Keeping physically active improves your health and quality of life and can help you to live longer. If you are already physically active, increasing the amount you do can also benefit your health. If not, it’s never too late to start doing some exercise.
Physical activity can be anything from everyday tasks, like cleaning the house, heavy gardening or walking the dog, to specific exercise like keep fit, swimming, golf, football, gym-based activity or tennis.
The best type of activity is one that makes you feel slightly warmer and breathe a bit heavier, getting your heart and pulse pumping faster than usual.
Being physically active can help to:
- improve your physical health
- boost your mental health
- manage stress
- improve sleep and day-time vitality
- meet people
Physical activity has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as:
- heart disease
- some cancers
- type 2 diabetes
- osteoporosis, leading to fractures (half the number of hip fractures could be avoided with regular physical activity)
- obesity and related health problems
Together with healthy eating and drinking, physical activity is one of the best ways to manage your weight.
Before increasing your levels of physical activity
You should check with your doctor if you:
- haven’t done any activity for a long time
- are living with a health condition or disability
They’ll be able to advise you on the best way to approach increasing your level of physical activity.
Start gently and build up gradually.
Physical activity guidelines for adults
Adults should aim to be active every day and do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity every week.
You can split this into 30 minutes of activity most days each week. If you prefer, you can do 75 minutes of vigorous activity twice a week, or a combination of both.
Adults should limit the time they spend sitting or lying down when not sleeping.
Moderate intensity activity for adults
If you do moderate intensity activity, you’ll notice:
- your heart beats faster
- you feel warmer
- you’re slightly out of breath but able to have a conversation
Vigorous activity for adults
If you do vigorous activity, you’ll notice:
- your heart beats very quickly
- your breathing becomes much faster and deeper
- you become breathless
- you sweat
You should also do exercises to improve muscle strength at least two days a week that work all the main muscles in your:
Physical activity for older adults
It's never too late to enjoy the benefits of physical activity. Being active plays an important part in staying healthy and keeping your independence as you get older.
Aim to be physically active every day even if it’s light activity.
There is no reason to give up a sport or exercise you enjoy just because you are getting older.
Even if you weren’t particularly athletic, there are many benefits of improved fitness as you get older.
The health benefits of physical activity outweigh the risks. However, contact your doctor if you are worried about increasing your physical activity levels.
Keeping active helps you to:
- age well and enjoy life
- stay Independent
- have a healthy heart
- reduce falls
- keep up with children and young people you know
- meet people and share the company of others
- feel happier and keep your brain sharp
- age better
You should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week. A little activity every day can make a big difference and some is better than doing nothing.
Go at your own pace and listen to your body. Start gently and build up your activity levels gradually.
Older adults should also do activities to improve muscle strength and balance at least twice a week.
Activities which improve strength and balance such as carrying heavy shopping bags, yoga or doing exercises that use body weight such as push-ups and sit ups contribute to healthy ageing, reduce the risk of falls and help people feel more confident.
Limit the time you spend sitting or lying down when not sleeping.
For information on moderate and vigorous intensity exercise see the section above.
Physical activity during pregnancy and after childbirth
The more active and fit you are during pregnancy, the easier it will be to adapt to your changing shape and weight gain.
More information on how physical activity can help during pregnancy and what exercises to avoid is available at:
You should also try to keep active after childbirth.
Further information on the health benefits of physical activity for women in pregnancy and after giving birth is available at the link below:
Physical activity guidelines if you have a disability
If you or your child has a disability, find out the benefits of keeping active at:
- Physical activity guidelines: disabled adults
- Physical activity guidelines: disabled children and disabled young people
Information on organisations that work towards improving accessibility to sports for people with disabilities is available at:
Physical activity guidelines for children
Being physically active is really important for children as it:
- builds confidence and social skills
- develops co-ordination
- improves concentration and learning
- strengthens muscles and bones
- improves health and fitness
- maintains healthy weight
- improves sleep
- makes you feel good
From age five and over, children need to do moderate to vigorous intensity activities for an average of at least 60 minutes per day across the week. They don’t need to do one activity for an hour. They can spread their activity throughout the day.
Moderate intensity activity for children
Walking to school is an example of moderate intensity activity. If your child walks to school:
- their heart should beat faster
- they feel warmer
- they become slightly breathless
Vigorous activity for children
When your child does vigorous activity, such as running, skipping or playing football:
- their heart beats quickly
- they breathe deeply
- they become breathless and sweaty
Children need to do activities to build strong muscles and strong bones. To improve muscle-strength, they should do push-ups or rope climbing on three days a week. For strong bones, they need to jump, run and skip.
Children should limit the time they spend sitting or lying down when not sleeping.
Being active every day
Physical activity shouldn’t be painful. Be aware of how your body feels. To increase your physical activity:
- do activities you enjoy and can fit regularly into your life
- include physical activity in your daily routine, such as:
- use stairs instead of using a lift or escalator
- walk more by leaving the car at home or get off the bus a stop earlier
- stretch your muscles before and after vigorous exercise
- try different activities before deciding what you prefer
- walk or exercise with friends rather than sitting with them for a chat
- some activity is good, more is better
Different activities you can try
There are lots of ways to be active, many of them perfect for anyone who’s not been physically active for a while. You don’t have to join the gym to take part.
Walking is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to introduce more activity into your daily life.
The walk should be brisk, which means that you are able to chat as you walk but not sing.
At that pace, you are actually doing moderate intensity activity so your heart beats faster, you feel warmer and slightly out of breath.
Counting your daily steps
The average person walks about three or four thousand steps every day. If you aim to increase your steps to 10,000 you will start to feel big health benefits.
Walking in a group is a great way to start walking, make new friends and stay motivated.
There are Walking for Health groups in each Trust area.
These groups are led by trained volunteers and are aimed at people who do little or no physical activity but would like to become more active.
Cycling is growing in popularity all the time. Not only is it a brilliant way to get out and about and explore your local area or head further afield, it’s also a fantastic way to get fit.
If you cycle at moderate speed for 15 minutes, this burns the same calories as doing medium intensity aerobic activity.
To improve your health, you need to cycle for 30 minutes most days every week. You can do this as:
- two 15-minute rides
- three 10-minute rides
Some employers in Northern Ireland run the Cycle to Work scheme for staff.
If you want to cycle you should:
- wear a helmet that fits you
- know how to ride a bicycle
- understand the Highway Code
Swimming is one of the most enjoyable ways to get more active and is really good for your sense of wellbeing too.
If you swim regularly, this helps:
- build endurance and muscle strength
- keep your heart healthy
- tone your arms, shoulders and legs
Swimming is good exercise for adults with arthritis as it causes very little joint strain. If you can’t swim, ask about beginners’ lessons in your local swimming pool. Some council-owned leisure centres have swimming pools.
Gardening can help relieve stress and get you active. You can get a full body work out by:
If you don’t have a garden, you could volunteer to do gardening.
Dancing tones muscles and is a great form of physical activity. It’s also a good way to socialise. You could try ballroom, salsa, Zumba or other dancing to suit your taste and ability.
Most sports provide physical activity and social interaction. There are many leisure and activity centres offering different sports including:
If you want information about local sports clubs and groups, contact Sport NI. They can tell you about sports organisations in your area.
Visit a local park or outdoor sports centre to do:
- mountain climbing
There are also hiking trails where you can enjoy exercise and sightseeing at the same time.