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Mental Health Is The Main Motivation For Exercise But Three-Quarters Of Brits Don’t Know Recommended Activity Levels

women stretching arms outdoor. Yoga class doing breathing exercise at park.

Mental health has become a stronger motivation for Brits to exercise than staying in shape, but three-quarters vastly underestimate how much activity they need, according to a new poll released today on National Fitness Day.

In a survey of 2,271 people, commissioned by ukactive and conducted by Savanta, more than half of UK adults (54%) reported that their main motivation for keeping physically active was to help their mental health, while 49% said it was getting in shape.

National guidelines from the Chief Medical Officers (CMO) state that adults should undertake 150 minutes or more of ‘moderate-intensity activity’ each week, but three-quarters (75%) of respondents thought it was much less – with 38% thinking that less than 90 minutes is sufficient.

More positively, the findings show people are increasingly aware of the physical and mental benefits of being active, with 86% agreeing that keeping physically active can help prevent various illnesses and injuries from occurring.

The theme for National Fitness Day 2023 is ‘Your Health is for Life’, highlighting the importance of staying active throughout our lives.

The UK is facing a growing health crisis, with rising NHS waiting lists and recent research revealing that two in five inpatients in England report significant health decline while awaiting treatment on the NHS.

National Fitness Day is about celebrating the role of physical activity in our lives but getting more people active also has a crucial role to play in improving national health outcomes, wellbeing, and economic productivity.

Of those polled, one in four people (23%) said they were currently awaiting treatment on the NHS. Of those on waiting lists, only 7% have a current gym membership.

In fact, those on an NHS waitlist are almost three times less likely to have a gym membership*, so there is a major opportunity to increase participation in physical activity to reduce pressure on the health system.

According to statistics from the Office for Health Improvements and Disparities (OHID), regular exercise improves health outcomes and reduces the risk of long-term health conditions and illnesses, including a 40% reduced risk of type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (by 35%), dementia (by 30%) and some cancers (by 20%).

Thousands of free activities will take place across the UK to celebrate National Fitness Day, with the kick-off taking place at Salford Sports Village in Greater Manchester, showcasing a powerful example of physical activity reducing pressure on the NHS.

GM Active’s Prehab4Cancer programme uses group exercise classes to support those diagnosed with cancer to manage their recovery and treatment in the community.

The programme has been proven to cut patient contact time within hospitals by up to 36 hours and these shorter hospital stays ‘released’ 550 ward bed days and 146 critical care bed days, showing the potential to support the NHS if it is scaled nationwide.

Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said: “More people are recognising the incredible mental benefits of being active in their daily lives, not just the physical rewards.

“These findings show the huge opportunity to ease our nation’s mental and physical health crisis if we can raise awareness of the importance of physical activity, alongside better nutrition, and ensure everyone has the chance to be active.

“We’re on a mission with other leading organisations in the sector to make the UK the most active nation in Europe so we’re encouraging people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to celebrate National Fitness Day and start that lifelong health journey.”

Sports Minister, Stuart Andrew said: “Sport and physical activity are hugely beneficial to our mental and physical health which is why we are aiming to get 3.5 million more people active by 2030.

“We’re determined to drive up participation and that starts with 150 minutes of exercise a week for adults and 60 minutes a day for young people.

“Whether that’s at school, in a gym, on the pitch or court, you can make a huge difference to your health and the health of the nation by getting active.”

Jack Murphy, Programme Manager at Prehab4Cancer, said: “A cancer diagnosis can be extremely impactful on a person, and increasing our physical activity levels when awaiting cancer treatment is often the last thing on a person’s mind. However, there’s no greater moment in our lives, when being as fit and as strong as your body is capable of is more important, than when being faced with a potentially life-limiting condition.

“Physical activity enables us to take a proactive role in our own care and the ability to positively impact our outcomes. As a result, we feel empowered to take back control of our diagnosis, while optimising our physical and mental condition to better cope with the rigours of cancer-related treatment.

“We can’t always control what life throws at us. However, we can control how prepared we are to face these life events and physical activity is the key to this.”

To find out more about National Fitness Day and how to get involved, visit

*The data found that of those on an NHS waitlist, only 7% had a gym membership. This was contrasted against those who were not on a waitlist, with 19% having a gym membership.