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The exercise prescription: why being active protects your health

Sedentary jobs and long commutes to work can mean we do a lot of enforced sitting. By the time you slip out of your shoes tonight, how much physical activity will you have done today? If the answer’s ‘not much’ you’re not alone. According to the National Health Survey 2007-08, 72 per cent of Australians aged 15 years and over have low exercise levels.

Physical inactivity ranks second only to smoking in importance and impact as a preventable risk factor for disease which contributes to Australia’s healthcare problems. Research has shown that it doubles the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes and may increase the risk of bowel and breast cancer and depression.

The good news is an exercise habit is a strong defence against these and many other health problems.

Better weight control

You gain weight when you eat more kilojoules than you burn up. Regular physical activity is effective for both weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight.

  • A weight gain of 10 kilograms or more since young adulthood is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes
  • Controlling your weight helps protect against cardiovascular disease and diabetes as well as problems with infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome, gall bladder disease, sleep apnoea, asthma and back pain.

A healthier heart

Besides helping to control weight, regular exercise helps prevent heart disease by:

  • Keeping blood pressure at a healthy level
  • Helping to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and raise ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.

The Heart Foundation of Australia recommends at least 30 minutes a day of moderate activity, which can be as simple as brisk walking. You can even accumulate your 30 minutes in 10-minute bursts if it is more convenient for you. This amount of exercise can help protect your heart from further damage, whether you are trying to prevent the onset of any heart disease or even if you already have a heart condition.

A lower risk of type 2 diabetes

Almost 25 percent of Australians currently over 25 either already have or are at risk of developing diabetes. Being inactive increases that risk, but regular physical activity can help prevent diabetes by:

  • Helping you lose weight, which is important as excess weight, especially around the waist, increases diabetes risk
  • Helping to keep your blood sugar levels healthy. Active muscles use up more sugar for fuel.

People who already have diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease. Regular exercise has many benefits, including improved blood sugar control and reduced risk of heart disease.

Lower risk of some cancers

Many people aren’t aware that regular exercise can help protect against some cancers, particularly bowel cancer:

  • According to the Cancer Council of Australia, physical inactivity is an important risk factor responsible for 14 percent of bowel cancers, 11 percent of post-menopausal breast cancers, and possibly contributes to other cancers too including prostate, lung and uterine cancer
  • Exercise also helps prevent weight gain. There is convincing evidence that being overweight or obese contributes to the risk of developing cancer of the pancreas, kidney and oesophagus
  • The Cancer Council recommends you aim for 60 minutes a day of moderate activity as your fitness improves. This level of activity helps your body reduce your risk of cancer.

Better mental health

Regular physical activity not only helps prevent complications of depression and anxiety, it may also help treat symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression. It’s believed to achieve this by boosting production of mood-lifting chemicals in the brain, including serotonin and endorphins, as well as improving sleep, increasing energy and providing a distraction from anxiety. Research by the Black Dog Institute suggests:

  • People who exercise regularly have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to people who don’t exercise regularly
  • Both aerobic exercise (eg brisk walking, jogging, cycling or swimming) and resistance exercise (eg lifting weights) appear to help in treating symptoms of depression.

Less osteoarthritis

Although injury to joints and overuse of joints increases the chance of developing osteoarthritis in middle age, inactivity and being overweight are other factors. Extra kilos increase the pressure on joints and cause the cartilage (the ‘cushioning’ substance between bones in a joint) to wear down faster. Physical activity:

  • Helps prevent osteoarthritis
  • Improves existing osteoarthritis by strengthening the muscles round the joints and reducing weight to take the pressure off joints.

Stronger bones

Regular exercise helps preserve strong bones and protects against the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. This affects men as well as women. The best bone-strengthening exercises include:

  • Exercises where your body has to carry its own weight (eg walking, jumping and running, but not swimming or cycling), which can help prevent bone loss. Other good weight-bearing exercises are dancing, skipping, soccer, step aerobics, tennis, volleyball and netball.
  • Resistance training (eg lifting weights) which makes muscles stronger, encouraging your bones to become stronger too.

If you already have osteoporosis, exercise is still important but there may be some activities you need to avoid. Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program to make sure which types of exercise are appropriate for you.

A sharper mind

Although we can’t prevent risk factors for dementia such as ageing or an inherited risk of the disease, there’s evidence that regular physical activity, especially aerobic activity and resistance training, may help prevent dementia by:

  • Improving blood flow to the brain
  • Stimulating the growth and survival of nerve cells.

Further information

Heart Foundation of Australia

Better Health Channel: Depression and exercise


Alzheimer’s Australia. “Keep on moving” – physical exercise and dementia. [online] Hawker, ACT: Alzheimer’s Australia. Jun 2008 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from:

Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Physical activity guidelines. [online] Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. c2007. [last updated 23 Mar 2009, accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from:

Black Dog Institute. Exercise and depression. [online] Randwick, NSW: Black Dog Institute. c2009 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from:

Cancer Council Australia. Move your body. [online] Surry Hills, NSW [updated 31 Aug 2009, accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from:

National Heart Foundation of Australia. Blueprint for an active Australia. [online] Australia: National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2009 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from:

  • Minne HW. Invest in your bones - make it or break it. [online] Nyon, Switzerland: International Osteoporosis Foundation. 2005. [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from:

    Procietto J Baur LA. Management of Obesity. Medical Journal of Australia. 2004; 180(9): 474–480.

    Wise FM. Coronary heart disease - the benefits of exercise. Australian Family Physician. 2010; 39(3): 129–133

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010