Physical activity

Our research on physical activity

Our research on physical activity focuses on how altering physical environments, such as workplaces, might help increase levels of physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour.

Why is improving levels of physical activity important?

  • Physical inactivity is ranked among the 10 leading risk factors for burden of disease in the UK (Global Burden of Disease Study 2017).
  • Around 39% of adults in the UK fail to achieve the current recommendations for levels of physical activity (minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity per week in bouts of at least ten minutes) and more than 26% are classified as inactive (less than 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week) (Active Lives Survey 2016).
  • Physical activity is related to individuals’ socioeconomic status: those in unskilled manual occupations are less likely than those in professional and managerial occupations to engage in physical activity (Active Lives Survey 2016).
  • Even when recommended levels of physical activity are met, people may still be at risk of disease if they also engage in high levels of sedentary behaviour (Biswas et al 2015).
  • The time spent in sedentary behaviour is increasing worldwide, including in the UK, and is expected to continue to do so without intervention (Ng & Popkin 2012).

Click on the images below to find out more about the work we have been doing in this area:

Key Studies:

  • What is the role of cognitive function in the social patterning of unhealthy behaviour?

    Individual differences in cognitive function may help to explain socioeconomic differences in health behaviours, and help to account for the observation that environmental influences on health behaviour (such as the number of fast food outlets in one’s local area) are stronger among those of lower socioeconomic position. We are currently conducting a secondary analysis on data from over 50,000 London-based participants from the Biobank study, assessing whether cognitive function: a) explains any association between socioeconomic status and health behaviour, including physical activity and diet; and b) modifies the impact of an unhealthy food environment on physical activity diet and weight. The study has been pre-registered with Open Science Framework (

    Status: Ongoing.  Pechey, Stautz, Burgoine, Pilling, Monsivais &  Marteau.


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  • Self- monitoring as a way to improve physical activity levels? Findings from a qualitative evaluation of using different physical activity monitoring devices (‘Get moving’ trial)

    Self-monitoring has the potential to improve health-related behaviors, by providing feedback used by individuals to both assess their status and provide ongoing support towards a set goal. To assess the impact of self-monitoring on levels of physical activity, 500 Cambridge Biomedical campus staff took part in the  ‘Get moving’ study and were randomised to either a no-intervention control group or one of three minimal contact interventions: i) Self-monitoring diary; ii) Web-based feedback about levels of activity through wireless transmission of data from a wrist-worn tri-axial activity monitor; or iii) Activity feedback plus a web-based automated “virtual coach” providing tailored feedback on progress with diet and activity as well as theory-based support. The present qualitative study explored intervention participants’ experiences of the process and nature of feedback in order to identify how they acted upon or processed the information they receive. Findings revealed that accounts did not differ according to allocated monitoring device but included other people and features of the environment leading to the conclusion that self-monitoring is neither solely about “self” or exclusively about “monitoring”. This suggests that a more expansive social and material understanding  of feedback can give insight into the ways information is made active and meaningful for individuals in their everyday contexts.


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  • Does using sit-stand desks at work affect how many calories people burn and how much time they spend sitting over the entire day?

    IMG_1020Office-based workers spend the majority of their working day sitting, which may put them at risk. One potential way of reducing workplace sitting is through the installation of sit-stand desks (i.e. adjustable desks which allow individuals to work in sitting or standing positions). However, key uncertainties remain with regards to the use of such desks, including their effect on the amount of energy people expend when using them at work and during the rest of the day, and their impact on sitting time in and outside of the workplace in the longer-term. We a running a feasibility study to address these uncertainties. The study has been registered on the ISRCTN registry: and the protocol has been published.

    Status: Ongoing. Mantzari et al.

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  • Meta-analyses find no evidence that acting on intentions to improve levels of physical activity is socially patterned

    There is inconsistent evidence that more, compared with less socially and materially deprived individuals are less likely to act on intentions to improve health-related behaviour, including levels of physical activity.  Conducting meta-analyses of studies looking at  physical activity and two other health behaviours (diet and medication adherence in smoking cessation), we found no evidence of socioeconomic differences in acting on intentions to change behaviour. For analyses using objectively measured behaviour, the gap between self-efficacy and behaviour was greater among those living in more deprived areas. This suggests self-efficacy may be playing a role in the social patterning seen in health-related behaviours, including  physical activity.

    Is the Intention-Behaviour Gap Greater amongst the More Deprived? A Meta-Analysis of Five Studies on Physical Activity, Diet, and Medication Adherence in Smoking Cessation. Vasiljevic, Ng, Griffin, Sutton, Marteau. 2016.

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  • Choice architecture scoping review

    HiRes.jpgWe completed a systematic scoping review of studies assessing the effects of choice architecture interventions in micro-environments on diet, physical activity, alcohol and tobacco-related behaviours. Of the 346 studies found, 19% concerned physical activity. We proposed a definition and typology of choice architecture interventions and used these to identify and map the large body of available evidence. Although preliminary, this conceptual groundwork provides a foundation for future research to estimate the effectiveness of choice architecture interventions.

    Altering micro-environments to change population health behaviour: towards an evidence base for choice architecture interventions. Hollands, Shemilt, Marteau, Jebb, Kelly, Nakamura, Suhrcke & Ogilvie. 2013.

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  • Scoping review of economic interventions to improve diet and physical activity

    We completed a systematic scoping review of studies assessing the effect of specific economic interventions that change prices or income on diet and physical activity-related behaviours and their corollary outcomes. Whilst only a minority (11%) of the identified studies included outcomes related to physical activity, the review was successful in  i) identifying four types of economic intervention in use, ii) identifying ways in which future economic studies could be strengthened, and iii) providing a typology to aid future studies.

    Economic instruments for population diet and physical activity behaviour change: a systematic scoping review. Shemilt, Hollands, Marteau, Nakamura, Jebb, Kelly, Suhrcke, Ogilvie, 2013.

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Publications related to physical activity: