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Exercise - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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

Physical activity is any form of activity that requires a person to use more energy than when they are resting.

This article focuses on how exercise can be used to help treat or prevent a wide range of health conditions. The Live Well section of this website provides information and advice about how exercise can help you lose weight and improve your 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

See Health benefits of exercise for a list of health conditions for which exercise has proven benefits.

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. See Exercise and rehabilitation for more information.

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 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 primary care trusts (PCTs).

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.

Medical Review: January 25, 2010
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