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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.

How can I start getting active?

It can be difficult to start being more active, particularly if you're not feeling well or you feel like there are things getting in the way.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

How to get started

  • Start off slowly. It may take a while to build up your fitness. Doing too much at first will make you feel tired and may put you off.
  • Plan a realistic and achievable routine. Try to find ways to be active that fit into your day-to-day life around your commitments, or build activity into your daily life. Trying to move a bit more every day can really help.
  • Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you can't be as active as you would like, and your energy levels will vary on different days. It's fine to slow down or take a break.
  • Try to identify your triggers and work around them. For example, if you find leaving the house difficult or don't like to exercise in front of other people, you could try doing some exercise at home.
  • Keep trying. It may take a while to find an activity you like. As well as trying different activities, you may find that you prefer a particular class, instructor or group.

"Although I love many aspects of running, it also brings out my capacity for guilt and self-criticism. There can be quite a lot of “no excuses” and “man up” type messages in the running world and I really struggle to keep these in perspective at times."

  • Work with your highs and lows. If you take medication that leaves you feeling exhausted in the mornings, let yourself rest and build in some exercise later on. If you find that exercising in the evenings affects your sleep, try doing some activity earlier in the day. You may also have periods of time when you're unable to exercise because of your mental health – that's OK. Let yourself have a break if you need it, and start again once you're feeling better.
  • Have some alternatives. If you can't be as active as you would like, it's a good idea to have alternative options that will help lift your mood. See our information on self-care for ideas.
  • Try not to compare yourself to other people. Set your own goals based on your own abilities and what you would like to achieve. Try to pay attention to how you are feeling and the progress you are making rather than other people.

Get Set To Go

Mind's Get Set To Go programme has lots of helpful information if you want to get more active but you're finding it difficult. For example, if you:

  • feel like you aren't a sporty type
  • don't feel very confident doing exercise, or comfortable with your body
  • feel low in energy
  • don't have much money to spend on exercise.

There are also personal stories from people who have found ways to be more active and help improve their mental health.

"I have done some fantastic activities [with Get Set to Go], had loads of fun and sampled sports that I've never had the chance to try before."

Free and low-cost activities

  • Find activities you can do for free. The NHS website has lots of ideas for getting active without spending any money.
  • Look for local schemes and discounts. Some councils offer cheaper leisure centre memberships for people who want to be physically active, especially if you have a health problem or are inactive, so it's worth checking your council's website. Many private gyms also offer free trials or discounts.
  • Many local Minds also run physical activity sessions at minimal cost – you can contact your local Mind and ask what they offer.

"Parkrun has given me the confidence to really believe in myself and keep my depression at bay."

If you need a confidence boost

  • Look for groups of like-minded people. Some leisure centres and sports clubs provide sessions aimed at people with mental health problems. This can be a great way of boosting your confidence levels.
  • Go with someone else. Some clubs will allow you to attend with someone you know, such as a friend, family member, colleague or support worker, for the first few sessions while you get used to the new surroundings.
  • Consider doing an activity on your own. There's lots of options if you prefer not to be active with other people. Walking, running or cycling are great physical activity - they can help you clear your head and can be built into your daily routine.

"When I'm feeling low, I crank up the music and hit the streets; it stops me heading to a really dark place."

If you feel conscious about your body

  • Remember that you're not alone. Most people have worries about their bodies, and other people may well be feeling self-conscious too.
  • Find an inclusive class. There are lots of classes where you will find people of all shapes and sizes. For example, you may be able to find a friendly Zumba class in your community centre or local walking group.
  • You could look for women- or men-only sessions. Many leisure centres and swimming pools run women- or men-only sessions, which may provide an environment in which you feel more comfortable being active.

"In my aqua classes there are people of all shapes and sizes – and honestly no one cares."

If you're struggling with your mental health

  • Look for activities specifically aimed at people with mental health problems. Some sports and leisure providers have sessions for people with mental health problems. Your local Mind may also provide access to different types of physical activity – you can contact your local Mind and ask what they can offer.

Exercise on prescription

If you have a diagnosis of mild to moderate depression, or if you are physically unwell, your GP may be able to refer you to a physical activity programme to help improve your mental and physical health – this is also called exercise on prescription.

In this type of programme, sessions usually last from 45 minutes to 1 hour, and take place at least three times a week over a 10–14 week period. The sessions often take place at a local leisure centre. If you think this might work for you, talk to your GP.

Laura running the Royal Parks Half Marathon

The ups and downs of running with bipolar disorder

"Some days I'd put on my trainers and head out with tears streaming down my face."

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

References and bibliography available on request.

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