Female runner running in the rain

Physical activity and exercise are great ways to keep your body healthy, reduce your risk of disease and improve mood.  Physical activity refers to any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires your body to burn calories (expend energy)[1] such as shopping, gardening and doing housework.  Exercise is planned, structured, repetitive and intentional movement[2] such as going for a walk, participating in sport or going to the gym.

Benefits of physical activity

Research shows that regular physical activity and exercise provides a range of physical and mental health benefits[3] such as:

  • Reduces the risk of hypertension[4], coronary heart disease[5] and stroke[6]
  • Lowers the risk of diabetes[7, 8]
  • Lowers risk of dementia[9]
  • Reduces the risk of various types of cancer[10-12] (including breast cancer[13, 14] and colon cancer[15])
  • Reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety[16]
  • Improves muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness[17, 18]
  • Improves bone and functional health[19]
  • Reduces the risk of falls as well as hip or vertebral fractures[20]
  • Improves cognitive function[21]
  • Helps to maintain a healthy body weight[7]

Physical activity recommendations

For good physical and mental health, the World Health Organization recommends adults (aged 18 to 64 years) aim to be physically active for 30 minutes on 5 days per week or accumulate 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity such as a brisk walk, digging the garden or water aerobics; or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity such as running; or a combination of moderate, vigorous and very vigorous (e.g. climbing, sprinting) throughout the week[1].  Any activity is better than none, however for additional health benefits aerobic activity should be increased to 60 minutes of moderate intensity activity, 5 days per week.  Moderate intensity exercise increases breathing and heart rate while still being able to carry out a conversation while vigorous intensity activity results in breathing heavily, faster heart rate, sweating, heightened concentration, and difficultly holding a conversation.  Muscle strengthening activities such as gardening, hill walking or carrying shopping should be done at least two days a week to develop or maintain strength in the major muscle groups. Find more information on physical activity recommendations for different groups here.

The national physical activity plan for Ireland recommends that people aged 65 years and older include varied multicomponent physical activity that emphasizes functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity, on 3 or more days a week, to enhance functional capacity and to prevent falls. Check out Sport Irelands older adult exercise plan here.

In addition to reducing the risk of disease, managing existing conditions, and developing and maintaining physical and mental function being active contributes to wider benefits of social health throughout the life cycle. Worldwide, around 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men do not do enough physical activity to stay healthy[1].  Finding time to exercise can be challenging, the good news is that even exercising for an average of 15 minutes per day reduces risk of all-cause mortality and increases life expectancy by 3 years[22].  Don’t worry about setting small goals at first, simply going for a walk can help lower blood pressure, decrease fat circulating in blood stream, improve your blood vessels and have a positive impact on mood.  Reduce sedentary time by taking regular breaks from sitting and find activities, locations and times that you enjoy being active.  Check out your Local Sports Partnership to discover the many initiatives to increase physical activity within your local community here.

This article was first published on the MET Medicinal Nutrition & Sport Technologies blog.

Visit the MET Technology Gateway website for more information.

Author: Ciara Cooney, MET Technology Gateway


  1. Organization, W.H. Physical activity. 2020 26 November 2020 [cited 2021 06 December]; Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity.
  2. Caspersen, C.J., K.E. Powell, and G.M. Christenson, Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974), 1985. 100(2): p. 126-131.
  3. Warburton, D.E. and S.S. Bredin, Health benefits of physical activity: a systematic review of current systematic reviews. Current opinion in cardiology, 2017. 32(5): p. 541-556.
  4. Diaz, K.M. and D. Shimbo, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Hypertension. Current Hypertension Reports, 2013. 15(6): p. 659-668.
  5. Cleven, L., et al., The association between physical activity with incident obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes and hypertension in adults: a systematic review of longitudinal studies published after 2012. BMC public health, 2020. 20: p. 1-15.
  6. Hung, S.H., et al., Pre-stroke physical activity and admission stroke severity: A systematic review. International Journal of Stroke, 2021: p. 1747493021995271.
  7. Swift, D.L., et al., The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 2014. 56(4): p. 441-447.
  8. Wake, A.D., Antidiabetic Effects of Physical Activity: How It Helps to Control Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity : targets and therapy, 2020. 13: p. 2909-2923.
  9. Lee, J., The relationship between physical activity and dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Journal of gerontological nursing, 2018. 44(10): p. 22-29.
  10. McTiernan, A., et al., Physical Activity in Cancer Prevention and Survival: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2019. 51(6): p. 1252-1261.
  11. Rezende, L.F.M., et al., Physical activity and cancer: an umbrella review of the literature including 22 major anatomical sites and 770 000 cancer cases. Br J Sports Med, 2018. 52(13): p. 826-833.
  12. Patel, A.V., et al., American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2019. 51(11): p. 2391-2402.
  13. Pizot, C., et al., Physical activity, hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer risk: A meta-analysis of prospective studies. Eur J Cancer, 2016. 52: p. 138-54.
  14. Hardefeldt, P.J., et al., Physical Activity and Weight Loss Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer: A Meta-analysis of 139 Prospective and Retrospective Studies. Clin Breast Cancer, 2018. 18(4): p. e601-e612.
  15. Liu, L., et al., Leisure time physical activity and cancer risk: evaluation of the WHO’s recommendation based on 126 high-quality epidemiological studies. Br J Sports Med, 2016. 50(6): p. 372-8.
  16. Stubbs, B., et al., EPA guidance on physical activity as a treatment for severe mental illness: a meta-review of the evidence and Position Statement from the European Psychiatric Association (EPA), supported by the International Organization of Physical Therapists in Mental Health (IOPTMH). Eur Psychiatry, 2018. 54: p. 124-144.
  17. Myers, J., et al., The impact of moving more, physical activity, and cardiorespiratory fitness: Why we should strive to measure and improve fitness. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 2021. 64: p. 77-82.
  18. Mehta, A., et al., Running away from cardiovascular disease at the right speed: The impact of aerobic physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness on cardiovascular disease risk and associated subclinical phenotypes. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 2020. 63(6): p. 762-774.
  19. Faienza, M.F., et al., How Physical Activity across the Lifespan Can Reduce the Impact of Bone Ageing: A Literature Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2020. 17(6): p. 1862.
  20. Cauley, J.A. and L. Giangregorio, Physical activity and skeletal health in adults. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 2020. 8(2): p. 150-162.
  21. Biazus-Sehn, L.F., et al., Effects of physical exercise on cognitive function of older adults with mild cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2020. 89: p. 104048.
  22. Wen, C.P., et al., Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Lancet, 2011. 378(9798): p. 1244-53.

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