RCPI Policy Group on Physical Activity


RCPI: Promoting Physical Activity

Despite the very strong evidence of health benefits, two thirds of Irish adults do not meet the national physical activity guidelines and more than one in ten adults are classified as sedentary.   Physical activity report cards show that Ireland scores low on physical activity for children and youths.

Physical activity is essential for healthy growth and development of children and also healthy ageing of older adults. With Ireland’s ageing population and the rise in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, the need to focus on prevention strategies has never been more pressing.

As a healthcare organisation representing thousands of doctors on the frontline of health services, we represent a patient-focused, independent voice in the national debate around the importance of physical activity.

The RCPI Policy Group on Physical Activity was established in November 2015 and was co-chaired by Dr Peter Wright and Prof Seán Gaine.

Members of the new RCPI Policy Group on Physical Activity were doctors and allied health professionals working in the Irish health system, many of whom were seeing increasing numbers of patients presenting with illnesses and injuries caused or exacerbated by sedentary behaviour.

Our doctors wanted to take action to prevent and reduce ill-health caused by sedentary behaviour by reviewing the latest evidence and proposing practical ways to increase physical activity.

Physical Activity really is a wonder drug. The benefits are far reaching, with significant impacts across physical and mental conditions. It can reduce the risk of developing heart diseases, stroke, diabetes and some cancers such as colon and breast cancer. It can reduce the risk of depression and dementia by up to 30%.

Prof Sean Gaine

Co-chair, Policy Group on Physical Activity

Why Do We Need to Take Action?

Only 19% of primary and 12% of post-primary school children receive the daily amount of physical education recommended by the Department of Health and Children. More than one in five Irish adults report being inactive.

A national action plan to increase physical activity levels to a minimum recommended level of 10% of the population of Ireland could result in economic savings of €67.5 - €135 million annually.


ECG monitor.

What do we want?

The Department of Health and Children recommends that all children and young people should be active, at a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day. This should include muscle-strengthening, flexibility and bone-strengthening exercises three times a week. The guidelines for adults recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on five days a week (or 150 minutes a week).

We want to see more people meeting those guidelines, and we want physicians and other health professionals to play an active role in increasing national physical activity levels. To achieve this, we will:

  • highlight the positive health impact of physical activity to the public and to policy makers
  • advocate for national policy measure that will increase physical activity levels
  • promote physical activity within clinical practice
  • recommend improvements to medical training and education to ensure patients receive appropriate advice and support on physical activity

A prescription for a wonder drug

In October 2017 the Minister for Health Promotion, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy launched our report A prescription for a wonder drug which calls on doctors and other healthcare professionals to start proactively informing their patients on the benefits of physical activity and advising them on increasing their levels of physical activity.  


A prescription for a wonder drug- recommendations

Doctors and other healthcare professionals 

  • Use brief interventions to offer advice and support patients who are sedentary or inactive but otherwise healthy. 
  • Ask patients about their level of physical activity; inform them of the benefits and encourage them set goals in relation to physical activity and to track their own progress.  
  • Offer advice or a prescription for physical activity with reference to frequency, duration, intensity and type.  
  • Where appropriate, use professionally supervised structured exercise programmes (exercise referral schemes) for management and rehabilitation for certain health conditions.  
  • Be physically active themselves 
  • Encourage women to be physically active when pregnant. 
  • Inform patients of the benefits of physical activity 
  • Encourage them to build physical activity into their daily routine 

The public: 

  • Make small changes to bring more physical activity into your day, for example through taking the stairs instead of the lift. Being active includes formal exercise, team or individual sports as well as walking or cycling to work and even some household chores. 
  • Aim to be more active. Even small increases in regular physical activity bring positive health benefits; greater increases up to and above the recommended 30 minutes daily, bring greater health benefits. 
  • Reduce and break up the time spent sitting every day, especially time watching TV. If you do sit for long periods every day be as active as you can be outside of this time to reduce the negative health impacts of sitting time. If you sit for more than 8 hours daily, try to be active for at least an hour every day.  
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift.  

 Policy makers: 

  • Prioritise the creation of a safe and attractive environment for physical activity, including walking and cycling infrastructure. 
  • Ensure that schools encourage physical activity throughout the day, and that sufficient time is given to PE. 
  • Introduce financial incentives to encourage people to be physically active, eg tax incentives on club and gym memberships and VAT reduction on sports equipment 
  • Commit sufficient resources and annual reviews of the National Activity Plan

Read more about these recommendations and the scientific evidence behind them in the reports below.

The recommendations of this report fully support the implementation of the National Physical Activity Action Plan launched earlier this year as part of the Healthy Ireland Initiative. It contains many relevant and potentially powerful actions to increase physical activity across the population. The National Physical Activity Action should be implemented promptly and in full. We must, as healthcare providers, lead the change and get people more active. It is time to recognise the health benefits of physical activity and to make changes, big or small, to incorporate it into all our lives.

Dr Peter Wright

Co-chair, Policy Group on Physical Activity

Members of the RCPI Policy Group on Physical activity

* co-opted members

Name role
Dr Peter Wright (Co-Chair) Director of Public Health, HSE
Prof Sean Gaine (Co-Chair) Consultant Respiratory Physician, Mater Misericordiae University Hospital
Dr Pádraig Sheeran Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine, RCPI/RCSI
Dr Emer O‘Connell Faculty of Public Health Medicine, RCPI
Dr Robert Ryan Faculty of Occupational Medicine, RCPI
Prof Edna Roche Faculty of Paediatrics, RCPI
Dr Brendan O’Brien Irish College of General Practitioners
Ms Amy Mulkerns Irish Thoracic Society
Dr Francis Finucane Irish Endocrine Society
Prof Juliette Hussey Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists
Dr Ciaran Corcoran College of Psychiatrists of Ireland
Dr Morgan Crowe National Clinical Programme for Older People
Mr Donal Buggy Irish Cancer Society
Dr Vincent Maher Irish Cardiac Society
Prof Michael Molloy Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine, RCPI/RCSI *
Dr Niamh Daly Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
Dr Fiona Cianci SpR in Public Health Medicine *

Contact us

For information on our policy work on physical activity contact:

Louise Finn

Communications Executive

Tel: +353 86 796 5186

For general press enquiries contact Louise in our Communications Department.

Mairéad Heffron

Policy Specialist

Tel: +353 (0)86 8148027

Contact Mairéad for queries relating to our policy groups or if you have an idea for a policy paper.