Exercise could be used to prevent or even treat a whole range of physical and mental health conditions, according to research revealed by eminent scientists at a London conference today. The findings of scientific research were presented to a packed audience including HRH The Princess Royal, health professionals and academics, at the conference, organised by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) to highlight the potential for physical activity to reduce the risk of and help treat diseases as diverse as cancer, diabetes and dementia.  

Recognition of these research findings is crucial according to Professor Judy Buttriss, Director General of the BNF, who said: “A lack of knowledge and understanding at a grass roots level of the role of physical activity, alongside a healthy diet, in promoting health, coupled with limited skills to apply this knowledge, represent missed opportunities to improve the health status of many groups of the population and to use public health budgets effectively.”

These sentiments were echoed by Fred Turok, Chair of the FIA (Fitness Industry Association) and the government’s Physical Activity Network, who chaired the conference: “The benefits of physical activity in promoting both mental and physical wellbeing are wide ranging and significant, and, considering the current state of the nation’s health, it has never been more important to raise awareness of the evidence for this”

The conference delegates heard that regular physical activity influences many aspects of human health but that compelling evidence was emerging in specific areas of interest including cancer.  According to Professor John M Saxton of the University of East Anglia, research now shows that physical exercise can help to prevent some cancers, as well as having significant benefits in helping the survivors of most common cancers maintain their quality of life.

Physical activity has also now been shown to have significant positive effects on mental health, with research presented by Professor Ken Fox of the University of Bristol suggesting that being regularly active can reduce the risk of diseases of the mind by as much as 20-30%.  The impact of this can be seen in cases of depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and the conference heard that scientists are now looking at imaging techniques to find out how activity affects the brain and brings these benefits for mental health.

It is well known that physical activity burns calories and can help with weight loss and maintenance. What is less well known is that regular physical activity helps maintain and also create lean body tissue (muscle), which is particularly important as we get older as muscle loss can limit independence. The additional muscle tissue built by regular physical activity is also more metabolically active, which means that, even when a physically active person is not moving they will often use more calories than a habitually inactive person. Dr David Stensel of the University of Loughborough presented research findings to show that, alongside this, being active can also help fight hunger, actually suppressing appetite after intense exercise and increasing levels of the satiety hormones that contribute to a sense of fullness.

Bridget Benelam, Senior Nutrition Scientist at the BNF believes that this information could help to motivate people to do more physical activity in the knowledge that they  can boost their lean body mass and so burn more calories, even after the activity is finished. She commented: “Obesity is a huge and growing problem in the UK and a massive drain on health services.  By encouraging people to adopt a more active lifestyle, incorporating regular exercise alongside a healthy diet, we believe we can start to redress the balance, freeing up valuable medical resources for redirection elsewhere.”

Diabetes is also a huge problem in the UK and conference delegates heard from Dr Ashley Cooper of the University of Bristol that regular activity can provide a major part of the solution. By working muscles, they become more efficient at using the sugar in the blood, which can help control blood sugar. Importantly, scientific research shows that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of getting type 2 diabetes by up to 50%. For those with pre-diabetes, who have problems with controlling their blood sugar, exercise can delay or even prevent the onset of full-blown type 2 diabetes. And those suffering from type 2 diabetes can significantly reduce the negative side effects of the disease by maintaining regular physical activity.

Benelam concluded: “Official recommendations are that all adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate level physical activity each week and that children should be active for at least an hour each day.  At the moment it is estimated that only about 39% of men and 29% of women achieve these levels and that although children tend to be quite active when young, levels drops significantly as they grow into teenagers.  

“With scientific evidence now suggesting that significant health benefits can be gained from physical activity and that exercise can help to prevent and even treat some of the most serious diseases, as well as aiding and speeding recovery, it is important that the general public really understand its value as ‘nature’s self-help medicine’.  To this end, the BNF will be working with health professionals and educators to help disseminate accurate, evidence- based messages about the importance of exercise alongside healthy diet and lifestyle choices, for maintaining optimum health.”


For further information, interviews and images contact:

Bridget Benelam
Tel: 0207 4046504/07966 032293. Email: [email protected]

Notes for Editors:
1.    The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) conference Physical activity: the latest on its contribution to energy balance and health is being held in London on the 13th October 2011.  
2.    BNF offers an expert nutrition information service for journalists and media. Tel: 02074046504. Email: [email protected]
3.    BNF was established over 40 years ago and exists to deliver authoritative, evidence-based information on food and nutrition in the context of health and lifestyle. The Foundation’s work is conducted and communicated through a unique blend of nutrition science, education and media activities. BNF’s strong governance is broad-based but weighted towards the academic community.  BNF is a registered charity that attracts funding from a variety of sources, including contracts with the European Commission, national government departments and agencies; food producers and manufacturers, retailers and food service companies; grant providing bodies, trusts and other charities. Further details about our work, governance and funding can be found on our website (www.nutrition.org.uk) and in our Annual Reports.
4.    The Foundation thanks  the Coca-Cola Company for financial support that has enabled the cost of this event to delegates to be subsidised 

Last reviewed October 2011. Next review due December 2013.