusion is not unconnected with doing a lot of exercise.

In fact exercise is just the latest in a series of "panaceas" for problems that we haven't yet worked out either cause or cure.
It's fashionable, but the evidence is lousy.

The problem with issuing detailed instructions in the absence of good evidence is that it alienates many people. Just the same problem attaches to dodgy dietary advice. That means that when good and sound advice is offered, people laugh (or sigh) at ir. Crying wolf is not a good idea.

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Goldobi said on 05 October 2013

I found this article very help and i have just joined a gym to increase my activities and exercise.I feel more fitter and less tired now.One thing i have improved is my cardio and my breathing has greatly improving when running.I have found also more more information about my fitness on the website

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User777334 said on 01 June 2013

i am vegetarian, doing gym requires a lot of energy. wondering that can my diet is enough for doing gym?

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User754680 said on 09 March 2013

The thing I can not believe is that people still do not see the benefits of exercise

I exercise 4-5 times a week and feel great and ready both physically and mentally for the day ahead

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Karlito23 said on 08 October 2012

Well I really find lots of benefits doing exercise and for me its like fueling my body to be physically and mentally fit. Also, I just want to add something (if in case some might find this post useful) – I recently read this page, Unlocking the Many Benefits of Fitness Whereas you will find what are other benefits of having exercise, how exercise can prevents disease and reduce pain, what are ways how exercise can be more fun, etc.. You guys might find something that you can use there. Thanks for the great article! :)

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Sioux said on 30 June 2012

do you think fibromyalgia would pass as a condition that would get me help with the get active scheme. I would love to be able to go swimming to help me loose weight as it is one exercise I can do that doesn't cause too much pain. But I cannot afford to go as I am only on incapacity benefit.

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Keep healthy with 150 minutes of exercise a week

Find out how easy it is to get 150 minutes of exercise each week. In this video people describe what exercise they find most beneficial and offer tips and tricks for keeping motivated. Note: even short bouts of 10 minutes activities can count towards you 150 minutes.

Media last reviewed: 16/06/2014

Next review due: 16/06/2016

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