The Department of Health defines exercise as a planned episode of physical activity to improve or maintain a person’s health or fitness.

Regular physical activity has many benefits to health, including mental health and well being. People who are physically active have up to a 50% reduced risk of developing the major chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers and a 20-30% reduced risk of premature death.

This article focuses on how exercise can be used to help treat or prevent a wide range of health conditions. The Lifestyle & Wellbeing section of this website provides information and advice about how exercise can help you improve your diet and fitness.

Exercise benefits

Regular exercise has proven health benefits for anyone who wants to maintain a healthy lifestyle, lose weight and improve their fitness level.

As well as helping to maintain health and fitness, a controlled and carefully supervised exercise programme also has important therapeutic benefits for people with chronic (long-term) health conditions, such as:

  • muscular dystrophy: a genetic condition that gradually causes the muscles to weaken
  • chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS): a condition that causes chronic tiredness (fatigue)
  • depression: feelings of extreme sadness that last for many weeks or months, and are severe enough to interfere with daily life

Exercise for rehabilitation

Exercise plays a significant role in helping people to recover after a serious illness or injury. For example, if you have had a heart attack, it is very important to remain active to improve the strength of your heart and reduce your risk of having another heart attack.

After a major illness or health condition, such as a heart problem, it is important that exercise for rehabilitation is carefully planned and based on your previous fitness and activity levels.

In this situation, an exercise specialist will be able to provide you with assistance and advice regarding the appropriate amount of exercise and the correct level of intensity.

Exercise referral schemes

Exercise referral schemes are designed to help people who would benefit from regular exercise. They are aimed at people with medical conditions that put their health at risk and people who are at risk through a non-active lifestyle.

The Department of Health and Welsh Government recommends that exercise referral schemes should be available for people who meet specific criteria. They are usually run by local councils in partnership with local Health Boards.

To be eligible to take part in an exercise referral scheme, you have to have a medical condition such as:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • type 2 diabetes
  • obesity
  • asthma
  • depression, anxiety or stress
  • osteoarthritis
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

The list of health conditions is subject to change, so check with your GP for a full and up-to-date list.

During an exercise referral scheme, you will meet an exercise specialist, such as a personal trainer, for several sessions each week. Your trainer will design an exercise programme that is specifically tailored to your needs and requirements. They can also offer you support and guidance throughout the course.

Exercise referral schemes usually last for about 10 weeks. During this time, you will learn how exercise can have a positive effect on your health and wellbeing.

Your development will be closely monitored throughout the course. At the end of the course, you will meet your trainer to review your progress. They will be able to give you further help and advice about how to maintain your lifestyle changes in the long term.


Step right up! It's the miracle cure we've all been waiting for. It can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%.

It’s free, easy to take, has an immediate effect and you don’t need a GP to get some. Its name? Exercise.

See below to find out if you're doing enough for your age:

Recommended physical activity levels

  • Children under 5 should do 180 minutes every day.
  • Young people (5-18) should do 60 minutes every day.
  • Adults (19-64) should do 150 minutes every week.
  • Older adults (65 and over) should do 150 minutes every week.

Exercise is the miracle cure we’ve always had, but we’ve neglected to take our recommended dose for too long. Our health is now suffering as a consequence.

This is no snake oil. Whatever your age, there's strong scientific evidence that being physically active can help you lead a healthier and even happier life.

People who do regular activity have a lower risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers.

Research shows that physical activity can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Health benefits

Given the overwhelming evidence, it seems obvious that we should all be physically active. It's essential if you want to live a healthy and fulfilling life into old age.

It's medically proven that people who do regular physical activity have:

  • up to a 35% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke
  • 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
  • a 30% lower risk of early death
  • up to an 83% lower risk of osteoarthritis
  • up to a 68% lower risk of hip fracture
  • a 30% lower risk of falls (among older adults)
  • up to a 30% lower risk of depression
  • up to a 30% lower risk of dementia

It has been said that if exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented!

What counts?

To stay healthy or to improve your health, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.

Moderate-intensity aerobic activity means you're working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat. One way to tell if you're working at a moderate intensity is if you can still talk but you can't sing the words to a song.

Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities are:

  • walking fast
  • water aerobics
  • riding a bike on level ground or with few hills
  • playing doubles tennis
  • pushing a lawn mower

Daily chores such as shopping, cooking or housework don't count towards your 150 minutes. This is because the effort needed to do them isn’t hard enough to get your heart rate up.

A modern problem

People are less active nowadays, partly because technology has made our lives easier. We drive cars or take public transport. Machines wash our clothes. We entertain ourselves in front of a TV or computer screen. Fewer people are doing manual work, and most of us have jobs that involve little physical effort. Work, house chores, shopping and other necessary activities are far less demanding than for previous generations.

We move around less and burn off less energy than people used to. Research suggests that many adults spend more than seven hours a day sitting down, at work, on transport or in their leisure time. People aged over 65 spend 10 hours or more each day sitting or lying down, making them the most sedentary age group.  

Sedentary lifestyles

Inactivity is described by the Department of Health as a “silent killer”. Evidence is emerging that sedentary behaviour, such as sitting or lying down for long periods, is bad for your health. Spending hours sitting down watching TV or playing computer games is thought to increase your risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as weight gain and obesity.

Not only should you try to raise your activity levels, but you should also reduce the amount of time you and your family spend sitting down. Common examples of sedentary behaviour include watching TV, using a computer, using the car for short journeys and sitting down to read, talk or listen to music. 

Previous generations were active more naturally through work and manual labour but today people have to find ways of integrating activity into their daily lives.

Whether it's limiting the time babies spend strapped in their buggies to encouraging adults to stand up and move frequently, people of all ages need to reduce their sedentary behaviour.

This means that everyone needs to think about increasing the types of activities that suit their lifestyle and can easily be included in to their daily routine.

Crucially, you can hit your weekly activity target but still be at risk of ill health if you spend the rest of the time sitting or lying down.

The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website nhs.uk
Last Updated: 10/08/2023 10:49:41