Tackling Physical Inactivity: A Resource for Raising Awareness in Physiotherapists


Figure 1. Percentage of deaths attributable to low fitness (i.e. inactivity) compared to smoking (s), diabetes (d) and obesity (o) combined - in men (m) and women (w).
Physical inactivity has been deemed "the biggest public health problem of the 21st century"[1] and has been shown to kill more people than smoking, diabetes and obesity combined (Figure 1)[2]. It is ranked as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, killing approximately 3.2 million people (~6% of the total deaths) annually and accounting for approximately 32.1 million disability adjusted life years (DALYs; ~2.1% of global DALYs) annually[3].

The major burden of disease attributed to physical inactivity is a result of its established role as one of the main risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. In 2008, NCDs were responsible for 63% of the 57 million deaths worldwide[4], with physical inactivity estimated to be directly responsible for 6% of the disease burden from coronary heart disease, 7% of type 2 diabetes and 10% of each of breast and colon cancers[5]. If physical inactivity were eliminated, this would translate to an estimated 5.3 million lives being saved each year, or - more realistically - 533,000 or 1.3 million lives saved if physical inactivity were reduced by 10% or 25%, respectively[5]. This is independent of the increased risk of morbidity and mortality due to other factors, such as adiposity, raised blood glucose concentrations and high blood pressure, which are directly influenced by physical inactivity[6]. In particular, obesity engages in a 'vicious cycle' with physical inactivity amplifying the burden to public health.[7]

Figure 2. Percentage of individuals not meeting the relevant recommended national physical activity guidelines. Stratified by UK country, age group and gender. Figure produced using data reported in (BHF 2012). No data was reported for children in Wales and N. Ireland.

A recent analysis of global data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 31.1% of adults (aged 15 years or older) worldwide are physically inactive[8]. For this analysis, physical inactivity was defined as not achieving the equivalent of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity at least 5 days per week or 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity at least 3 days per week[8]. Inactivity was found to increase with age and socio-economic status[8]. For adolescents aged 13 to 15 years old, the problem appears to be worse, with more than 80% reportedly not achieving the public health goal of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day, and with girls being less active than boys[8]. Figure 2 summarises the levels of inactivity, defined as not meeting the recommended national physical activity guidelines for the year listed, in the four UK nations[9], mimicking the global trends with respect to age and gender[8]. The relationship between socio-economic status and physical inactivity, however, is reversed in the UK, with individuals in the lowest income bracket exhibiting higher levels of inactivity than those in the highest income bracket[9].

Figure 3. The ecological model of physical activity.(Figure from Bauman et al 2012)

The factors contributing to the 'pandemic of physical inactivity'[10] extend beyond the individual. Increasingly, it is being recognised that social, cultural, environmental and national and global policy level factors also play a substantial role, as represented by the proposed ecological model of physical activity (Figure 3)[11]. Effective management of physical activity thus requires interventions targeted at all levels[10]. Accordingly, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have developed a comprehensive, multi-level Physical Activity Framework at which to target interventions (Figure 4)[12].

Figure 4. NICE Physical Activity Framework. (Figure from NICE 2008)

To that end, physical activity initiatives have propped up around the world. Leading the global forum, WHO have adopted the WHO global strategy on diet, physical activity and health, publishing recommended physical activity guidelines and providing implementation aids to support national policymakers[13][10]. In the UK, Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries' Chief Medical Officers was published (in 2011), providing updated national guidelines, the evidence underpinning them and guidance for their local implementation[14]. Links to other examples of global and national initiatives are provided below. Physical activity is finally being recognised as a public health priority.

All parts of the body which have a function if used in moderation and exercised in labour in which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy, well developed and age more slowly; but if unused and left idle they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.
                                                                 - Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, ca 400 B.C.



In addition to the high prevalence of and risks associated with physical inactivity, physical activity has become a public health priority[10] because of the overwhelming body of evidence supporting its effectiveness as a holistic health intervention [15]. While physical activity has only recently (circa 2000) factored into the public health agenda[10], quantitative evidence of its widespread health benefits has been formally emerging since the 1950s. In the 1950s, Professor Morris and colleagues showed that men engaged in work requiring a level of physical activity (e.g. active conductors or postmen) were less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than men with sedentary jobs (e.g. bus drivers or clerical workers)[16]. Sixty years later, the evidence continues to materialise, with a recent study suggesting that exercise can be as effective as pharmaceutical interventions in the prevention and rehabilitation of a number of health conditions, particularly stroke[17].

Physical activity refers to “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle that uses energy” [18] and can involve anything from daily household chores to structured exercise and sport. It is important to note, however, that the terms 'physical activity' and 'exercise' are often used interchangeably[19]. The general benefits afforded by physical activity are not restricted to physical aspects of health (e.g. reduced risk of cardiovascular disease[20]), nor are they restricted to any particular age-group or clinical population. Substantial evidence supports positive effects on cognition, mental health and well-being[21][22][23]. Futhermore, these physical and mental health benefits traverse the lifespan - from the very young to the very old [24][15][25]. They also apply to various ‘clinical’ as well as non-clinical populations, including, for example, individuals living with chronic or long-term conditions, such as low back pain[26], multiple sclerosis[27], cystic fibrosis[28] and the ‘generally well’ population[15].

The YouTube video by Dr. Mike Evans below provides a stimulating and compelling overview of the evidence, with some key points highlighted in the box to the right:

23 and 1/2 Hours:
What is the single best thing we can do for our health? [29]

Key Points:


Key References

Sedentary Behaviour

As emphasised in the video 23 and ½ Hours and embraced by the latest physical activity guidelines, the ‘dose’ of physical activity that seems to confer the majority of these health benefits (in adults) is 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity on most days of the week[19]. However, one aspect of physical activity promotion that this dose recommendation does not address is sedentary behaviour. Sedentary behaviour refers to the execution of activities involving sitting or lying that result in low levels of energy expenditure, such as sitting during a commute, at a desk at work or in front of the TV at home[30]. An overwhelming body of evidence is mounting to suggest that sedentary behaviour is associated with increased risk of chronic disease and death and has its own pathophysiological profile, independent of the execution of moderate to vigorous physical activity (Figure 5A)[31][32][33]. Fortunately, given the amount of time potentially spent sitting each day, there is also evidence to suggest that short breaks in sedentary time can confer substantial health benefits [34][35], as highlighted in the short video below.

 Is Sitting On Your Backside Dangerous?[36]

Figure 5. A. Hazard ratios for all-cause mortality given different combinations of physical (in)activity and sedentary behaviour levels. (Figure from Katzmarzyk 2010). B. Average steps per day among a sample of Old Order Amish men and women compared with two samples of modern populations. (Figure from Katzmarzyk 2010)
The cumulative evidence of the risks and benefits of physical inactivity and activity, respectively, should not be surprising. Humans are built for movement. As hunters and gatherers for most of human history, our genes have evolved to accommodate the high energy expenditure levels required to be ‘the fittest’ and survive in those prehistoric conditions[37][38]. Yet, since the industrial revolution and development of modern conveniences, modern-day humans have become less active overall (Figure 5B)[37], thus disrupting that inherent homeostatic mechanism[38] and leading to the manifestation of 'the diseasome of physicial inactivity' [39][40].

Thus, it is clear that the physical activity paradigm should incorporate sedentary behaviour[37], and physical activity initiatives and recommendations should adapt accordingly [41][42]. To further aid in this endeavour, a new conceptual framework has evolved, redefining physical activity and representing the complex, multi-dimensional nature of physical activity and sedentary behaviour as components of human movement (Figure 7)[43][44].

Figure 7. A novel conceptual framework for physical activity as 'a complex, multidimensional behavior' (Figure from Pettee Gabriel & Morrow 2010 [presentation])

The Development and Evolution of Physical Activity Guidelines

Beginning with Morris’ work on occupational physical activity in the 1950s [16], the evidence emerging from the years of epidemiological research of the risks associated with inactivity or a sedentary lifestyle provided the rationale for the development of physical activity guidelines[19]. Identifying the appropriate ‘dose’ of physical activity that would extract the greatest reward in public health requires an ongoing examination of data emerging from both epidemiological and exercise training studies. It also requires the decision to focus these recommendations on the population who would benefit most, namely those who are inactive, thus contributing to the public health burden[45][19].

Figure 8 below summarises the evolution of physical activity guidelines. The first, which came out in the 1970s, called for continuous, high-intensity physical activity, with the goal of achieving physical fitness rather than promoting health[19]. Subsequent studies, which revealed substantial health benefits from lower levels of intensity[19] and the identification of a clear dose-response relationship between the amount of physical activity and the health benefits[45] allowed for flexibility in the achievement of the guidelines. It had become clear that the main contributor to health was not so much the intensity but the volume of physical activity executed, with those performing enough to expend on the order of 1000kcals per week reaping the majority of the health benefits[45].

Figure 8. The Evolution of Physical Activity Guidelines. (Figure created based on data primarily in Blair, LaMonte & Nichaman 2004)

More recently, additional evidence of the complimentary effects of resistance training, of the enhancing effects of flexibility training[46], of

the sufficiency of meeting the guidelines with as little as 10-minute bouts of physical activity[47] and the clear physical-activity-independent risks associated with sedentary behaviour (Figure 5A) has informed the current physical activity guidelines (Figure 8) provided by WHO and various nations worldwide. Links to WHO's and various nations' physical activity guidelines are provided below.

Physiotherapists have the potential to make a substantial impact on individual, community and public health. Their holistic, biopsychosocial[48], and non-invasive approach, professional autonomy[49], specialist knowledge and skill set[50], relatively prolonged patient contact time and varied clinical practice populations and settings (including prisons) places the physiotherapist in the ideal position for the widespread promotion of physical activity (Figure 9)[51][52][53].

Figure 9. Summary of why physiotherapists are in an ideal position to take the lead as 'physical activity champions'. (Figure adapted from Europa 2012 [presentation])

In the past, physiotherapy intervention, including exercise prescription, has predominantly focused on the restoration of function lost as a result of an acute incident or on the maintenance of function in neurological or cardio-respiratory disease[54]. However, a shift in the public health agenda towards the prevention or management of chronic lifestyle conditions, including NCDs, obesity, osteoarthritis and depression[4], and towards the mitigation of the effects of ageing in an increasingly ageing population[55] has demanded a change in the role of the physiotherapist in addressing this need through the widespread promotion of physical activity (and other health-promoting lifestyle changes)[52]. Recognising this emerging role and “professional and ethical responsibility”[52], physiotherapy professional bodies around the world have brought physical activity promotion to the forefront of their agenda with links to two clear examples - CSP and WCPT - provided below.

Notably, in Scotland, in association with the Allied Health Professionals (AHP) National Delivery Plan (2012-2015), which includes physiotherapists, the AHP Directors Group have formed the Physical Activity and Health Alliance (PAHA) and have pledged to “…work with a range of partners to increase the level of physical activity in Scotland”[56]

Since physical activity participation is influenced by multiple factors, including individual, socio-cultural, environmental and government policy (Figures 3 and 4), there is potential for physiotherapists to intervene at all levels. The remainder of this resource offers guidance on how this may be achieved.

Physical Activity For The Individual

Physical activity promotion at the level of the individual is not a novel concept. As first points of contact, primary care providers, particularly GPs, have acknowledged a necessary role in physical activity promotion for decades, with varying degrees of follow-through in different countries[57]. The various medical-practitioner-based physical activity schemes developed have typically involved (1) links to commercial exercise centres; (2) the provision of simple advice on physical activity or (3) a behavioural counselling approach to the provision of physical activity advice[58].

     link to Podcast

Serving as role models in such practitioner-based physical activity promotion, Sweden have been providing "Exercise on Prescription" since the 1980's (listen to Podcast). Similarly, New Zealand have participated with the provision of the 'Green Prescription' for the past 15 years[59]. Most recently, Scotland has joined in and launched a new physical activity pathway, in accordance with the AHP Director Group’s pledge to “[a]gree a form of questioning and brief intervention for each patient, every time and embed this in all AHP services”[56].

NHS Physical Activity Promotion

In general, the past few years have seen a revitalisation in the push for physical activity promotion in primary[60] and secondary[61] care. As multi-tier healthcare providers, physiotherapists can assume an active role by taking advantage of each patient encounter to assess and promote physical activity[52][62], as part of an established physical activity scheme or independantly. Three main features of physical activity promotion at the level of the individual are described below.

Assessing Physical Activity

Assessment is an important tool in the physiotherapist's arsenal, enabling the collection of relevant information for a clinically-reasoned, holistic and patient-centred approach to diagnosis and subsequent management. Despite the evidence, patients’ habitual physical activity and sedentary levels are generally not assessed as part of the standard physiotherapy assessment[63].Yet, all patients coming into contact with a physiotherapist suffer from and/or are susceptible to the effects of physical inactivity, regardless of their presenting complaint. Thus, the assessment of physical activity and sedentary levels has a relevant place in the physiotherapy examination[64].

In the general medicine community, physical activity has been declared the fifth vital sign[65] – a modifiable sign that should be assessed at every clinical encounter[65][60]. Different approaches may be used to measure levels of physical activity (e.g. observation, heart rate monitors, motion sensors), but questionnaires are likely to be the most appropriate in the context of a typical physiotherapy assessment, given time and resource constraints[64]. Three alternatives for the assessment of a patient’s physical activity levels are described below.

The General Practice Physical Activity Questionnaire (GPPAQ)

The GPPAQ was developed by the UK’s Department of Health in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. It is a brief, validated screening tool for the assessment of adults’ (16 to 74 years) physical activity levels as they relate to their occupation and leisure time. It takes only 30 seconds to complete and an additional few minutes to calculate the individual’s Physical Activity Index (PAI) to determine the level of intervention required[66].

         Download the Questionnaire!

The Scottish Physical Activity Screening Question (Scot-PASQ)

The Scot-PASQ was developed and validated by NHS Health Scotland in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh[67]. It has been implemented in Scotland’s new Physical Activity Pathway.  It is a brief screening tool that consists of three questions, the first two of which specifically assess whether the patient is meeting the minimum national recommendations.

         Download the Questionnaire!

The Kaiser Permanente Approach: The ‘Exercise Vital Sign’

Kaiser Permanente is a not-for-profit, California-based integrated managed care consortium that have adopted a simple method for assessing physical activity levels in each patient, at every visit[68]. Coined the ‘Exercise Vital Sign' (EVS), it is a brief screening tool that consists of two questions and has shown good face and discriminant validity[69]. It is described in the 40-second video below.

Kaiser Permanente: Making Exercise a Vital Sign[70]

Key Points:

The EVS: "2 questions, 1 minute" [65]

1) “On average, how many days per week do you engage in moderate or greater physical activity?”

2) “On those days, how many minutes do you engage in activity at this level?”

Whether these or other assessment methods are applied, care should be taken that they are relevant to the patient’s age and clinical status to ensure accuracy in measurement[64]. It also should be borne in mind that one of the main limitations of using questionnaires to assess the overall physical activity levels of an individual is recall bias [64]. Most individuals (48-63%) tend to over-estimate their physical activity levels[71]. It has also been observed with adolescents reporting their own physical activity levels[72] and with mothers reporting the activity levels of their young children[73]. The Physical Activity Resource Center for Public Health (PARC-PH) at the University of Pittsburgh have developed an excellent resource, containing up-to-date information on various physical activity and sedentary behaviour assessment tools, the link to which can be accessed below.

Mobilising Behaviour Change

Physical activity is a complex, multifactorial (Figure 3) and multi-dimensional (Figure 7) health behaviour[11][43]. The role of the physiotherapist in counselling a patient to adopt, change or maintain such a behaviour can be equally complex. It may involve forming a partnership with the patient[74], defining the target behaviour (e.g. increasing physical activity and decreasing sedentary behaviour), exploring and addressing the unique combination of personal, socio-cultural, environmental, policy factors underlying the patient’s behaviour[11] [75] and identifying the most suitable (patient-centred) approach(es) to mobilise and help the patient sustain the behaviour[76]. Long-term adherence to physical activity is essential for the health benefits to be realised[77].

Several theoretical models of and counselling approaches for health behaviour change have been developed[62][78]. A working knowledge of these models and the various approaches to their practical application is another essential tool in the physiotherapist’s arsenal, if s/he is to help effect and sustain behaviour change in the patient.

A summary of these models and approaches is provided below.

Theoretical Models of Health Behaviour Change

Table 2. Summary of several theoretical models of behaviour change. (Table adapted from Dean 2009 [Part II] and Elder et al 1999)

Table 2 provides a brief description of and practical suggestions for some of the most prominent theoretical models[62][78]. Among these, the Transtheoretical Model (TTM)[79] has received the most attention in the field due to its ease and utility in clinical practice[62][80]. It assumes that a patient’s readiness to change falls within one of five stages, based on his/her level of engagement with the particular health behaviour[79] (Tables 2 and 3).

Table 3. Summary of the five TTM ‘stages of readiness’. (Table adapted from Dean 2009 [Part II])

Determining the patient’s stage of readiness through a series of specific questions facilitates the identification of strategies or subsequent interventions that will be most effective in guiding the patient to progress to the next stage [78][80]. The Health Behavior Change Research (HBCR) workgroup at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa provide a series of relevant questionnaires for applying the TTM to physical activity. The American Council on Exercise® (ACE) offers practical guidance on how to use the TTM to help a patient make healthy behaviour changes. Links to both the HBCR and ACE are provided below. In particular, motivational interviewing, described below, has gained wide acceptance as an effective means of motivating behaviour change within the TTM framework[81].

While the TTM and other health behaviour models suffer from limitations[80], they are useful in helping to understand the potentially modifiable factors that underlie behaviour and behaviour change. Taken together, these theoretical models converge on key, interrelated determinants of behaviour change[78][82]. In particular, self-efficacy (i.e. one’s perceived ability to execute the behaviour) [83][84][80][85], barrier identification and negotiation[86][75] (Table 4)[87][9][88][89][90][91], S.M.A.R.T., patient-centred goal-setting[92][93] and feedback, including reinforcement and follow-up[62][75][94] have been found to significantly impact physical activity behaviour change. A physiotherapist can work with the patient to modulate these factors to promote behaviour change[62][82] using various approaches[95], some of which are described in a subsequent section.


Table 4. Various barriers reported by patients with respect to physical activity. (Compiled from references Johnson et al 1990; Godin et al 1994; Chinn et al. 1999; Hsu et al 2011; BHF 2012; WHO 2013)

Methods to Promote Behaviour Change

Behavioural counselling encompasses a spectrum of interventions, which can be rooted in one or more behavioural theories[76]. Two approaches - Brief Advice and Brief Intervention - do not require extensive training to be effectively executed[96] and are integrated as part of Scotland's new Physical Activity Pathway[97]. A third approach, motivational interviewing, is also recommended, although it requires additional training [98].

Brief Advice 

Brief Advice consists of a short (~3 minute), structured conversation with the patient aimed at raising awareness of the benefits of physical activity, exploring barriers and identifying some solutions. It may be suitable for a patient in the early stages of readiness, namely precontemplation and contemplation[78], or for a patient in the maintenance stage, requiring only reinforcement to maintain the behaviour[76]

Brief Intervention

Brief Interventions are longer (~3-20 minutes), structured conversations, which delve deeper into the patient’s needs, preferences and circumstances with the aim of motivating and supporting the patient toward the behaviour change in a non-judgmental and positive manner. More time is spent discussing the benefits of the behaviour change, addressing barriers, setting goals and building confidence.

The NHS Scotland Knowledge Network have produced short videos describing these two approaches as part of their Every Step Counts Learning pack, in which they describe the new Physical Activity Pathway.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a behaviour change intervention that has been most recently defined as “…a collaborative, person-centred form of guiding to elicit and strengthen motivation for change”[98]. This short interview with William R Miller, the founder of Motivational Interviewing, describes the approach’s beginnings:

Background of Motivational Interviewing[99]

Table 5. Summary of five general principles of motivational interviewing. (Table adapted from Shinitzky & Kub 2001)

Motivational interviewing consists of two phases, the first in which intrinsic motivation is reinforced and the second in which commitment to change is enhanced[100]. It is based on five general principles[81] (Table 5). Monash University in Australia have developed a learning resource (see link below), which includes videos in which the five general principles are modeled.

Motivational interviewing is an approach which aims to challenge the patient in a supportive and self-reflective manner, working under the assumption that the patient knows what is best for him/herself. The clinician’s role is to collaborate with, guide and support the patient through his/her journey of behaviour change. Although distinct from the Transtheoretical Model[98], motivational interviewing is often used in conjunction with it, as it has been shown to facilitate progression through the stages[81]. In particular, it has been shown to be effective in those who are in the low stages of readiness to change[101] and in a range of health settings[100].

Physical Activity 'On Prescription'

Having assessed the patient’s physical activity levels and having begun to develop a behavioural approach and partnership with the patient, the final major component of physical activity promotion at the level of the individual is the actual substance of the intervention – the health education, physical activity prescription and other ‘stuff’ received by the patient to be able to adopt and/or maintain a more physically active and less sedentary lifestyle[60]. Interestingly, while it is generally acknowledged that physiotherapists have a significant role in health promotion and prescription[50], physiotherapists’ perceptions of this role varies[102][103]. The next few subsections provide relevant information intended to facilitate physiotherapists in achieving this role.


Patient education has become an essential part of health care for the patient, enabling him/her to participate in the decision-making[104]. Critically, it is also the responsibility of physiotherapists to educate their patients. Given their unique patient contact and broad patient access (Figure 9), they are advantageously positioned to do so – in every patient, across the lifespan and among all settings[52]. Furthermore, education as a physiotherapy intervention has proven to be successful for the management of low back pain[105] and other conditions, with a recent report of patient waiting times being cut by half as a result of a patient education pilot.

Thus, by combining effective education, which should be tailored in content and delivery to the patient’s individual learning needs[52], and the principles of behavioural change, physiotherapists have the potential to achieve:

  • Increased knowledge and awareness of risks of physical inactivity and the benefits of physical activity.
  • Increased knowledge and awareness of physical activity, what it can entail and how it can be achieved, including use of the services available, hence increasing self-efficacy and potentiating adherence to a new lifestyle.
  • A change in attitudes and motivations for engaging in physical activity.
  • A change in beliefs and perceptions about physical activity, sedentary behaviour and social norms.

Physical Activity – The Definition Revisited

An appropriate starting point in the process of educating the patient on physical activity is to present the definition and, in particular, clarify the hierarchical structure[106] (below) to which 'exercise' belongs. 'Physical activity' and 'exercise' are often used interchangeably[106] possibly resulting in a misconception of what it means to engage in physical activity. An individual's preconceptions of exercise may then pose as a barrier, preventing them from becoming more physically active.

PA definition.jpg

The Risks and Benefits

Two key aspects of an individual’s intent to change that should be taken into consideration when trying to influence behaviour change are

1. The extent to which a person perceives their own behaviour as ‘unhealthy’.
2. The belief that a change in behaviour will decrease the health risks.[71]

The content of the education should be tailored to exploit these two aspects. Patients should be informed of the relevant risks and benefits associated with their physical (in)activity behaviour (refer back to Table 2 for relevant theories of behaviour change).

The Risks of Physical Inactivity

The risks of physical inactivity have been previously described. The main message that should be relayed to the patient is the inverse relationship between inactivity and health, as illustrated in Figure 10.

Figure 10. Representation of dose-response relationship between physical activity and health risk. (Figure adapted from DOH 2011)

The Benefits of Physical Activity

Figure 11. Summary of various physiological effects of physical activity/exercise. (Figure adapted from Gielen et al 2010; Henriksson & Sundberg 2010)

The prevailing and growing list of evidence supporting the physiological benefits derived from physical activity, as observed in studies of adults (Figure 11[107][108]), is also observed in children[109] and older adults[110], although with some variation between individuals and through the lifespan.

Thus, while it would be accurate to educate all age groups on the global physiological benefits of physical activity, it may be more effective to focus the education intervention on age-specific motivators. Importantly, the educational content may go beyond the physical/biological and address psychosocial proprieties, such as self-esteem, socialising, making the school team.

Children & Preadolescents

Education for individuals in this age group may be more effective if the advantages of physical activity were delivered in relation to relevant popular events, such as sports days and outdoor team-building exercises.

The early developmental years of children are vital to building a healthy foundation for physical growth. As previously stated, the same benefits shown in Figure 11, albeit with differing magnitudes, are true for children and preadolescents[106][14].

The stresses of human movement, or physical activity, imposed on muscles, bones and other structures result in physiological adaptations that lead to increases in endurance and strength[111]. Similarly, physical activity is vital to the neurological development of the brain such as increased hippocampal volume and improving performance on relational memory tasks[112].

Finally, it would be naive to assume that children do not experience stress given the subjective nature of the experience. The psychosocial issues of children and adolescents can also be addressed through physical activity, which has been shown to induce certain physiological changes that may counterbalance the effects of stress (Figure 12)[113][114].

Figure 12. The indirect effects of physical activity on psychosocial wellbeing. (Figure adapted from Malina et al 2004)
Figure 12 contextualises the indirect but crucial role in which physical activity can have on the psychosicial elements of a person's wellbeing[114]. Physical activity can have an effect in all stages of growth and development[109][115]. Whilst some of the issues may be of less relevant in toddler compared with a preadolescent, it is important to encourage habitual physical activity from an early age.

The body has naturally come to expect and require a certain amount of activity to thrive[38]; it must therefore be nurtured to prevent later-life issues.

Adolescents & Adults

Physical activity has a role in rehabilitative and preventative medicine and depending on the individual, the benefits for one or both of the roles may be required to encourage greater physical activity and reduced sedentary behaviour in this age group. This can take into consideration the psychosocial components as highlighted in Figure 12. Decreases in self-esteem in early adolescence has been observed to occur[116]. An individual’s mental health may suffer as a result of the combined effects of poor body image and the social stigmas attached to being overweight or obese, possibly initiating a cycle of reduced social interaction and increased sedentary behaviour. This occurrence may resonate greatly among the teenage population as this is a time during which individuals may be trying to establish their personal identities and role in society[115]. Health initiatives or targeted physical activity promotion in teenage girls, for example, may alleviate some of the psychological stresses[115].

Furthermore, physical activity has been observed as a factor in the development and maintenance of the brain[117]. Studies have shown moderate intensity cycling to having a positive effect on the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)[118]. This can have implications in the reduction of the risks of developing conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Older Adults

Older adults can benefit from the positive effects of habitual physical activity, maintaining and developing cognitive functions[118].
Additionally, it is important to consider decreasing sedentary behaviour as physical inactivity leads to increased risk of all-cause mortality whether it’s an increase in risk of developing cardiovascular disease or respiratory complications[5].

Most relevant to this age group is that the maintenance of physical activing becomes the cornerstone of self-sufficiency[119]. This may seem paradoxical at first for those with decreased mobility, but some activity is still better than none. Habitual activity ensures the maintenance of adequate levels of flexibility, dexterity, balance and exercise tolerance[120] so as to negotiate activities of daily living and falls risk prevention[121].


Figure 13. Physical Activity Pyramid (Figure adapted from Henriksson & Sundberg; Image from CCM 2008)
The Physical Activity Pyramid (Figure 13[107][122]) provides a quick glimpse of the main features of current national recommendations, with illustrations of options on how they may be achieved.

Various factsheets have been developed for the general population, providing individuals with information regarding the recommended national guidelines. The UK have circulated the following five factsheets for the different age-groups.

                                  UK Start Active, Stay Active - Factsheets
         link            link            link            link            link

Information sheets for the relevant physical activity guidelines have been produced by various countries and organisations. Of particular interest are the selection of sheets produced by The Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology. In addition to providing guidance on increasing physical activity, they have also produced guidance on reducing sedentary behaviour and on increasing physical activity levels safely in special populations.

The Prescription

An exercise prescription may be thought of as having the following basic components[106], which should always be considered in tandem:


The Mode is the type or form of physical activity that the patient may undertake, after considering their personal goals, interests and hobbies as well as their barriers.

Encouraging individuals to take the stairs instead of lifts or cycle to work once a week are some of the simple first steps in determining a suitable mode. The Mode should then be structured through consideration of the Frequency, Intensity and Time (FIT) components that make up physical activity.

The approach to the FIT components is highly dependent on the patient’s current levels of activity and stage of readiness.

• For the generally inactive or sedentary individual, the guidelines may be long-term goals – something to strive towards. A ‘small changes’ approach and recommendation of appropriate activities may be warranted[123].

• For the generally active individual or individual looking to maintain or exceed the guidelines and optimise the health benefits by avoiding a fitness plateau[124], providing advice and recommending alternative activities to facilitate variation may suffice[76].

In both cases, it is essential that the physiotherapist is familiar with the local activity resources, including the people and the places[60] .


The Frequency refers to the number of occurrences of a particular physical activity during the day OR the number of days dedicated to a particular physical activity programme. Current guideline for physical activity targeting cardiorespiratory endurance (aerobic) recommended 3-5 days a week[106][107], although this may not be possible at the start. A good sense of pacingis important and should be supported especially in patients who have previously been sedentary[106].

Simple interventions, such as encouraging individuals to stand and/or walk when television adverts are in progress or, if working behind a computer, to take regular 15 minute breaks every hour to stretch ones legs and walk, may aid in reducing sedentary behaviour. It is a matter of strategising and prioritising what is feasible and to what the patient is ready to commit.


The Intensity refers to how ‘vigorous’ a physical activity is. A positive dose response exists of derived health benefits from increasing physical activity intensity[124]. Knowledge of the applicability of the 'progressive overload' principle with regards to intensity levels may be of use. Much like training a particular muscle, physical activity levels below certain minimum intensities is unlikely to elicit any beneficial physiological changes[124]. However, it is important to note that minimum intensity varies from individual to individual[19].

There are a number of measures available for quantifying the relative intensity levels of differing physical activities. These include

  •  VO2R = Percentage of oxygen uptake reserve.
  •  HRR = Heart Rate Reserve.
  •  VO2 = Oxygen consumption.
  •  HR = Heart Rate.
  •  MET = Metabolic Equivalents.

While each of these methods of quantifying intensity has its advantages and disadvantages, the Metabolic Equivalents (MET) is a convenient way of conceptualising the energy cost of physical activities as a multiple of resting metabolic rates[125].

The following tables summarises the relative Intensity with respect to the Mode of activity.

Figure 14. Examples of physical activity 'Modes' with corresponding 'Intensity' levels represented in MET values. (Figure adapted from ACSM 2013).

Current evidence, as highlighted in the guidelines and handbooks[14][107], suggests moderate intensity activities are enough to elicit beneficial physiological changes, especially for someone who has been sedentary[19]. The phrase, “moderate but often” is a good rule of thumb when considering any physical activity prescription. By toning down the intensity of the physical activity, the goal of long-term participation adherence becomes more achievable.


Figure 15. Graph representing the relationship between intensity and time in relation to physical activity. Options of activities falling under different intensities are also provided. (Figure from BPAC 2009)
The Time refers to the measure in minutes or hours expended for a particular physical activity programme. Interestingly time is also the most commonly reported barrier (Table 4) among those not meeting the recommended national guidelines[9]. Thus, it is vital for physiotherapists and patients to have an honest discussion as to what is achievable and appealing so that realistic goals can be implemented around that person’s life.

The Start Active, Stay Active report[14] recommends that adults should aim to accumulate at least 150 minutes of physical activity of moderate intensity on at least 5 days of the week. There is also the added flexibility in breaking this down into sessions of as short as 10 minutes a session. Patients that are previously sedentary and needing to ease into a more active lifestyle may begin to educe certain health benefits with only 20 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per day[106]. Finally, it is important for the patient to recognise that it is the volume of activity - Intensity x Time - that elicits the health benefits[45].

Shown in Figure 15[126] is the relative amount of time that has been recommended when partaking in activities, dependent on intensity levels.


Figure 16. Illustration of the process of the physical activity prescription in the context of the ICF.
While this section on physical activity promotion at the level of the individual has been presented in a linear or sequential fashion, the phases are intertwined and continuous (Figure 16). The assessment of physical activity and stage of readiness and the provision of the prescription occur using a relevant behavioural counselling approach in the context of the patient’s biopsychosocial status, as guided by the International Classification of Function and Disability (ICF)[127].

In forming a partnership with the patient, the physiotherapist aims to understand the barriers preventing the patient from engaging in a more physically active lifestyle and begin to consider ways in which the patient may negotiate them. These barriers are not only the practical ones, such as time and equipment, but also physical and mental. In particular, identification of the patient’s physical and mental barriers, including disease or disorder, and proper, ongoing risk assessment (e.g. PAR-Q) in the process of physical activity promotion is essential and the essence of why physiotherapists are ideal candidates for this role[50]. While risk assessment is essential it falls outside the scope of the current topic but with regards to promoting physical activity in the the following groups:

• Individuals who are healthy but sedentary.
• Individuals that are apparently health and sedentary.
• Individuals with comorbidities.
• Individuals with a disability.

The same fundemental rigour of safe and competent practice remains unchanged from the policies set out by the CSP and HCPC.

Ultimately, three key issues will challenge the physiotherapist and the patient:

1. Uptake of adequate levels of physical activity
2. Adherence to adequate levels of physical activity and avoidance of relapse
3. Avoidance of prolonged periods of physical inactivity

Finally, it is important that clinicians avoid the assumption that:

• “If you recommend exercise, they will do it…”
• “If you write a programme, they will follow it…”[58]

Support, guidance and follow-up are critical to the maintenance of the patient’s physical activity behaviour. Guides and leaflets, such as those produced by the CSP (below), are options of support that may be provided.

Physical Activity Beyond The Individual

Figure 17. NICE Physical Activity Pathway (NICE Pathways 2013)
The emergence of physical activity at the heart of the public health agenda has unveiled unforeseen opportunities and unprecedented roles for physiotherapists[128]. The various branches of the NICE Physical Activity Pathway (Figure 17)[129] reflect the diverse paths physiotherapists may take beyond the individual patient. In particular, this includes roles within the community and in national health and government policy. As this is relatively unchartered territory, general guidance is provided below, with suggestions based on transferable applications of current roles and UK-based examples of unique initiatives. 


While physiotherapists already contribute to the health of the community through their care of each individual, physiotherapists may also participate in the development and/or execution of community-wide interventions. Community-wide programmes focusing on health education, school-based physical education, and social support and interventions that promote physical activity, such as signs that encourage stair use and school-based interventions that limit TV and video-game time, have proven successful[130].

Physiotherapists may be creative in the way in which they assume this role[131]. In the UK, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) have been engaged in the Move For Health Campaign, highlighting the contributions of physiotherapists to the health of the nation. Through this initiative, various activities have been organised to promote individual community health, such as Workout at Work Day. A recent ‘seasonal’ initiative' had physiotherapists out in the streets promoting physical activity and other lifestyle changes to shoppers passing by. 


Other examples of physiotherapist-led community programmes that promote physical activity and target populations across the lifespan and with varying needs are offered below. 

Infants to Teenagers:


Older Adults:

Various opportunities for CPD exist to equip physiotherapists for this emerging role in community-based health intervention. These include Pilates certification, pregnancy and postnatal exercise instructor and postural stability instructor.




In general, volunteering is an ever-emerging role for physiotherapists. It can entail anything from volunteering locally to travelling abroad.




Physiotherapists can volunteer in their local communities in various ways from programme administration to teaching classes in the promotion of physical activity. In the UK alone, 111 volunteering roles in the health and social care sectors exist[132]. Some opportunities include


  • Community-based programmes, such as those supported by Edinburgh Leisure and other community-based leisure centres.
  • CRISIS, the national charity for homeless individuals, seek out physiotherapists to volunteer and provide services such as assessments, advice and health promotion, treatments and referrals to additional services for their clients, particularly over the Christmas period[133].
  • The Riding for the Disabled Association, which has a selection of volunteering positions varying from administrative duties, riding instruction and physiotherapy, with the aim of promoting physical activity[134].



With rising prevalence in physical inactivity and the rising need of NCD prevention and control in underdeveloped nations, the need for targeted physical activity promotion is being realised[135], and the value of volunteering for initiatives such as GAPA cannot be dismissed. In addition, it has been estimated by the United Nations Development Programme that over 80% of the world’s 650 million disabled people reside in impoverished countries with little access to rehabilitation facilities, education, and employment. Overseas organisations are constantly looking for physiotherapists for the promotion of health and the development of rehabilitation services both in hospitals and in community-based clinics[136].



The Resource was created as a guide for physiotherapists and others interested in the physical activity agenda. Collating information from various sources in various media formats, it provides an overview of the relevant underpinning evidence supporting physical activity as a public health priority and the means by which it may be addressed. In particular, it focuses on the significance of the role of the physiotherapist in the promotion of physical activity at the level of the individual, in the community and in government and policy. Within each section, it offers relevant guidance and useful tools. It also offers suggestions for relevant further reading and CPD opportunities to encourage further exploration and consolidation of learning. In conclusion, given the significance of the role of the physiotherapist in the physical activity agenda, one issue remains and calls for further reflection.


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