After years of sitting in front of the television are people in south Essex beginning to get off the couch?

A new report shows even though people are exercising there is still a long way to go before we become a nation of active sportsmen and women.

Fewer than one in five people exercise the three or more times a week recommended to keep healthy.

Less than 50 per cent of adults in south Essex have taken part in any moderate sport or active recreation in the past month.

The new poll, by Sport England, has been carried out to allow targets to be set for the future and shows south Essex is a fraction away from the national average when it comes to taking part in sport.

It shows just 19.1 per cent of people in Basildon, Castle Point, Rochford and Southend exercise three times a week compared to a national average of 21 per cent.

Chris Perks, director of Sport England East, said: "We want to get 270,000 more people in the East to do 30 minutes of exercise three times a week by 2013.

"To do that we will be working with sportessex and local authorities to provide the right facilities, venues, coaches and other volunteers to make sport happen."

Councils are putting more and more emphasis on the importance of fitness and there are new classes popping up all the time at gyms and sports centres including dance classes, aerobics and even pole dancing.

Lisa Pittaway, 31, of Archer Avenue, Southend, is a qualified fitness instructor and has been running pole dancing classes through her company Pole Dance UK in Southend and Basildon since August.

She said: "I came over here from America as a new craze and a lot of people have really taken to it.

"People are realising the benefits and it is not just dance, it keeps you fit and keeps you tones and it's fun and can be catered for everyone.

"Going to the gym can be, especially if you are alone, a bit boring or tiring but people have fun at the pole dancing classes and it's more sociable."

The report shows even more needs to be done to encourage people to incorporate exercise into their lives as it is important for good health, reducing the risk of heart and other killer diseases.

South East Essex Primary Care Trust is working in partnership with local authorities and health and leisure professionals to encourage people to become more active, particularly supporting initiatives that encourage walking and cycling.

It is working on exercise referral schemes in leisure centres, health walks which involve short, led walks in local parks and on the seafront and a healthy Schools programme which encourages a whole school approach to activity including walking buses, safer journeys to school and after-school clubs.

Margaret Gray, health promotion strategist at the trust, said: "Exercise is vital for good health - it is inactivity that is a serious health problem.

"Not being active is health risk equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day.

"Yet surveys show that most people are still not regularly active.

"Regular physical activity can help to prevent and manage many different diseases including coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer."

But more people than ever are choosing to join a gym and Kerry Smith, membership manager at the David Lloyd Centre in Snakes Lane, Eastwood says it is a trend which is set to continue.

However people need to be encouraged to keep going regularly and not simply forgetting about it once they have signed their membership agreement.

Miss Smith said: "We promote both good diet and fitness here and we have a nutrition course which people can go on as well as all the fitness classes.

"We have all sorts of incentives within the club like free fitness programmes.

"We offer personal training and exercise incentives like if people go to seven fitness sessions they get a personal training session free to encourage them to get into the routine because that is the most difficult part."

The Audit Commission will use some of the results from the survey, adjusted to reflect the different levels of deprivation in local authority areas, in its culture service assessments as part of comprehensive performance assessment for single tier local authorities.

And the survey will be repeated in three years time to see if the concerted efforts by all partners to get the nation active are having an effect.