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Physical Activity: The Guidelines Explained

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

Current UK guidelines for aerobic activity recommend that adults aged 19+ should spend at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) per week in moderately intensive physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of the two.

In addition to aerobic activity, the guidelines also recommend that adults should undertake muscle strengthening activities on at least two days per week to develop or maintain strength in the major muscle groups.


The 2016 Health Survey for England reported that:

  • Only 26% of adults aged 19 and over meet both the aerobic and muscle strengthening guidelines.

  • This was higher for men (30%) than for women (23%)

  • These percentages have dropped from 34% (men) and 24% (women) reported in 2012.

The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans echo these, with only around 20% of Americans meeting both the aerobic and resistance training minimums.

Furthermore, it seems that advancing age, increased BMI, and lower household income correlate with reduced participation in exercise.


The UK Chief Medical Officers' PA Guidelines state:

  • Adults should aim to be physically active everyday.

  • Any activity is better than none, and more is better still.

  • There are no absolute thresholds: benefits are achieved at levels both below and above the guidelines.

  • In general, the more time spent being physically active, the greater the health benefits.


Intensity can be gauged using the 'Talk Test':

"Moderate and vigorous activity can be differentiated by the ‘talk test’: being able to talk but not sing indicates moderate intensity activity, while having difficulty talking without pausing is a sign of vigorous activity."



  • Cardiovascular activity is defined as work that increases breathing rate and heart rate.

  • Health benefits can be seen from any intensity level of cardiovascular work however higher intensities require shorter durations to achieve the same benefits as lower intensities.

  • The guidelines recommend moderate-vigorous intensity exercise to achieve the most robust health benefit.

  • Moderate activity does include walking but it needs to be at a pace that presents a cardiovascular challenge such that the person could talk in sentences but not sing.

  • Steps accrued walking around the house or shopping are unlikely to constitute to this for healthy individuals but going for a brisk walk or hike may for some.


  • Muscle strength and bone density contribute to physical function and overall health providing life long benefits.

  • Placed emphasis on working all of the major muscle groups and stimulating bone growth and repair.

  • Strengthening exercises have a substantial impact on maintenance of muscle mass and bone density into later life.

  • The balance training element they also provide paired with improved bone density and increased lean mass is strongly linked with reduced risk of falls and reduced severity of fall related complications.

Note that there is crossover between these two types. For example, running and ball games challenge the cardiovascular system but also increase bone density.



Low intensity steady state cardio (LISS)

  • Low intensity steady state cardio (LISS)

  • Rowing or rowing machine

  • Exercise bike or cycling

  • Swimming

  • Hiking or Incline walking

  • Stairmaster or elliptical

  • Light jogging

  • Dancing

Longer sessions 20+ minutes

High intensity interval training (HIIT)

  • Airdyne

  • Battle ropes

  • Burpees

  • Box jumps

  • Medicine ball slams

  • Sled pushes

  • Skipping

20-30 seconds work @ RPE 9/10 EMOM Shorter sessions 10-20 minutes


Free weight moves such as:

  • Barbell front squat

  • Kettlebell squat

  • Conventional deadlift

  • Walking Lunges

  • Barbell incline bench press

  • Step ups

  • Dumbbell row

  • Barbell overhead press

  • Dumbbell incline bench press

  • Barbell good morning

  • Trap bar deadlift

  • Barbell back squat

  • Dumbbell split squat

  • Kettlebell sumo deadlift

Using machines such as:

  • Leg press

  • Lat pull down

  • Chest press

  • Chest supported row

  • Cable pulley

  • Leg extension

  • Hamstrings curl

  • Shoulder press

  • Hack squat

Bodyweight moves such as:

  • Push ups

  • Pull ups

  • Dips

  • Inverted rows

  • Planks

  • Crunches

  • Leg raises


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