Why being active is so important for wellbeing

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Has sitting and watching the super-fit athletes at the Olympics made you feel like a couch potato?

Chances are it will have – especially if you’re one of the two-thirds of the population not getting any regular exercise.

New research highlights the shocking extent of Britain’s inactivity, and the deadly health repercussions.

The study, which looked at activity levels worldwide, led by Dr I-Min Lee of Harvard Medical School, suggests that lack of exercise claims more than 90,000 lives in the UK each year, as a result of illnesses including heart disease, breast and bowel cancer and diabetes.

The death toll is only slightly lower than that for smoking, which is responsible for around 100,000 British deaths annually.

The minimum amount of exercise recommended by the NHS is two-and-a-half hours a week but, if the findings are correct, most of us aren’t even achieving that.


If two-and-a-half hours a week sounds too ambitious, don’t let that put you off trying altogether.

As Dr Lee points out, any physical activity is better than none. ‘Even if 15 minutes a day is all that can be managed, that’s good,’ she says.

There are many complex factors that prevent people from being active, Dr Lee notes.

These include lack of time or confidence, unfriendly surroundings (such as lack of bike lanes or nearby parks) and bad weather.

‘Some people don’t realise that many actions count as physical activity - walking the dog, playing with your children, walking or cycling to work - and so they don’t maximise this,’ she explains.

Dr Lee suggests that people should take the stairs instead of lifts, take as many opportunities to walk during the day - instead of just hopping in the car – and do some gardening.


Big events like the Olympics are fantastic for boosting everybody’s enthusiasm for participating in sports.

But, as Stuart Biddle, a professor of physical activity and health at Loughborough University, points out, the effects can be short-lived. Enthusiasm levels can start to dwindle as soon as the medals are handed out, and in the past the Olympics hasn’t prompted higher levels of physical activity in host countries.

But London 2012 has put a huge focus on the Olympic legacy, and it’s hoped that new initiatives, including school sports programmes like Change4Life sport clubs, will ensure participation levels don’t drop.


As inspirational as the Olympics is, thinking about doing more exercise, and actually doing it, are two different things, and for lots of people it’s a case of struggling to find the time.

However, research has shown that the physically active have no more time then those who are inactive, says Biddle.

‘It’s a perception more than a reality, and probably reflects lack of interest, or having other priorities,’ he says.

The way to deal with this, he says, is to change your mindset, and perhaps ask a friend to commit to exercise too, so you can encourage each other.

The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week.

Or go for 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity such as running every week.

An equivalent mix of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity (for example two 30-minute runs plus 30 minutes fast walking a week) also meets the recommendations.

It’s also important to plan exercise – make the decision to walk or cycle home from work, for example.

‘Work it into your day so time is less of a factor,” says Biddle.

‘You’re going to have to travel home from work anyway, so try and make doing that active, if you can.

‘Even a 10-minute stroll every day is better than nothing.’