Physical activity

Physical activity

Physical activity is an important and essential aspect of our life to achieve optimum health and wellbeing now days. Physical activity simply means movement of the body that consumes energy. According to World Health Organization (WHO) physical activity is defined as ‘any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure’ (such as activities undertaken while working, playing, carrying out household chores, travelling, and engaging in recreational actions -dance, yoga, tai chi).

It’s not only any particular type of physical activity which results in health benefits, but all forms of physical activity can provide health benefits if undertaken regularly and of sufficient duration and intensity. At all ages advantages of being physically active outweigh potential harm such as accidents.

The term physical activity should not be confused with exercise, which is the subgroup of physical activity. Exercise is planned, organized, repetitive movements carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness. Apart from exercise, any other physical activity that is done during leisure time, for getting transport to and from places, doing (paid or unpaid) domestic tasks or as part of a person’s work (lifting, carrying or other active tasks), and recreation has a health benefit. By becoming some active throughout the day in relatively simple ways is more beneficial than doing none. Some small changes in daily routine can make a difference. Taking stairs instead of elevators, walking or using bicycle instead of driving to neighborhood grocery shop, milk booth; such types of changes in everyday life can keep us healthy.  Moreover, the health benefits of physical activity are maintained only with regular practice.

Regular physical activity is beneficial in many ways as it reduces the risk of non-communicable diseases- ischaemic heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, breast and colon cancer, depression. Additionally, it also prevents, overweight and obesity, and can improve mental health, musculoskeletal problems (osteoarthritis, osteoporosis), and balance and coordination in elderly population. Yet much of the population is becoming less active.

Physical activity has multiplicative health, social and economic benefits. Actions to promote physical activity will directly contribute to achieving the target of 15% relative reduction in the global prevalence of physical inactivity in adults and in adolescents by 2030 and achieving many of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Physical inactivity (or insufficient physical activity)

Physical inactivity (or insufficient physical activity) is one of the leading risk factors for various non-communicable diseases (NCDs), injuries and premature deaths worldwide.  To individuals who are not sufficiently physical active risk of having cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer is 20-30% more compared to people who are sufficiently active. Physical inactivity also shortens the life span by 3-4 years.

Physical inactivity also burdens the society in the form of increased economic expenditure on medical care, loss of productivity and social dependence.

Globally, about 23% of adults and more than 80% of adolescents were insufficiently physical active in 2010. Physical inactivity is more common among wealthier countries and among women and elderly individuals.

Factors discouraging physical activity among people:

  • sedentary behaviour on the job and at home and inaction during leisure time;
  • social recognition of the health benefits of a physically active lifestyle are not enough to change people’s behaviour;
  • several environmental factors which are linked to urbanization, changing pattern of transportation, increased use of technology can discourage people from becoming more active, such as: fear of violence and crime in outdoor areas, high density traffic, air pollution/ poor air quality, and absence of parks or sidewalks;
  • some cultural values influencing the physical activity levels among certain groups such as girls, women, older adults, underprivileged groups, and people with disabilities and chronic diseases, as they have fewer opportunities to access safe, affordable and appropriate programmes and places in which to be physically active.

Benefits of regular and sufficient levels of physical activity:

  • reduces the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, various types of cancer (including breast cancer and colon cancer);
  • improves cardiorespiratory fitness;
  • strengthens bones and joints hence slows the progress of osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and reduces the chances of fracture as age advances;
  • helps keep thinking, learning, and judgment skills sharp as age advances. It can also reduce risk of depression and may help for better sleep;
  • improves functional ability to do everyday activities;
  • improves body balance and muscular coordination thereby reducing risk of falling;
  • helps in maintaining weight control and a healthier body mass.

Physical activity recommended by WHO for different age groups:

WHO recommends the minimum amount of physical activity for all age group for good health. It is advised that inactive people should start with small amounts of physical activity as part of their daily routine and then gradually increase duration, frequency and intensity over time. It is better to do some physical activity that none. The intensity of different forms of physical activity varies between people.

For children and adolescents ages 5-17 years- 

  1. Children and youth aged 5–17 years should do at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.
  2. Physical activity includes play, games, sports, transportation, recreation, physical education, or planned exercise, in the context of family, school and community activities.
  3. Vigorous-intensity activities should be incorporated, including those that strengthen muscle and bone, at least 3 times per week

For adults aged 18-64 years-

These physical activities are relevant to all adults aged 18-64 years, however individual adjustments are needed according to specific exercise capacity and specific health needs of an individual. Pregnant, postpartum women and persons with cardiac problems should seek medical advice before starting physical activity for this age group. 

  1. Adults aged 18–64 years should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
  2. Physical activity includes leisure time physical activity (walking, dancing, gardening, hiking, swimming), transportation (e.g. walking or cycling), occupational (work), household chores, play, games, sports or planned exercise, in the context of daily, family, and community activities.
  3. For additional health benefits, adults should increase their moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes per week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous–intensity physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous- intensity activity.
  4. Muscle-strengthening activities should be done involving major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.
  5. Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration.

For adults aged 65 years and above-

  1. Adults aged 65 years and above should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
  2. Physical activity includes leisure time physical activity, transportation, occupational (if the individual is still engaged in work), household chores, play, games, sports or planned exercise, in the context of daily, family and community activities.
  3. For additional health benefits, they should increase moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes per week, or engage in 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or an equivalent combination of moderate-and vigorous-intensity activity.
  4. Individuals with poor mobility should perform physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls on 3 or more days per week.
  5. Muscle-strengthening activities, involving major muscle groups, should be done on 2 or more days a week.
  6. Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration.
  7. When adults of this age group cannot do the recommended amounts of physical activity due to health conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

Types of physical activities:

Activities classified as moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity based upon the amount of energy used by the body while doing the activity. The intensity of different forms of physical activity varies between people. The intensity of physical activity depends on an individual’s previous exercise experience and their relative level of fitness. Therefore, the examples given below are provided as a guide only and will vary between individuals.

           Moderate- intensity physical activity


Requires a moderate amount of efforts and accelerates the heart rate.



          Vigorous-intensity Physical activity

Requires a large amount of efforts with rapid breathing and substantial increase in heart rate.



  • Brisk walking
  • Dancing
  • Gardening
  • House work and domestic chores
  • Water aerobics
  • Bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour
  • General building tasks (roofing, thatching, painting)
  • Traditional hunting and gathering
  • Active involvement in games/ sports with children/ walking domestic animals
  • Carrying/ moving moderate loads (<20kg)


  • Race walking, jogging, or running
  • Fast swimming
  • Aerobics
  • Fast Bicycling
  • Walking/ climbing briskly up a hill
  • Jumping rope
  • Heavy gardening (continuous digging)
  • Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
  • Competitive sports and games (traditional games, football, volleyball, hockey, basketball)
  • Digging ditches
  • Carrying /shifting heavy loads (>20 kg)


Myths about physical activity

It is very expensive to be physical active as it needs equipment, special shoes, clothes and even you have to pay for sport facilities.

Physical activity can be done almost anywhere. Walking is highly recommended physical activity and it is absolutely free. Urban parks, or other pedestrian areas can be used for walking, running or playing. 

I'm very busy. Physical activity takes too much time!

No. Physical activities can be incorporated into your daily routine such as at work, school, home or play. Simple things like taking the stairs, riding a bike to work or getting off the bus two stops before your final destination and then walking the rest of the way can form part of your regular daily activities. Even if you are very busy, you can still fit 30 minutes of physical activity into your daily routine in the form of 10 minutes’ brisk walk, three times a day; or 20 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes later that day to improve your health.

Children are already so active, hence there's no need to teach them about physical activity.

Children also need recommended physical activity in their daily routine. There is decline in physical activity among children these days. It may be due to increasing sedentary ways of life, spending more time on watching television, playing computer games, using computers, and fewer children walk or cycle to school, and insufficient physical education and other school-based physical activities.

More importantly, patterns of physical activity and healthy lifestyles acquired during childhood and adolescence are more likely to be maintained throughout the life-span. Consequently, improving physical activity levels in young people is imperative for the future health of all populations.

                     Let’s be active everyone, everywhere, every day”



  • PUBLISHED DATE : Jul 12, 2018
  • CREATED / VALIDATED BY : Dr. Aruna Rastogi
  • LAST UPDATED ON : Jul 12, 2018


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The content on this page has been supervised by the Nodal Officer, Project Director and Assistant Director (Medical) of Centre for Health Informatics. Relevant references are cited on each page.