Physical activity and your mental health

Information about how physical activity can help your mental health, and tips for choosing an activity that works for you, and how to overcome anything that might stop you from becoming more active.

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What is physical activity?

Being physically active means sitting down less and moving our bodies more. Many people find that physical activity helps them maintain positive mental health, either on its own, or in combination with other treatments.

This doesn’t have to mean running marathons or training every day at the gym. There are lots of different things you can do to be a bit more active. For ideas, see our information on choosing an activity. We also have some tips to help you get started, and information about how much activity is healthy.

Or you can watch our video for five ways to get moving and feel better:

However, it can be difficult to be physically active, especially if you are feeling unwell. We have information which you may find helpful if:

How can physical activity help my mental health?

There are many studies which have shown that doing physical activity can improve mental health. For example, it can help with:

  • better sleep – by making you feel more tired at the end of the day
  • happier moods – physical activity releases feel-good hormones that make you feel better in yourself and give you more energy
  • managing stress, anxiety or intrusive and racing thoughts – doing something physical releases cortisol which helps us manage stress. Being physically active also gives your brain something to focus on and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times.

I’ve always found that exercise is the one thing that gets me well again, with depression, it’s invaluable. It makes me feel great, just healthy and active. I don’t feel as tired or lethargic when I exercise and it makes me happy and content in myself.

  • better self-esteem – being more active can make you feel better about yourself as you improve and meet your goals
  • reducing the risk of depression – studies have shown that doing regular physical activity can reduce the likelihood of experiencing a period of depression
  • connecting with people – doing group or team activities can help you meet new and like-minded people, and make new friends.

But physical activity isn't always helpful for everyone's mental health. You may find that it is helpful at some times and not others, or just that it doesn't work for you. For some people, physical activity can start to have a negative impact on their mental health, for example, if you have an eating problem or tend to overtrain.

Exercise ... can seem like [an] impossible challenge when you're having a tough time.

What if I’m feeling unwell?

When you're feeling unwell, it can be really hard to get started and it can be frustrating when people tell you about the benefits of being more active.

If you’re in a really bad place, don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t exercise. It can be easy to start feeling guilty or beat yourself up about not exercising, and this can start to contribute to feeling unwell.

You may need to focus on other things for a while, and build some physical activity into your routine once you’re feeling a bit better. It’s important to find a balance, and figure out what works best for you. 


This information was published in March 2019. We will revise it in 2022.


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