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Steps to increase physical activity levels in the UK

Physical activity is a key contributor to good physical and mental health, and also has significant social and environmental benefits.

However, doctors are concerned about the high number of people in the UK who are not doing enough physical activity, and the subsequent impact this has on individual and population health.

Providing the opportunity for everybody to be physically active is an important part of a comprehensive approach to improving the health of the population. Despite some recognition of the contribution that physical activity can make to a range of health outcomes, our analysis shows that it is not being prioritised in government policymaking. In particular, we are concerned by the lack of protection for physical activity in the school curriculum, the low spending on active travel and cuts to budgets for open spaces and recreation facilities.

In order to adequately prioritise physical activity, the Government should focus on four key areas.

Travel

Increase the cross-departmental budget for active travel to £20 per head.

  • Cycling and walking is undervalued and underfunded in the UK.
  • Increased investment in active travel could help narrow socio-economic inequalities in physical activity levels, as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to use active travel than those from more affluent backgrounds. 

Leisure

Provide local government with the resource to reverse budget cuts to open spaces and recreation facilities, with targeted additional investment in the most deprived local areas.

  • Open spaces, recreation and sport budgets are being cut across the country.
  • Access to open spaces is not equal with the most deprived areas having the least green space.
  • People from a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) background are most likely to use parks and open spaces.

School

Physical education needs to be recognised and protected as an essential part of the school curriculum.

  • Despite the many benefits of physical education in schools, it is not being protected or prioritised. 
  • Some schools are resorting to selling off playing fields to raise revenue. 

Work

The NHS should act as an 'anchor institution' to encourage and facilitate active travel and set an example for other employers.

  • The NHS can use its role as an anchor institution in communities to exert significant positive influence on promoting physical activity.
  • NHS sites should encourage active travel to reduce journeys by vehicle and improve staff and visitor wellbeing. 

Read the briefing

 

Recent policy developments across the UK

UK chief medical officers' guidelines on physical activity

In September 2019, the UK chief medical officers set out guidelines "for different age groups to cover the volume, duration, frequency and type of physical activity required across the life course" to achieve positive physical and mental health benefits. The guidelines include recommendations for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both.