Physical Activity

Our bodies are designed to move, so being physically active is essential for maintaining good health. Physical Activity is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that require energy expenditure. Walking, cycling, gardening, dancing and swimming are all ideal ways to be physically active. 

Physical inactivity is a risk factor for many health problems and is the 4th leading cause of death worldwide. In Northern Ireland only 35% of adults are currently meeting the physical activity recommendations.

Sedentary Behaviour

Sedentary behaviour is sitting or lying down which typically requires very low energy expenditure. Over 25% of adults in Northern Ireland lead a sedentary lifestyle by sitting for extending periods.  Sedentary behaviour is a risk factor for poor health independent of physical activity, so even if you are physically active by going for a walk every day or attending exercise classes several times a week, you also need to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting for extended periods in order to maintain good health.

Benefits of being active

Regular physical activity has many health benefits:

  • Reduces the risk of dying prematurely;
  • Reduces the risk of dying from heart disease;
  • Reduces the risk of developing diabetes;
  • Reduces the risk of developing high blood pressure;
  • Helps reduce blood pressure in people who already have high blood pressure;
  • Reduces the risk of developing bowel cancer;
  • Reduces feelings of depression and anxiety;
  • Helps control weight;
  • Helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints;
  • Helps older adults become stronger and better able to move about without falling;
  • Promotes psychological well-being 

How physically active do we need to be?

The Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines (2011) emphasise that we should aim to be active every day in order to maintain good health. 

There are separate guidelines for different age groups:

Under 5’s

  • Encourage physical activity like floor and water based play from birth.
  • Pre-school children who are capable of walking unaided should be physically active for at least 3 hours, spread throughout the day.
  • Limit the amount of time babies and children spend being restrained, e.g. in pushchairs, seats or sitting in front of the TV.

Children & Young People 5-18

  • All children & young people should engage in at least 60 minutes and up to several hours of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity a day.
  • Vigorous intensity activities, including those that strengthen muscle and bone (such as hopping, skipping, playing tennis or swinging on playground equipment) should be incorporated at least three days a week.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent being inactive (sitting).

Adults 18-64

  • All adults should engage in at least 2.5 hours of physical activity a week in bouts of at least 10 minutes. Similar benefits can be achieved through 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity spread across the week or combinations of moderate and vigorous intensity activity. 
  • Adults should also undertake muscle strengthening activity like carrying groceries or lifting weights at least twice a week. 
  • Reduce the amount of time spent being inactive (sitting).

Older adults 65+

  • Older adults who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits, including maintenance of good physical and cognitive function. Some physical activity is better than none, and more physical activity provides greater health benefits.
  • Over a week, activity should add up to at least 2.5 hours of moderate intensity activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more. For those who are already regularly active at moderate intensity, similar benefits can be achieved through 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity spread across the week or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.
  • Older adults should also undertake physical activity to improve muscle strength such as carrying loads on at least two days a week.
  • Older adults at risk of falls should incorporate physical activity to improve balance and co ordination on at least two days a week.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent being inactive (sitting).

For more information on guidelines for specific age groups, go to:

Key messages

  • Move more and sit less
  • Reduce the amount of time spent being inactive (sitting)
  • Be active every day to benefit your health & well-being
  • Some physical activity is better than none
  • It is never too late to start being active
  • Physical activity need not be strenuous to achieve health benefits
  • Greater health benefits can be achieved by increasing the amount (duration, frequency, or intensity) of physical activity.

Key documents

Start Active, Stay Active: a report on physical activity for health from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers (Department of Health, 2011)

A Fitter Future for All: Framework for Preventing and Addressing Overweight and Obesity in Northern Ireland 2012-2022 (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for Northern Ireland, 2012)

Sport Matters: The Northern Ireland Strategy for Sport and Physical Recreation 2009-2019 (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, 2009)

Health Improvement Department Initiatives

The Health Improvement Department has a Physical Activity Co-ordinator in post to co-ordinate and deliver initiatives which promote physical activity.  In particular, initiatives aim to target those who are least active and support them to reduce sedentary behaviour and increase physical activity levels.

Current initiatives to promote physical activity include:

Walking for Health is a regional Initiative led by the Public Health Agency which aims to motivate adults who are inactive to increase their physical activity levels through participating in local led walking programmes which are suitable for almost everyone, regardless of age or ability.  The Health Improvement Department offer a free one day course which trains adults to become Walk Leaders, enabling them to establish Walking Groups within their workplace or community.

The Health Improvement Department promotes cycling by organising events to promote National Bike Week in June, administering the Cycle to Work scheme for Trust staff and working in partnership with local Councils and Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, to promote cycling for recreation and active travel.

Early Movers & Start to Play
Early Movers and Start to Play are training courses for childcare staff working with children aged 0-5 years which emphasise the physical activity guidelines for Early Years and offer practical ideas for enhancing physically active play in childcare settings and for parents at home.
Moving More Often
Moving More Often is a new training course for those working with frailer older people to highlight the importance of moving more often in later years and identify strategies which can enhance physical activity for older people.

Physical Activity Campaigns
Walk to Work Week
Bike Week  
Childhood Obesity
Choose to Live Better

Priority groups
A number of courses which are particularly relevant to those working with older people and people with disabilities are available, including Boccia, Chi Me (Tai Chi influenced movements), Inclusive Games and Inclusive Skills.

Training courses
Details of all training courses can be found at:
Useful websites
Choose to Live Better

British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity & Health

Sport Northern Ireland

Disability Sport NI

Physical Activity Co-ordinator Contact
For further information on Health Improvement Department physical activity initiatives contact Lesley Finlay on (028) 7186 5127 or