Lifestyle and behaviours

Lifestyle and behaviour choices are important factors in influencing weight status. Unhealthy diets and physical inactivity are major risk factors for overweight and obesity as well as a number of chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and high blood pressure.

Physical activity

Physical activity includes all forms of activity, such as walking or cycling for everyday journeys, active play, work-related activity, active recreation (such as working out in a gym), dancing, swimming, gardening or playing games as well as competitive and non-competitive sport.

Physical activity is a key determinant of energy expenditure and a fundamental part of energy balance and weight control. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of obesity, as well as many chronic conditions including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, mental health problems and musculoskeletal conditions.

The Department of Health recommends that adults accumulate at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e. cycling or fast walking) every week and children over five should engage in at least 60 minutes (1 hour) of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. Physical activity that can be incorporated into everyday life, for example brisk walking and cycling has been found to be as effective for weight loss as supervised exercise programmes.

Sedentary behavior is also linked to overweight and obesity and likely to be independently associated with all-cause mortality, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and metabolic dysfunction. Sedentary behaviours in adults are impacted by age, gender, socio-economic conditions, occupation, weight status and some characteristics of the physical environment. These relationships are independent of the level of overall physical activity. For example, spending large amounts of time being sedentary may increase the risk of some health outcomes, even among people who are active at the recommended levels.

The total cost of inactivity in England, including both direct costs of treatment for the major lifestyle related diseases, and the indirect costs caused through sickness absence has been estimated at £8.2 billion a year. This does not include the contribution of inactivity to obesity which in itself has been estimated to cost £2.5 billion annually: £0.5 billion in NHS costs and a further £2 billion across the economy as a whole. (It is estimated that obesity accounts for 18 million days of sickness per year.)

NOO has published papers on physical activity data sources and measurement:


Obesity develops when energy intake from food and drink consumption is greater than energy expenditure through the body’s metabolism and physical activity. A person’s own biological and psychological makeup, along with societal and environmental influences contribute to this complex process. The modern environment has been labelled ‘obesogenic or obesity-causing’, making it difficult for people to maintain a healthy weight. For example, energy dense food and drink are increasingly available and accessible; sedentary leisure activities and travel by car are now the societal norm.

Consumption of excess calories is often due to over consumption of high energy foods and drinks such as processed or fast food, sweetened and alcoholic drinks, or large portion sizes. There is also evidence that eating habits are perpetuated through families and cultures, and are often maintained from child through to adulthood.

Adults are more likely to maintain a healthy weight if they reduce consumption of high energy-dense foods and drinks and consume a lower-fat, high fibre diet, consisting of fruit, wholegrains, vegetables, lean meat and fish. Healthy eating is associated with decreased risk of overweight and obesity and chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers. However, there is a large gap between nutrition recommendations and what the data shows we actually eat. For example, in England, the Health Survey for England reports that less than a third of adults currently meet the ‘five a day’ target for fruit and vegetables. (HSE 2010)

NOO has published the following papers on knowledge and attitudes relating to physical activity and dietary intake national and local data sources: