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Exercise - Health benefits of exercise

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Regular exercise can be very effective at treating and preventing a wide range of health conditions.

Exercise has specific benefits during childhood, and is clinically proven to prevent or improve a number of serious health conditions in adulthood.

Benefits during childhood

Exercise during childhood has a number of health benefits.

Exercise can prevent excess weight gain and help overweight children to lose weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (disease of the heart and circulation) later in life.

Other benefits of exercise in childhood include: 

  • increasing bone mineral density, which protects against osteoporosis (thin and brittle bones) in later life
  • avoiding high blood pressure (hypertension) or cholesterol, which can also cause problems in later life
  • improving mental health by reducing stress and anxiety, as well as having a positive effect on self-esteem and body image
  • establishing a habit of exercise that will hopefully continue into adulthood

Benefits during adulthood

Exercise during adulthood has been shown to either prevent or improve a number of different health conditions, including those below.

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease occurs when your heart's blood supply is blocked or interrupted by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries. People who exercise regularly have a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease.


stroke is where the brain's blood supply is interrupted. People who are active have a lower risk of having a stroke.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a major risk factor for stroke and heart attack. Exercise can help treat and prevent high blood pressure.

High cholesterol

High cholesterol occurs when a fatty substance, known as a lipid, builds up in your blood. Like hypertension, high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke, and can be reduced or prevented with exercise.

Insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is where your body's cells do not react to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is produced by the pancreas to control the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood. The resistance to insulin causes type 2 diabetes, but it can be prevented or controlled with exercise.


Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Inactive people are more likely to be obese than active people, and regular exercise can help with weight loss.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a long-term (chronic) condition that is caused by too much glucose in the blood. Inactive people are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, making physical activity a good way of helping to control the level of blood glucose.


Osteoporosis is a condition that can affect older women. It involves the bones becoming thin and weak. Exercising when you are young can increase your bone mineral density. When you are older, exercise can slow the decline of bone mineral density.


Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects the joints. A carefully directed amount of exercise can be used to treat this condition, particularly after a joint operation, such as a hip replacement.

Lower back pain

Some types of aerobic exercise can improve recovery from spinal surgery and help prevent reoccurrences of back pain.

For example, a study that looked at the effect of spinal manipulation followed by exercise classes showed that people with back pain achieved moderate benefits after three months, and small benefits after 12 months.

The same study also found that participants with back pain who attended exercise classes (without having spinal manipulation beforehand) achieved a small benefit after three months. However, no further benefit was achieved after 12 months.


Exercise is known to reduce your overall risk of developing cancer. In particular, exercise can protect against colon cancer and reduce the risk of breast cancer in women after the menopause (when a woman's periods stop).

Mental health conditions

As well as improving general mental wellbeing, exercise also has proven benefits for some types of mental health conditions, including:

  • depression
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), a chronic (long-term) condition that makes people feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues
  • phobias, where you have irrational fears and organise your life to avoid the things that you are afraid of
  • panic attacks, where you experience episodes of panic and anxiety for no obvious reason
  • stress disorders, where too much pressure leads to physical, mental and emotional problems
  • schizophrenia, a long-term mental health condition that causes a range of different psychological symptoms

Additional benefits

Physical activity also makes people happier and more satisfied with life, as well as feeling better about themselves. For example, active people:

  • have an improved body image
  • have higher self-esteem
  • feel less anxious
  • sleep better



Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.


Joints are the connection point between two bones that allow movement.


The heart is a muscular organ that pumps blood around the body.


Oxygen is an odourless, colourless gas that makes up about 20% of the air we breathe.

Medical Review: January 25, 2010
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