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Physical inactivity

Regular physical activity can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and several other avoidable chronic diseases, including diabetes, certain forms of cancer, overweight and obesity, osteoporosis, and other illnesses. 

According to the World Health Organisation [1], regular physical activity can:

The risk of developing coronary heart disease due to being physically inactive is comparable to that of smoking [2].


Among adults, physical activity needs to be current and continuing in order to protect against coronary heart disease and related conditions [3].  Past activity does not give any protection against illness.


In children, physical activity helps reduce risk factors for disease (such as high blood pressure).  It also helps reduce weight gain, achieve high peak bone mass, and increase self-esteem and mental well-being [2].  Participating in physical activity as a child develops skills, which increases the likelihood of remaining physically active as an adult.

Walking to school is a good example of our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Only one in 10 UK children now walk to school, according to Transport Trends: 2005 edition published by the Department of Transport (1). The numbers of pupils who are driven to school has doubled in 20 years. In 1975 seven out of 10 seven-year-olds walked to school. Twenty per cent of traffic in the morning and afternoon rush hour is now generated by the school run.

For further information about the relationship between physical activity and health see the Chief Medical Officer's report, At least five a week: Evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health.

Current activity levels and trends

Between 1999 and 2004 there have been slight increases in the number of people meeting physical activity recommendations, but the majority in the United Kingdom do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity.  The proportion of men who, based on self-report, achieve the recommended level of physical activity was 35% in 2003; the proportion of women who meet the recommendation was 24% [3].  Activity levels decline with age for both men and women.

Total activity levels among adults are lower now than 30 years ago [2].  This decrease reflects wide societal changes such as a decrease in manual jobs, labour-saving devices that reduce the activity that goes into housework and shopping, and the increased use of the car for short journeys in place of walking and cycling.  Activity levels are also below the recommended levels for children -- three out of ten boys, and four out of ten girls are not getting an hour a day of physical activity. 

Socioeconomic group

In men, overall activity levels are higher in manual groups than in non-manual groups - half of those employed in unskilled jobs meet the recommended levels of activity (see recommended levels of physical activity for health), compared with under a third of those employed in professional jobs.

In women, there is no clear pattern according to social class. The type of activity varies by socioeconomic group. People of higher socio-economic status take part in more physical activity in their leisure time. Rates of walking are two-thirds higher in professional classes compared with unskilled manual groups.


The Health Survey for England (2004) found that Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Chinese) men and women were less likely to meet physical activity recommendations than the general population.  Between 1999 and 2004, there was little change among minority ethnic groups in the proportion of men and women meeting the recommendations, other than an increase in the number of Chinese men and Indian women [6].

New NICE guidance on physical activity

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has in 2006 produced guidance on interventions to help increase the amount of physical activity that people take. Anyone interested in the physical activity guidance should visit the NICE website.

Physical activity versus fitness

Cardiorespiratory fitness has also been found to be an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease of a similar magnitude to inactivity [1], and would appear to predict coronary heart disease more powerfully than measures of physical activity.[4]

Importantly, higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness have been shown to lessen the harmful effects of other risk factors for coronary heart disease such as smoking, high cholesterol or blood pressure.


  1. World Health Organisation, Benefits of Physical Activity, accessed 24 August 2007.
  2. Department of Health. 2004. At Least Five a Week. Evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health. A report from the Chief Medical Officer. London
  3. National Heart Forum. 1995. Physical activity: An agenda for action. London
  4. Department of Health. 2004. Health Survey for England 2003. London: The Stationery Office.
  5. Joint Health Surveys Unit. 1999. Health Survey for England 1998. London: The Stationery Office.Department of Health.  2006. 
  6. Health Survey for England 2004 – The health of minority ethnic groups.  London: The Stationery Office