If Physical Activity Were A Drug....

We all are aware that keeping active is good for our health. It’s taught to us from a young age that we should all keep moving but in today’s society it can be very hard to manage to fit this in amongst other commitments. So does it matter if you don’t keep active over time, or to phrase it a different way what benefits can you gain from becoming more active? You may think of exercise as being good in terms of releasing endorphins and keeping you fit but there are more benefits to our health from keeping moving too.

With the UK chief medical officers recent update on physical activity guidelines stating "if physical activity were a drug, we would refer to it as a miracle cure, due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and help treat” it becomes clear that there are many benefits to keeping moving throughout our lives.

If physical activity were a drug….

There is very good evidence showing that physical activity can reduce the risk of a number of health conditions. Just how much of an effect being active has is shown below. This data is taken from the NHS website is collated from a number of different studies:


  • Up to a 35% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke
  • Up to an 83% lower risk of osteoarthritis (the most common type of arthritis in the UK)
  • A 30% lower risk of an early death
  • A 30% lower risk of falls (among older adults)
  • Up to a 30% lower risk of depression
  • 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
  • Up to a 68% lower risk of hip fracture
  • Up to a 30% lower risk of dementia

While the above list shows the benefits that come from being regularly physically active it’s important to remember that all physical activity has benefit. A key message to take away is just to move more! There is no minimum amount of physical activity required to achieve some health benefits. Small bouts of movement accumulated over the day and week will provide some benefits.

In addition to the above being active also has other benefits in terms of enjoyment for those taking part and the social aspect of exercise. Something we all recognise as important to us over the past few months while we have had less social interaction with those outside our household. Being active can also improve confidence and self esteem and impact on employment opportunities in some cases.

Where do all of these benefits come from?

There are lots of reasons why physical activity is beneficial to our health. However one interesting one you may not have been aware of before is the anti-inflammatory effect of exercise.

When we exercise we move our muscles. In doing so the body releases substances called ‘myokines’ which cause a chain of signalling throughout the body which leads to a decrease in inflammation. In addition when we exercise we reduce what is known as ‘visceral’ fat - fat around our organs - first. This is one of the reasons why we can still have health benefits from being active even if we don’t lose any weight - you can’t see any difference but if you used imaging such as an MRI scan there would be a noticeable difference in where fat is held in the body. Because visceral fat is inflammatory reducing this also gives an anti-inflammatory effect to the body. Together these two mechanisms lead to a reduction in ‘systemic’ inflammation - inflammation in the body.

So how can I get started?

Any movement is good for your health and it doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated! Perhaps you could stand up out of your chair at the end of this article and do a few simple stretches or try marching on the spot.

Walking is a brilliant place to start and can be incorporated in to your daily routine. Those who are currently inactive will gain a large benefit from starting to become active, perhaps starting by parking the car a little further away from your destination, getting off the bus a stop early or walking to your local shop could be realistic steps for you. The ‘Active 10’ app may help you to achieve a walking goal, it’s a free to download smartphone app from Public Health England that records your walks and encourages you over time to increase your intensity to benefit your health. If you don’t have a smartphone recording time spent walking each day in a calendar and watching this increase over time could be really motivating.

If you are thinking of taking up running and have been inspired by the above to dust of your trainers an app such as couch to 5K can be downloaded for free and offers a gradual introduction to running with the aim of having you complete a 5K by the end of the programme. If you start now you could have a 5K under your belt before Christmas!

Resources such as Sport England’s stay in work out also has a number of ideas of how to get moving and can be accessed for free. In these difficult times this provides some great resources and offers inspiration of how you can become more active while also having fun at the same time. The site contains a section aimed at families too if you would like to encourage your kids to get active at the same time as you.

Whatever you choose to do to increase your activity make sure you enjoy it and it fits in with your lifestyle. To achieve the benefits above being active needs to be incorporated in to your lifestyle - it’s not a short term fix - but it can bring about some amazing benefits over time.

If you have any further questions on physical activity or how to get started feel free to get in touch. Susie


Want to keep learning?  Read more about the author Dr Susie Fox.

Active Health and Fitness

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