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Overcoming barriers to physical activity

You might face barriers to doing physical activity. This might include not having enough time or money. Or having experienced discrimination or stigma when doing physical activity. It may be that you want to get active, but don't have anywhere to do so safely. Or maybe, you simply don't enjoy it. 

This doesn't always mean being active isn't right for you. But it may not be the right thing at the moment. Or you might need to try something different. There are things you can try overcome some of these barriers. 

Building your confidence

Any kind of physical activity can be difficult, especially at first. If you haven't done an activity before, you might feel self-conscious. You might also feel frustrated if things don’t feel right the first few times you try.

Remember that it's ok to stop doing an activity that isn’t working for you. But if you want to keep trying, these ideas may help:

Be kind to yourself

Sometimes we can't be as active as we might like.  Our energy levels will vary on different days. It's fine to slow down or take a break.

Keep trying

It may take a while to find an activity you like. It can help to try out different activities. But you may also find that you prefer a certain class, instructor, or place to do an activity.

Work with your highs and lows

There are lots of reasons that you might find it hard to be active at certain times of day.

For example, if you take medication that leaves you feeling exhausted in the mornings. It might help to let yourself rest and build in some exercise later on.

Or you may find that exercising in the evenings affects your sleep. You could try doing some activity earlier in the day instead.

You may also have periods when you're unable to exercise because of your mental health. Let yourself have a break if you need it, and start again once you feel better.

Try not to compare yourself to others

Set your own goals based on your abilities and what you want to achieve. Try to pay attention to how you're feeling rather than what other people are doing.

Change who you do activity with

You might have been doing physical activity on your own and want to share it with others. Or you might have been doing physical activity in a group and find that uncomfortable.

It's ok to change who you’re active with, if that makes it more enjoyable for you.

The thought of going to a gym on my own terrified me but I started going to various exercise classes with a friend. The difference it made to my mental health was incredible.

Taking care of yourself while being active

If you're struggling with being active, these are some ideas to help support yourself:

Change your routine or try something new

It might help to change when or how often you do physical activity, if it no longer fits in your schedule.

Or you might also want to try something new. You might enjoy different activities more at different times. There are lots of activities you can try.

Only do what you can

You might find that you have days when you want to be active. But you may also have days when it feels like too much.

Try to adapt to how you're feeling. It's ok to skip an activity you planned if you aren’t feeling up to it.

It might also help to think about the following:

  • Remember that any kind of movement is good. It doesn’t have to be certain types of activity, like playing a sport, to count as being active.
  • Be gentle with yourself. If you don't manage to do what you were planning, that's OK. Have a break, and try again when you're feeling better.
  • Sometimes, physical activity can have a negative impact on our mental or physical health. If you feel this way, you may need to take a longer break until you feel better. Our page on over-exercising and exercise addiction has more information on negative relationships with physical activity.

Find ways to support your mental health

If being physically active isn't helping how you feel, try not to blame yourself. Looking after your mental health can be hard, especially when you're not feeling well.

If you're struggling to manage your mental health on your own, you can seek help. A good first step can be to talk to your GP. They can discuss how you’re feeling, and discuss treatments like medication or talking therapy.

You could also look for some other ways to care for yourself. For example, we have tips on relaxation, mindfulness and getting into nature.

It can take time to feel better. But many people find that different combinations of treatment, self-care and support can help. Sometimes physical activity might be part of this – but it’s ok if it doesn’t work for you.

On the weeks I didn’t manage it, I tried not to feel guilty but recognise that sometimes life gets in the way. It’s been important for me to focus on when I have been able to fit in a swim, rather than the weeks I have not.

Help with the cost of activities

If you’re struggling with the cost of being active, these tips may help:

Look for local schemes and discounts

Your local council or leisure centre may have information on discounts available for certain classes, gyms, or programmes.

Some GPs may offer exercise prescriptions for people with depression, which may include discounted or free programmes. You can ask your GP for more information.

The NHS Better Health programme also has information on discounts and introductory offers for getting active.

Find free or low-cost activities

You don't need to have lots of equipment or a gym membership to be active. Our information on choosing an activity that's right for you includes ideas for free and low-cost activities. We Are Undefeatable also has information on free physical activity.

Video: Bob's story about Mind's walk-and-talk

Watch Bob's story about taking part in a local walk-and-talk, to help with loneliness and support his mental health.

Safe and inclusive spaces

Doing physical activity can be a vulnerable experience. And in some cases, it can feel unsafe.

You may not feel comfortable in your body when doing certain activities or in certain environments. Or you may feel unsafe if you've experienced stigma or discrimination about your body or identity. Especially if that happened in a space that people go to be active.

There are some national organisations that provide support for people from different groups:

  • We are Undefeatable and Every Body Moves have information, classes and search tools for disabled people who want to be more physically active. You could also search the Hub of Hope for information on local physical activity programmes to support people with mental health problems.
  • Pride Sports challenges homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in UK sport. They have an LGBT+ sports club finder for finding inclusive clubs.
  • Many Age UK centres run classes for people aged over 50. These classes focus on gentle exercise, and welcome people with different mobility and health needs.
  • This Girl Can offers information and support for anyone who identifies as a woman, who wants to engage in physical activity.

If these organisations don't offer the support you need, there may be local support available. For example, there are lots of local groups available for different communities, such as for people from Black or Asian backgrounds.

You can search for local groups online. Or they may be advertised in places like gyms, leisure centres or community centres. 

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

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

References and bibliography available on request.

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