Why is exercise important?

Physical activity has many health benefits, both physical and mental. It can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Being physically active helps us stay healthy as we age and can reduce our risk of early death by up to 30%. It also has mental health benefits, combatting stress, anxiety and depression and helping us reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Regular physical activity remains vital as we age. It can reduce our risk of falling and strengthen our bones, making us less likely to sustain fractures, develop osteoarthritis, or suffer from other conditions related to reduced bone density.

So, how much physical activity should we be doing?

How much exercise per day?

NHS physical activity guidelines recommend that adults aged 19 to 64 should do some physical activity daily, although exercising one or two days a week can still provide some benefits.

The physical activity guidelines vary depending on the intensity of your chosen aerobic activity. The guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. You should also do strength training involving all the major muscle groups at least twice a week.

The physical activity you choose also depends on your current fitness level. If you're new to exercise, speak to your GP for advice. Start by reducing your time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of inactivity with movement. You can continue your usual physical activity if you're pregnant and after your post-natal 6-week check. However, you may need to slow down as the pregnancy progresses and avoid vigorous-intensity physical activity.

What activities might you want to try?

Moderate Activity

Moderate aerobic activity makes you breathe faster and warms you up. If you can talk but not sing, you're working at a moderate level. The physical activity guidelines recommend spending around 150 minutes a week on this type of movement. Moderate aerobic activity can take various forms, meaning you can choose an exercise you enjoy and are more likely to do regularly. Moderate physical activity can include walking, hiking, swimming, aqua aerobics or riding a bike. You can be physically active if you go dancing on a night out. Almost anything that gets you slightly out of breath is moderate physical activity.

Vigorous activity

Vigorous intensity activity makes you breathe more heavily. If you can't say more than a few words without pausing for breath, your exercise likely counts as vigorous activity. Guidelines recommend around 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week. Some activities can be moderate or vigorous depending on the level at which you work. For example, swimming breaststroke can be a moderate aerobic activity, but it'll be more vigorous if you pick up the pace and swim front crawl or butterfly. A gentle bike ride on flat paths is less intense than a hilly course.

Other vigorous-intensity activities could include running, martial arts, an aerobics class or team sports such as football, rugby or hockey.

If you want to move from moderate to vigorous intensity activity, the NHS recommends the Couch to 5K program, which takes you from walking to running over nine weeks.

Very vigorous activity

Very vigorous intensity activity, commonly known as interval training, typically involves short periods of intense effort with rest in between. If you've started running, interval training can involve sprints or uphill runs at maximum effort with walking in between. You can use the same techniques when cycling, swimming or lifting weights. HIIT classes and circuit training also use these principles.

Muscle strengthening exercise

Muscle-strengthening activities help support our posture and strengthen muscles to improve our balance. Physical activity guidelines recommend doing strength training twice weekly and targeting all the major muscle groups.

Strength training can be done at the gym or with weights or resistance bands at home. Activities such as yoga and Pilates, where you bear your own body weight, also work to strengthen muscles. Equally, some household activities such as carrying heavy shopping bags, digging in the garden, or carrying your children around strengthen muscles, too.

What if I'm currently inactive?

If you haven't exercised for a while, seeing your GP for a check-up is a good idea. You can still exercise if you have a health condition and enjoy the health benefits, but you may need to adjust the types of physical activity you do or work at a moderate intensity at first.

Think about what types of activities you enjoy and plan when you'll do them. For example, you could walk at lunchtime, swim at the weekend, or play games with your children in the garden. Find ways to make exercise more fun, such as listening to music or exercising with a friend. Start by warming up and listening to your body; pushing through pain can lead to injury. Setting goals and tracking your progress can help you stay motivated.

Senior group walking in nature

Does walking count as exercise?

Walking is excellent exercise, and it's easy and free. You don't need special equipment and can start from your front door. Going for a walk (or several short walks) each day helps you build up to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week. It increases your cardiorespiratory fitness, muscle strength and bone density.

Brisk walking counts as moderate-intensity activity, and the NHS Active 10 app can help you tell if you're walking at the right pace. Exercising outside has additional health benefits, including improving mental health and reducing stress.

How many steps should I aim for in a day?

We've all heard we should aim for 10,000 steps daily, and many fitness trackers automatically set this target. However, the National Obesity Forum classifies anyone walking between 7,000 and 10,000 steps a day as moderately active.

10,000 steps is easy to remember and simple to track if you have a smartwatch. Intensity still matters; a gentle stroll counts towards your step target but may not count as moderate-intensity activity.

Does housework count as exercise?

Housework can count as exercise if you work at the right intensity. Vacuuming, dusting, mopping and washing the car can all give you a good workout. The BBC teamed up with the University of Birmingham to monitor volunteers wearing activity monitors as they performed various housework and gardening tasks.

They found that ironing and dusting didn't reach the level required for moderate aerobic activity, but mowing the lawn, vacuuming and mopping did. There was also evidence to suggest that the benefits lasted for several hours afterwards, meaning spreading activities out throughout the day or on several days a week can provide long-lasting benefits. 

Does it matter when I exercise?

Generally, the best time to exercise is whenever you have the time. Study results vary, so there's no clear guidance. Plan activity into your day and track your performance. If evening exercise disrupts your sleep, try to move it earlier. Alternatively, if trying to get up earlier to exercise finds you hitting the snooze button, push it later.

Physical activity guidance recommends spreading your activity over a few days a week. However, if you only have time on the weekend, this can also have health benefits. A major study with 90,000 participants found that people who did 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity at the weekend reduced their risk of heart disease by 27% compared to their inactive peers. In contrast, those who spread their activity over the week reduced their risk by 35%. They found similar results for the risk of stroke and other heart problems, suggesting it's the overall volume that counts rather than when you do it.

How much exercise should different age groups do?

The guidelines we've mentioned relate to adults aged 19 to 64. However, activity levels for other age groups vary.

Under 5s

Children develop rapidly in the first five years of life, so the recommended activity levels for this age group change as they grow. Here are the guidelines for children under 5:

  • Babies under 1 (pre-crawling) - at least 30 minutes of tummy time to encourage crawling and supervised floor play, including reaching, grasping, pushing and pulling.
  • Babies under 1 (moving) - movement in a safe environment throughout the day.
  • Toddlers (age 1-2) - 3 hours of physical activity spread throughout the day, including running, jumping, skipping, climbing and playing ball games.
  • Pre-schoolers (age 3-4) - 3 hours per day, including at least an hour of moderate to vigorous activity.

All movement counts, so encourage your child to get out of the buggy and spend time moving around.

Exercise for children and teenagers

Children between 5 and 18 have a wide range of physical capabilities, but their physical activity needs are similar. They can start doing strength training and aerobic exercise.

Children and teenagers should include:

  • At least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity per day
  • Varied activities to develop different movement skills
  • Strength training to build their muscles and bones
  • Less time sitting or lying down

The types of activities children and teenagers can do are similar to those recommended for adults. Physical education and after-school sports clubs and classes can offer increased variety.

Exercise for over 65s

Physical activity continues to offer health benefits in later life. Speak to your GP for advice, particularly if you last exercised some time ago. Ensuring your activity is appropriate to your level of fitness is essential. Guidance for over-65s varies depending on your current activity level.

Aim for:

  • Some physical activity every day
  • Strength training and activities that improve balance and flexibility twice a week
  • 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity if you're already active
  • Light activity such as moving around the house, slow walking or light housework if you're less active
  • Chair-based exercises if you're less able to stand

Getting professional advice

We hope this guide has helped you learn how to become more active. myTribe guides help you learn more about ways to protect your health. If you'd like to discover how health insurance can help you get active and achieve your health goals, contact us for a comparison quote. We'll put you in touch with a regulated, high-quality broker for tailored advice.