Physical activity, sport and mental health

Explains why being active is important, the types of activity to consider, how to overcome barriers, planning a safe routine and ideas for staying motivated.

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Why does being active matter?

We all know that being physically active is good for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked – so physical activity can be very beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing too.

Lots of us don't get enough exercise to stay healthy, but physical activity is particularly important if you have a mental health problem. This is because people with mental health problems are more likely to:

  • have a poor diet
  • smoke or drink too much alcohol
  • be overweight or obese (this can be a side effect of taking medication)

So if you have a mental health problem, the health benefits of becoming more physically active are even more significant.

How mental health impacts on physical conditions

Having a mental health problem can put us at even higher risk of developing serious physical health problems than other people. Those of us with a mental health problem are:

  • twice as likely to die from heart disease
  • four times as likely to die from respiratory disease
  • on average, likely to die between 10 and 17 years earlier than the general population, if we have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (this may be due to a number of factors including suicide, poor diet, exercise and social conditions. People may also be slower at seeking help, while doctors can sometimes fail to spot physical health problems in people with severe mental health problems)

If you have a long-term physical health condition it can also put you at risk of developing a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression. For some people, the impact on your mental health could become more of a problem than the physical condition itself. Exercise programmes and other treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness have been shown to improve anxiety and depression, and quality of life for people with chronic illnesses.

What does being physically active mean?

We all have different reasons for being active. The types of activity we do usually falls under these headings:

  • Physical activity. This can describe anything we do that involves moving our bodies.
  • Exercise. Any physical activity could be considered exercise, but when we talk about doing exercise we usually mean activities we do deliberately for fitness or training, rather than something that's part of our daily routine.
  • Sport. Sport usually refers to physical activities we do on our own or in a team for competition or fun. People working in the sport and leisure industries use the word in its broadest sense, including activities such as tennis, athletics, swimming, keep-fit or Zumba classes. Some sports such as snooker or darts are more about skill than any physical exertion (Sport England, the national body responsible for increasing access to sport, has an extensive list of sports on its website).

Disability sport and inclusive sport

You might consider your mental health problem to be a disability, or you might not. If you are disabled, you might be even less likely to do any sport as a physical activity – only 1 in 6 disabled people play a sport regularly compared to 1 in 3 non-disabled people. But many of the bodies that oversee particular sports (for example The Football Association or Lawn Tennis Association) provide tailored opportunities for disabled people to enjoy sport, whatever your level of ability. This includes people with mental health problems.

Quick tips for being more active

Watch our video for five ways to get moving and feel better.

This information was published in July 2015. We will revise it in 2018.

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