Physical Activity

Original Editor - Anna Lowe

Top Contributors - Ann Gates, Michelle Lee, Anna Lowe, Mariam Hashem and Tarina van der Stockt  


Physical Activity (PA) is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that require energy expenditure[1]. Physical activity includes exercise as well as other activities which involve bodily movement and are done as part of playing, working, active transportation, house chores and recreational activities.

Exercise is a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful in the sense that the improvement or maintenance of one or more components of physical fitness is the objective[2].

Physical inactivity (PI) is described as doing no or very little physical activity at work, at home, for transport or during discretionary time and not reaching physical activity guidelines deemed necessary to benefit public health (Bull et al 2004)[3].

Sedentary behaviour refers to any waking activity characterised by an energy expenditure ≤ 1.5 metabolic equivalents and a sitting or reclining posture. In general, this means that any time a person is sitting or lying down, they are engaging in sedentary behaviour. Common sedentary behaviours include TV viewing, video game playing, computer use (collectively termed “screen time”), driving automobiles, and reading[4].

Physical Activity as a Public Health Priority

Physical inactivity has a major health effect worldwide[5].  It has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths globally[1]. Of the deaths attributable to physical inactivity, 2.6 million are in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). While physical inactivity is more prevalent in high- and middle-income countries, even in low-income countries it is among the top ten risk factors contributing to death.

Key facts on physical activity from The World Health Organisation (WHO, 2015)

  • Insufficient physical activity is 1 of the 10 leading risk factors for death worldwide.
  • Insufficient physical activity is a key risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes.
  • Physical activity has significant health benefits and contributes to prevent NCDs.
  • Globally, 1 in 4 adults is not active enough.
  • More than 80% of the world's adolescent population is insufficiently physically active.
  • Policies to address insufficient physical activity are operational in 56% of WHO Member States.
  • WHO Member States have agreed to reduce insufficient physical activity by 10% by 2025[6].

Benefits of Physical Activity

The benefits of physical activity are far reaching and cover both prevention and management of long term conditions.  The British Heart Foundation[7] has published a document that summarises the research that supports the use of physical activity to:

  • Prevent ill health and reduce the number of people dying prematurely
  • Enhance mental health, quality of life and self-reported wellbeing
  • Delay the need for care in older adults (age 65+)
  • Reduce health inequalities and improve wider factors influencing health and wellbeing

Physical activity helps prevent many major non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Children and adolescents who are physically active have a better chance of being healthy adults. Along with other common risk factors like hypertension, tobacco use and unhealthy diet, physical inactivity is an important factor in the rise of NCDs, which now kill more people around the world than all other causes combined. Physical activity also improves concentration, self-esteem and school performance[8].

Global Strategy 

Recognising the unique opportunity that exists to formulate and implement an effective strategy for substantially reduce deaths and disease burden worldwide by improving diet and promoting physical activity, WHO has adopted, in May 2004, the "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health".

The Global Strategy has 4 main objectives:

  1. Reduce risk factors for chronic diseases that stem from unhealthy diets and physical inactivity through public health actions.
  2. Increase awareness and understanding of the influences of diet and physical activity on health and the positive impact of preventive interventions.
  3. Develop, strengthen and implement global, regional, national policies and action plans to improve diets and increase physical activity that are sustainable, comprehensive and actively engage all sectors.
  4. Monitor science and promote research on diet and physical activity.

Since this document was released in 2004 WHO has continued to work hard to develop strategies and realistic goals worldwide to improve the health of the population. The WHO has acknowledged that NCD account for a large percentage of premature deaths, therefore in 2012, all countries committed to achieving a 25% reduction in premature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 2025 (the 25x25 target).NCD Alliance - 25x25 countdown.

To achieve these target countries have estimated that if they tackle the six risk factors for developing an NCD, this will help the reduction of premature deaths as a result of NCDs. The six risk factors are:

  1. Tobacco use
  2. Alcohol use
  3. Salt intake
  4. Obesity
  5. Raised blood pressure
  6. Glucose levels

Article from the Lancet on the six risk factor.

WHO released the Global Health Status Report in 2014[9] which included 9 Global targets to continue to try and tackle the NCD problem; within this document, this included the 25x25 target. Here are the other targets:

  1. A 25% relative reduction in the overall mortality from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, or chronic respiratory diseases
  2. At least 10% relative reduction in the harmful use of alcohol, as appropriate, within the national context
  3. A 10% relative reduction in the prevalence of insufficient physical activity
  4. A 30% relative reduction in mean population intake of salt/sodium
  5. A 30% relative reduction in the prevalence of current tobacco use
  6. A 25% relative reduction in the prevalence of raised blood pressure or contain the prevalence of raised blood pressure, according to national circumstances
  7. Halt the rise in diabetes and obesity
  8. At least 50% of eligible people receive drug therapy and counselling (including glycaemic control) to prevent heart attacks and strokes
  9. An 80% availability of the affordable basic technologies and essential medicines, including generics, required to treat major noncommunicable diseases in both public and private facilities

In 2018 the WHO launched a new WHO global action plan to promote physical activity (GAPPA). This plan responds to the requests by countries for updated guidance, and a framework of effective and feasible policy actions to increase physical activity at all levels. It also responds to requests for global leadership and stronger regional and national coordination, and the need for a whole-of-society response to achieve a paradigm shift in both supporting and valuing all people being regularly active, according to ability and across the life course. The action plan was developed through a worldwide consultation process involving governments and key stakeholders across multiple sectors including health, sports, transport, urban design, civil society, academia and the private sector.

Physical Activity Guidelines (PAGs)

Physical activity inforgraphic WHO Europe.png

The WHO developed the "Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health"[10] with the overall aim of providing national and regional level policymakers with guidance on the dose-response relationship between the frequency, duration, intensity, type and total amount of physical activity needed for the prevention of NCDs.

The WHO Europe also recommends that regular physical activity, throughout the life course, enables people to live better and longer lives. This infographic summarises the opportunities of a "life course approach" to making physical activity part of everyday life: for nations, communities, individuals and especially patients with long term health conditions.

Physiotherapy and Physical Activity

Physiotherapists have always had a close relationship with exercise, the profession was founded on the work of remedial gymnasts and the profession has a rich history of prescribing rehabilitative exercise. Despite this, the literature on physiotherapy as promoters of physical activity is scant.

The global physical inactivity crisis and the epidemic of life-style related diseases (non-communicable diseases or NCDs) has created an urgent need to build on our rich history of prescribing exercise and develop our approaches for prescribing PA. Creating a more active population requires joined-up thinking and action from many stakeholders; physiotherapists need to be active in engaging with individuals and communities.

Physiotherapists have a lot to offer: access to people living with long term conditions, repeat consultations, exercise facilities, credibility with patients, injury or illness often create "teachable moments", expert knowledge, and behaviour change skills to name a few.

In the UK, all health care professionals are enabled to provide physical activity brief interventions within a framework for personalised care and population health, particularly in primary care All UK health care organisations are also required to support health care professionals to make every contact count (MECC) for physical activity. These recommendations provide the remit for physiotherapists, (and all other health and social care professionals), to enable the WHO target of reducing physical inactivity by 10%, by 2025, a reality.


Related Physiopedia Pages


  1. 1.0 1.1 World Health Organisation. Physical Activity. Available at: [accessed 20 May 2016]
  2. Caspersen CJ, Powell KE, Christenson GM. Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public health reports. 1985 Mar;100(2):126.
  3. Kim J, Tanabe K, Yokoyama N, Zempo H, Kuno S. Objectively measured light-intensity lifestyle activity and sedentary time are independently associated with metabolic syndrome: a cross-sectional study of Japanese adults. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2013 Dec;10(1):30.
  4. González K, Fuentes J, Márquez JL. Physical inactivity, sedentary behavior and chronic diseases. Korean journal of family medicine. 2017 May 1;38(3):111-5.
  5. Lee IM, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, Puska P, Blair SN, Katzmarzyk PT, Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. The lancet. 2012 Jul 27;380(9838):219-29.
  6. WHO (2015). Key facts on Physical activity [internet]. Available at:
  7. British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health. Making the case for physical activity. Available at:] [accessed 20 May 2016]
  8. Ericsson I, Cederberg M. Physical activity and school performance: a survey among students not qualified for upper secondary school. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy. 2015 Jan 2;20(1):45-66.
  9. World Health Organization, World Health Organization. Management of Substance Abuse Unit. Global status report on alcohol and health, 2014. World Health Organization; 2014.
  10. World Health Organization. Global recommendations on physical activity for health. World Health Organization; 2010.