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Improving health
Previously NHS Health Scotland

Physical activity overview

Physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of premature death in Scotland. Evidence shows that even small increases in activity can help to prevent and treat chronic diseases and improve quality of life.

Physical activity has multiple health, social and economic benefits.

In order to positively impact people’s health and well-being at a population level through physical activity, strong leadership is needed across

  • policy
  • planning
  • provision and delivery of services.

This strong leadership is needed at local, regional and national level to ensure the right environments are available for all that promote and support people in being active regularly.

Changing culture and improving health and well-being at the individual and societal level can be achieved by all of the below

  • ensuring people have informed choices about their activity levels
  • raising awareness of the benefits of physical activity
  • encouraging people to be active across the course of their life.

Providing opportunities to participate in physical activity can build confidence and ability. This can enable people to be active throughout their lives and achieve the health, social and economic benefits.

You can find resources to help support you to promoting the benefits of physical activity and more information about the levels of recommended physical activity below. There are also other resources to help you in planning and development of communities and services.

  • In 2017, 65% of adults achieved the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity each week.
  • An estimated 37% of children (aged 2-15 years) in Scotland met the physical activity guideline for children in 2017 when including activity done at school.
  • In 2017, 26% of children aged 2-15 were at risk of being overweight, including 13% at risk of obesity.
  • Half of all adults aged 75 and above (50%) had very low levels of activity, (equivalent to less than half an hour a week of moderate exercise), compared to one in nine of those aged 16-44 (10-12%).
  • Physical inactivity adds to nearly 2,500 deaths in Scotland each year.
  • The cost to the economy of physical inactivity is around £91 million per year.
  • Adults in the most deprived areas of Scotland were less likely to meet physical activity recommendations (56%), compared with the least deprived areas (72%).

Physical activity and health inequalities

The amount of physical activity a person does is influenced by a number of factors. This includes social and personal factors such as

  • age
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • disability
  • where a person lives
  • whether they have a job and if so what it involves
  • financial circumstances.

The Scottish Government's vision for a more active Scotland aims to increase physical activity and to reduce health inequalities.

Progress relating to inequality in physical activity is monitored and reported on annually.

Active Scotland Outcomes framework

The Scottish Government’s Active Scotland Outcomes Framework is underpinned by equality. The six outcomes focus on people and their communities, encouraging and enabling the inactive to be active and helping those already active to stay active throughout their lives.

The framework has been developed with all ages and abilities in mind and with a wide range of stakeholders to create and implement the vision of ‘More people are more active, more often’.

The framework is supported by Scotland's Physical Activity Delivery Plan launched in July 2018, which translates the World Health Organisation Global Action Plan for Physical Activity (external site) into a Scottish context.

The Scottish Government report 'Active Scotland Outcomes: indicator equality analysis' (external website) highlights

  • increased walking is reducing inequalities but differences still exist, particularly for disabled people
  • excluding school-based activity such as PE, the inequality in sports participation by deprivation in children is widening
  • retirement and the transition from primary to secondary school are key moments to influence physical activity in old age and children respectively
  • the inequality by gender in physical activity has narrowed substantially between teenage boys and girls since 2008, largely driven by girls becoming more active
  • the report concluded that work to address inequality is required on all fronts, with effort particularly focused on
  • ensuring initiatives are well targeted to ensure maintenance of activity through life and into old age
  • ensuring suitable measures are taken to ensure those with limiting conditions want to and can take up physical activities and remain active.

National actions

The importance of physical activity is recognised within the Public Health Priorities for Scotland (external website). It features specifically in priority 6

  • A Scotland where we eat well, have a healthy weight and are physically active and contributes the five other public health priorities.

The United Nations Convention on Children’s Rights includes Article 31. This describes the rights of the child

  • to rest and leisure
  • to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child
  • to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

To find out more about article 31 and other children’s rights visit the Unicef website (external website).

Scotland’s Play Strategy recognises the importance of play in young people’s development, health and well-being and enhancing life experiences. Visit the Scottish Government's website to ‘Play Strategy’ (external website) action plan.

Additional strategies and plans to increase physical activity in Scotland include the following

National physical activity guidelines

Recommendations on the amount and type of physical activity we should aim to do at different stages in our lives are set out in a UK wide report from the four nations' Chief Medical Officers. The report is supported by separate infographics for adults as well as for children and young people.

Most people should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. A person’s ability to do this depends on their circumstances and there are different ways to work towards or meet this minimum.

Motivate2move (external website) factsheets provide guidance on how people with specific health conditions can increase their physical activity.

Moving Medicine (external website) is a resource for health professionals developed by The Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine. It provides a step-by-step guide to conversations with patients about physical activity.

Local actions

We have developed a physical activity pathway for health and social care professionals to use with people in practice to approach the idea of increasing their physical activity.

Physical activity referral standards

Public Health Scotland have worked with a range of professionals who deliver, commission, refer and study physical activity referral services to develop Standards for Scotland.

The document sets out a range of recommendations to drive improvement within the physical activity referral sector, by informing the development, delivery and commissioning of these services.

Read the Physical activity referral standards (PDF)

The World Health Organisation provides information which supports local planners in developing active environments.

Exemplar Physical Activity Employer

We have developed the Exemplar Physical Activity Employer (EPAE) award which recognises good practice by employers in promoting physical activity to their employees. The award was piloted in 2016 supported by the EPAE main report, summary and appendices.

We are currently working with our Healthy Working Lives (HWL) colleagues to develop and embed the EPAE into the HWL award which is a recommendation from the pilot and also an action in A More Active Scotland Delivery Plan.

For more information and resources on physical activity and health you can join the Physical Activity Health Alliance (PAHA) (external site).

Impacts of physical activity interventions on population health and health inequalities

We know that physical activity interventions can have benefits for individuals, but we don’t know the scale of their impacts on population health and health inequalities.

To measure this, we included two interventions that aimed to increase physical activity as part of our ‘Informing Interventions to reduce health Inequalities’ (Triple I) project.

The physical activity interventions we included were pedometer-based interventions and physical activity brief interventions.

The project outputs allow users to alter the number of individuals treated by the interventions, and the targeting strategy (e.g. to deprived areas), in order to estimate results for local areas as well as for Scotland.

We found that these physical activity interventions could help to reduce health inequalities if targeted where most needed.

You can contact us if you have any queries about our work on physical activity, including PAHA.