Most people realise they need to exercise if they want to be healthy. Indeed, the evidence that exercise is essential for health is overwhelming. Just one example is the report by Macmillan Cancer Support and Ramblers, which reveals that not doing enough exercise could shorten your lifespan by three to five years.

The NHS has even produced statistics that show exactly how much regular exercise could improve your health. Here are some of the benefits you could enjoy if you're active on a regular basis:

  • Up to 35 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
  • Up to 50 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Up to 50 percent lower risk of colon cancer.
  • Up to 20 percent lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Up to 83 percent lower risk of osteoarthritis.
  • Up to 30 percent lower risk of depression.
  • Up to 30 percent lower risk of dementia.

But that's not all. Regular exercise can help keep your weight down and your body toned and youthful. It can also relieve stress, boost your energy levels, give you more confidence, help you sleep more soundly and give you more independence as you get older.

How much is enough?

According to the government, you should aim to be active every day and do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity every week (that is, exercise that leaves you warm, slightly out of breath and raises your heart rate). Typically that could mean 30 minutes of moderate activity on five days each week, but you could also break those 30 minutes down into three 10-minute sessions.

Aim to do at least a couple of strengthening exercise sessions a week, such as lifting weights, heavy gardening or exercises that use your body's weight as resistance (including yoga).

The good news - especially if you're on a budget - is that being physically active doesn't have to mean joining an expensive gym or committing to running a marathon. Just remember to start slowly and build up gradually as your fitness improves.

Day-to-day activity

First, make your lifestyle more active. Small things - like taking the stairs instead of the lift, walking to work or the next bus stop, gardening, playing with your children, doing DIY and shopping, especially if you leave your car at home - all help to boost your activity levels.

Housework, for instance, is a great way to get moving - all that dusting, polishing, ironing, scrubbing and vacuuming is great for boosting your heart rate. You could also wash your car by hand or clean your own windows, either of which will get you moving more.

Walking for health

Walking, for most people, is easy and doesn't cost a penny. A regular brisk walk can boost your heart, lungs and circulation, lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

Even if you can't manage to walk briskly, the exercise is good for your bones, joints and immune system, and boosts your mood. It could improve your social life too if you join a walking group or an association such as Ramblers. And because walking is a low-impact exercise, it's much safer in terms of injury and accident risk, especially if you haven't done much exercise lately.

In the swim

With health benefits similar to those associated with walking, swimming is one of the country's best-loved activities (it's the second most popular physical activity in the UK). There's no age barrier to taking a dip, and you can take things at your own pace - which may explain why swimming is so popular among middle-aged and older people. In fact, studies suggest that swimming every day could help protect against dementia.

If joint problems prevent you from walking, then swimming's ideal as the water supports your weight and takes the pressure off your knees, hips and spine. And if you can't swim, many local authority swimming pools offer adult lessons as well as aqua aerobics classes.

Strut your stuff

Dance fans will be delighted to learn that dancing not only helps keep you fit and healthy, it can also give you a more positive outlook on life. And, more importantly, it can be great fun.

There's an added bonus for those who take to the dance floor too. Studies show that learning a new dance can help keep your memory sharp - one report even claims that dancing is associated with a lower risk of mental decline.

With ballroom, Latin, jive, disco, line dancing and even belly dancing, there's something for everyone. Check your local newspapers, Yellow Pages and library for dance class listings in your area.

Pedal power

If you already have a bicycle, cycling is a convenient way to get regular exercise. It could save you money on petrol, too, since statistics show most car journeys are under a mile long (a distance that can easily be cycled in most cases).

Cycling is ideal for working your lower body and your cardiovascular system, and may help reduce your risk for heart disease and high blood pressure (according to the British Heart Foundation, cycling for 20 miles a week or more reduces your risk of heart disease by half compared with a non-cyclist).

Cycling protects against obesity too, since a moderate ride burns eight calories a minute. And according to experts, people who cycle regularly are as fit as those who are 10 years younger. It can be fun, too, especially if you get the whole family involved.

CTC, the national cycling charity, has more information on cycling, including important safety information.

Always check with your doctor, physician or GP before starting to exercise, especially if you haven't been active for a while or if you have a medical condition.

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