The importance of exercise

The importance of exercise

We’re all familiar with the potential general benefits of regular exercise: elevated mood, improved strength and endurance, weight management, and reduced risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension (high blood pressure). But did you know that regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity may help enhance immune defence activity, too?

We don’t know exactly how exercise benefits the immune system, but some theories suggest it may help to:

  • Improve immune defence activity. Exercise may stimulate the circulation of immune cells throughout the body. Improved circulation can help immune cells look for, recognise, and respond to foreign pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses) and abnormal (potentially cancerous) cells more efficiently.
  • Reduce chronic inflammation. Exercise may slow the release of stress hormones and promote anti-inflammatory responses, helping to reduce chronic inflammation and prevent damage to immune cells.
  • Slow age-related immune decline. Exercise may help regulate immune system function and delay the onset of age-related immune decline in older adults, namely by promoting the production, survival, and activity of some types of immune cells.

Exercise and other healthy behaviours (such as healthy eating, quality sleep, stress management, reduced alcohol intake and no smoking, and regular health checks) can help maintain immune system function.

Exercise recommendations for older adults

In order to maximise the potential benefits of regular exercise, older adults should aim to be sufficiently physically active (whilst being careful not to overdo it) and try to limit sedentary behaviour every day.

The Department of Health has set out recommendations to help adults stay in good health as they age.

Adults aged 18–64

The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults aged 18–64:

  • are physically active most, preferably all, days each week
  • accumulate 2.5–5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise, or 1.25–2.5 hours of vigorous exercise, per week
  • do muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week
  • minimise time spent in prolonged sitting, breaking up long periods as often as possible.

Adults aged 65+

The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults aged 65+:

  • be active every day in as many ways as possible, doing a range of physical activities that involve fitness, strength, balance and flexibility
  • accumulate 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most, preferably all, days each week
  • continue enjoying vigorous physical activities for as long as they are safely able to.

What’s considered appropriate physical activity will be different for everyone, depending on age, starting fitness level, overall health, and mobility. Exercise intensity, for example, is a subjective measure relative to individual fitness levels.

Adults who are new to exercise, haven’t exercised for a while, or have an existing medical condition should consult a healthcare or exercise professional before beginning any new physical activity. It’s important to note that overexertion (exercising too hard or too frequently) may lead to adverse health consequences.

Choosing suitable physical activities

Despite the potential benefits of regular exercise, many older adults fail to achieve sufficient physical activity levels. Finding the right combination of exercises that work for you can help make it easier and more enjoyable to meet the daily recommendations.
The below information is intended to provide ideas for types of exercises that may interest you and is by no means exhaustive. The examples provided may not be suitable for everyone.

Moderate-intensity exercises

Moderate-intensity activities help to keep the heart and lungs healthy. These exercises should take some effort but not so much that it becomes hard to talk comfortably while performing them. The following are some examples of activities that are likely to require moderate physical effort:

  • Brisk walking
  • Cycling on flat surfaces
  • Dancing
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Mopping, vacuuming, lawn mowing

Vigorous exercises

Vigorous exercise usually involves cardio activities which may promote heart health and fitness. These activities often make it difficult to say more than a few words between breaths, such as:

  • Jogging and running
  • Aerobics
  • Martial arts
  • Skipping rope
  • Cycling uphill


Strengthening exercises

Strength activities help muscles and bones stay strong for longer. Perform strengthening exercises for multiple repetitions until the target muscles fatigue (i.e., fail to do another repetition), and repeat after a short rest. This could involve activities such as:

  • Weightlifting
  • Push-ups and sit-ups
  • Squats and lunges
  • Heavy gardening, such as digging and shovelling

Balance and flexibility exercises

Usually requiring only light physical effort, these activities can help you maintain, or possibly even improve, mobility and stability as you get older:

  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai Chi


The above information is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Please speak with your general practitioner before starting any new exercise program.

NP-AU-NA-WCNT-210007 Date of GSK Approval: June 2021