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 should I consider before I start getting active?

If you have a mental health problem, or if you're physically unwell, there may be certain things that might affect the type and amount of activity you can do. It's important to think about these before you start getting active, to make sure what you're doing is safe.

For example, you may need to think about how much activity, and what types of activity, you can do if you:

Medication

Some medication can cause side effects that affect the type and amount of physical activity that is safe for you to do. Always check with your GP before you start a new routine, or if you change your medication or dose.

For example:

  • Some antidepressants can cause dizziness, high or low blood pressure, or affect your heart rate.
  • Antipsychotics can cause muscle spasms, disturbed heart rhythm and palpitations, drowsiness, blurred vision or dizziness.
  • Beta-blockers slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, so your heart will work harder when exercising. You may need to adjust how you exercise to avoid becoming exhausted by this.
  • If you take lithium, you should check with a GP before doing any physical activity. This is because losing fluid from your body during exercise (for example, by sweating) can sometimes increase the concentration of lithium in your blood to a harmful level.
  • Tranquillisers, for example benzodiazepines like Diazepam, can slow your reaction times, or cause drowsiness, dizziness or unsteadiness.

Anxiety or panic attacks

If you experience anxiety or panic attacks, you might find that some of the physical sensations you get while exercising, such as raised heart rate, feeling shaky or dizzy, breathlessness or feeling hot, can feel similar to a panic attack. This can then cause you to feel anxious, and may cause a panic attack.

If you experience this:

  • Start off slowly. This may help you spot the difference between the effects of physical activity and a panic attack.
  • Do a gentler activity. An activity that focuses on strength and stretching, such as yoga or tai chi, may work better for you than one that requires more intense exercise.
  • Take deep, slow breaths. This may help stop you hyperventilating. Focus on breathing out.
  • Avoid triggering situations. For example, if you want to avoid crowds or travelling, you could go jogging or walking in a local park, or try exercising at home.

Eating problems

Many people with eating problems have a complex relationship with exercise, and overtraining can become an unhealthy part of your condition. However, physical activity can still be a positive part of your recovery – you may just need to be more careful about the type and amount of activity you do.

If you have, or are recovering from, an eating problem, it is a good idea to talk this through with your GP before you start an activity.

Read Angela's blog about taking on a difficult trek to Iceland while living with an eating problem, depression and anxiety, and how the challenge helped her mental health.

Compulsive or addictive feelings

Some people experience compulsive or addictive feelings about physical activity (sometimes called an exercise addiction), which can lead to harmful overtraining. These feelings can be a form, or a symptom, of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or part of an eating problem.

If you tend to experience compulsive or addictive feelings about exercise, or start to experience them once you start doing more physical activity, it is a good idea to talk to your GP about how to manage this or think about seeking help.

Physical health conditions

For many people with a physical health condition, doing an appropriate amount of physical activity can be an important part of managing your condition and avoiding future health problems. However, depending on your condition, you may need to be more careful about the type and amount of activity you do, to make sure what you are doing is safe and won't have a negative impact on your heath.

You should be particularly careful if you have:

  • high blood pressure
  • chest pains
  • a heart condition
  • diabetes
  • are pregnant or have recently given birth
  • an injury.

Always check with your GP about what is safe for you before you start any physical activity.

Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaires

Some sports clubs, gyms and leisure centres may ask you to complete a short health questionnaire before letting you use the facilities and equipment (often referred to as a PAR-Q, or physical activity readiness questionnaire). These questionnaires focus mainly on making sure you are physically healthy enough to use the facilities and activities that the club, gym or centre offers, so you shouldn't be asked to disclose any mental health problems as part of the questionnaire.

But if you are concerned that a mental health problem may affect your ability to do any activities, you can still mention this on the questionnaire. You could also ask to discuss this with somebody who works at the club, gym or centre, if you think that will put you at ease about starting an activity.

Depending on your answers, you may be asked to have a check-up with your GP before participating in any activities. This may seem overcautious, but it's really important to make sure if it's safe for you to do more physical activity, and if so, what type and amount of activity is appropriate for you.


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


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