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Physical activity and diet

21 Jul 2015

Since the beginning of written history — and likely before this as tomb drawings attest — civilisations have linked physical activity and diet with health and wellbeing. Ancient Greeks believed that maintaining good health relied on the balance of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood — the body’s four ‘humours’ — and that diet modifications could restore this balance if it was out of synch. It was also an Ancient Greek, Hippocrates in fact, who advised that, “All parts of the body… if unused they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.”

Whilst it may once have been dismissed as mumbo jumbo and at best, educated guesswork, science has steadily proved the Ancient Greeks right. Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of global mortality, being linked to cancers, heart disease and diabetes. The World Health Organization estimates that around 3.2 million people die each year because of physical inactivity. And Public Health England (PHE) cautioned in 2014 that half of women and one third of men were damaging their health through insufficient physical activity.

An unhealthy diet is also a major risk factor for many chronic diseases. The UK faces a double disease burden caused by dietary excess and imbalance and by nutritional deficiencies. The proportion of people who are obese or overweight has risen significantly in recent years. In England, this increased from 53.1 per cent in 1993 to 62.15 per cent in 2013-144. Being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including iron, folate and vitamin D, are also common and contribute to diseases such as osteoporosis, which affects more than three million people in the UK.

The MRC has been at the forefront of research linking physical activity and diet to health and wellbeing. This research has been behind many public health policy decisions and interventions aimed at addressing nutrient-deficient diets and inactivity. These range from the Department of Health recommendation that all pregnant women should take folic acid supplements to healthy living schemes such as Football Fans in Training.


  • Categories: Research
  • Health categories: Cancer, Cardiovascular
  • Locations: Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow, London, Oxford, Southampton, The Gambia, Other
  • Type: Success story