The importance of physical activity

Anna Lowe talks about the benefits of physical activity.

by Anna Lowe

Physical inactivity leads to poor health, disability and reduced quality of life. Becoming more active, on the other hand, improves both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy. It improves physical health and emotional wellbeing. In short it improves lives.

As a chartered physiotherapist, I have always been interested in the ways in which clinical contacts can be used. Not only to address the ‘presenting complaint’ but also how we can use that precious time to identify other threats to health as well as how we can help a person to make changes to their lifestyle that will improve their health.

The Making Every Contact Count (MECC) approach from Health Education England encourages healthcare professionals to use brief interventions in routine patient contacts to encourage people to make positive changes. Physical activity is a great example of how we can modify lifestyle to improve health and this forms the basis of Public Health England’s Physical Activity Clinical Champions programme.

The Physical Activity Clinical Champions programme is a peer-to-peer training programme for healthcare professionals that aims to equip allied health professionals, nurses, midwives and doctors with the knowledge and skills that they need to promote physical activity actively in their routine clinical contacts.

My role as a champion is to deliver the training sessions to allied health professionals across Yorkshire and Humber. The session covers the extent of physical inactivity and the prevalence in the UK compared to other developed countries.


The amount of physical activity required to get the health benefits is summarised in the infographic above. The session goes on to present the evidence of the link between physical activity and prevention of many conditions. It also introduces the evidence that physical activity improves treatment outcomes in many existing conditions.

Finally, it looks at the practicalities of discussing and promoting physical activity with patients, and how to do this effectively when you may only have two minutes until your next patient.


The Physical Activity Clinical Champions training session concludes with a discussion on how healthcare professionals can facilitate the next step. What can they do to enhance chances of success? Evidence suggests that if healthcare professionals can ‘action’ the discussion within the consultation (rather than advising and leaving a patient to follow it up) it enhances chances of success.

For busy healthcare professionals this can be a problem; the world of physical activity opportunities can be hard to grasp; it is vast, complex and seemingly ever-changing. Knowing how to ‘action’ the conversation can be a challenge.


The training also highlights Public Health England’s One You resources. They contain lots of useful information on physical activity.

In addition the free Active 10 app helps people to incorporate a brisk ten minute walk into their day. It shows how much brisk walking an individual is doing and where they might fit more activity into their day.

You can find the app and try it for yourself by searching ‘Active 10’ to download the Active 10 app or find out more on the Active 10 pages of the One You website. I have tried it, I was really surprised to see that, although I clocked up lots of active minutes, very few of them were brisk enough; it has put a spring in my step!

Physiotherapists should be taking steps to embed physical activity promotion into their practice. It is aligns perfectly with core elements of physiotherapy including exercise, rehabilitation, restoring function and maximising independence.

There is evidence to suggest that a large proportion of physiotherapy patients are inactive and evidence tells us that people with long-term conditions see physiotherapists as trusted, credible messengers of this information.

This is illustrated by a report from Macmillan, that surveyed over 1000 people living with cancer and asked them who they considered to be experts in physical activity for their condition. Hospital consultants (76%) and physiotherapists (75%) came out highest, followed by nurses (64%) and GPs (63%).

There is a useful step by step guide to help you map your potential actions and ultimate impacts in this Impact Pathway.

Patient contact time is precious, it is filled with many competing priorities and it is easy for a discussion about physical activity to slip down the list. However, helping patients to increase their activity levels at any stage of life has the potential to improve health and improve quality of life. As physiotherapists, we need to think creatively and work collaboratively to ensure that we use every opportunity to tackle inactivity.

*If you would like a free Physical Activity Clinical Champions training session for your team contact Public Health England at 

Anna Lowe is a Ph.D researcher at Sheffield Hallam University and a physical activity clinical champion for Public Health England. Follow her on Twitter @annalowephysio

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