Movement is medicine: why light exercise is the key to good health

Keeping fit normally entails vigorous activity, but science proves that dialling down the intensity is still effective for physical and mental wellbeing

Lauren Clark

Fri 22 Sep 2023

If you were to scroll through workout routines on social media or pass by a bustling gym, you might assume that fitness is a purely heart rate-spiking experience. However, it might surprise you to learn that even light exercise can have a positive effect on overall health, according to research from Sweden. Simply moving that bit more has been found to aid everything from helping you breeze through your to-do list during the day to sleeping soundly like a baby at night, and – most importantly – protecting your mental and physical wellbeing.

But first things first, what exactly constitutes “light” exercise? To many people, all forms of fitness require you to lace up your trainers – but Dr Helen Hartley, associate medical director at Aviva Health insists this isn’t necessarily the case. “Light exercise is moving rather than sitting or lying down,” she says. While you might think you’re frequently up on your feet answering the door to the postman or going to make a cup of tea, it’s actually estimated that almost three-quarters of British middle-aged adults spend more than eight hours a day in a sedentary state.

Obviously, depending on your individual fitness levels, what constitutes light exercise will vary. However, Hartley notes that it’s usually the kind of movement that can be simply added into your daily routine. “Light exercise includes walking, which has the advantage of not requiring any special equipment or planning and can be incorporated easily into our lifestyle,” she says. But before you start getting fixated on your fitness tracker every time you go for a stroll, a recent study found that doing fewer than 5,000 steps a day was enough to begin reducing the risk of dying prematurely of any cause – with the biggest benefits seen among the under-60s.

man doing plank


Don’t cast aside your dumbbells and dismount the spin bike just yet though, this isn’t to say that you needn’t bother at all with more rigorous exercise. Hartley insists that it’s still important to meet the NHS’s recommendation for adults up to the age of 65 of at least 150 minutes of “moderate” exercise each week. “This is activity that creates a feeling of warmth and increases the pulse and breathing rates – but to the point where you can still hold a conversation,” she says. This can include jogging and pilates. Want to take your fitness up a notch? That’s where you’ll see benefits from vigorous exercise, such as sprinting and boxing. “It increases your breathing rate, so that it’s difficult to hold a conversation while doing it,” she says.

Whichever intensity of movement you stride towards, it can boost your health in multiple ways, alongside habits such as good nutrition. “Exercise reduces the risk of many diseases, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer,” says Hartley. It can help ward off chronic conditions by improving our immune function, metabolism and sleep, and keep our weight and blood pressure under control, she says. According to the World Health Organization, not doing enough physical activity is estimated to be responsible for roughly 3.2m deaths globally each year, with research previously finding that failing to move a little every 30 minutes or so can slash longevity.

However, springing up from the desk or sofa is not just about future-proofing your body – movement can directly influence how you feel right now. “There’s a positive impact on your mental health,” says Hartley. “It improves our mood and protects against stress.”

man gardening

Indeed, there’s evidence that exercise triggers your brain to release “feel-good” chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins. On top of this, exercise can keep sick days at bay. “It improves our immune function and protects us against infections and inflammation,” she says, explaining that exercise stimulates the circulation of virus and bacteria-fighting white blood cells. What’s more, movement also boosts sleep quality and brain power.

So, it’s clear that weaving plenty of light exercise into your life is a worthwhile pursuit for both mind and body, now and for the future. Even better, if you’re short on time you can still make a difference, says Hartley: “The main thing is that you don’t spend too long sitting down. Housework and gardening also count, and so does yoga.”

Stuck for inspiration? There are many exercise classes available online, and a recent study found that simply doing wall squats or holding the plank position were among the best ways to lower high blood pressure. She adds that if you want to get out of the house then going for a bike ride or booking into a dance class are also good options. Whichever form of movement feels good to you, the main thing is to stretch those legs.

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