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How are physical activity and mental health connected?

This page explains the relationship between physical activity, exercise and mental health. 

What are physical activity and exercise?

Physical activity is any movement your body does that uses energy. This might be as part of everyday activities, such as cleaning or cooking.

Or you might be active by choosing to do exercise. Exercise is physical activity that we tend to do intentionally, rather than as just part of everyday living.

Exercise can include things like walking, running, cycling or team sports. You might do it to improve a skill, build your strength, or as part of a social activity.

Many of my favourite memories with friends and family involve long walks or hikes, some of them in nature which I find very therapeutic. The beauty of walking is you get to have deep and meaningful chats as you go, because you’re not as out of breath.

How can physical activity help my mental health?

Physical activity has lots of benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing. It can help with things like:

  • Managing stress
  • Improving sleep
  • Improving your mood
  • Improving confidence
  • Connecting with nature
  • Socialising and meeting new people
  • Managing symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Memory and brain functioning
  • Heart, muscle and bone health
  • Reducing the risk of developing some long-term health conditions, such as heart disease

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.

What if I struggle with being active?

There may be times when physical activity doesn’t help our mental health, or makes us feel worse. For example, if we don’t enjoy the activity we’re doing, or if we over-exercise. We might also use exercise as part of an eating problem or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

There may also be things out of our control that prevent us from being active, such as:

  • Living in area with limited access to safe places to be active
  • Not having enough money to engage in the activities we want to do
  • Our physical health, including the side effects of medications
  • Negative experiences of physical activity, such as facing stigma, discrimination, or lack of understanding from people around you

When you're feeling this way, it can be frustrating when people tell you about the benefits of being more active. Our page on overcoming barriers to getting active has tips to help when you’re finding things difficult.

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

This information was published in October 2023. We will revise it in 2026. 

References and bibliography available on request.

If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.

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