Physical activity, sport and mental health

Explains why being active is important, the types of activity to consider, how to overcome barriers, planning a safe routine and ideas for staying motivated.

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What risks should I consider?

There’s no wrong time to start exercising as long as you are physically able. However it’s also important to consider any risks, for example, if you:

You might need to take extra care when choosing an activity and planning a safe routine.

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). Depending on your answers, your club may ask you to have a check-up with your GP before participating in any activities. This may seem overcautious, but making sure you're healthy enough to exercise safely is really important.

If you have a physical health condition

Some physical conditions can have implications for the type and level of exercise it may be safe for you to do, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart problems
  • diabetes
  • chest pains
  • pregnancy
  • an injury

You may be unaware that you have an underlying health problem – high blood pressure for example has no obvious symptoms. So if you haven’t been active for some time, or haven’t had a check-up for a while, it’s worth talking to your GP before starting a new exercise programme so they can advise on what’s safe for you.

If you’re taking medication

Some medication can also have implications for the type and level of exercise it may be safe for you to do. It's important to check with your GP or psychiatrist what level of activity is safe for you, especially if you experience any of the side effects mentioned below:

  • Antidepressants. Some types of antidepressants can sometimes cause physical side effects, such as dizziness, high or low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat or disturbed heart rhythm.
  • Antipsychotics. If you're taking antipsychotics you may experience side effects such as muscle spasms, disturbed heart rhythm and palpitations. You may also experience drowsiness, blurred vision or dizziness, which may make it feel difficult to exercise. Weight gain, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol are also common side effects, which can put you at risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes – so taking regular exercise may be important for looking after your physical health.
  • Beta-blockers (sometimes used to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety). As beta-blockers work by slowing your heart rate and lowering blood pressure, your heart will be working harder when exercising. You may need to adjust the intensity and duration of your exercise sessions so you don't become exhausted.
  • Lithium. It's good to exercise regularly if you're taking lithium, but concentrations of the drug in your blood can increase to harmful levels as you lose fluids (for example by sweating), so it's best to avoid taking your lithium dose immediately before exercising. If you're planning to make a significant change to your activity levels, it’s sensible to speak to your GP first – they may check your blood levels and adjust your dosage if necessary (see our page on taking lithium safely for more information).
  • Tranquillisers, for example benzodiazepines like Diazepam (sometimes used to treat anxiety) work by slowing down your body's functions, so your reaction times may be slower and you may experience drowsiness, dizziness or unsteadiness. This could affect your alertness or increase the risk of getting injured.

If you have anxiety or panic attacks

If you experience anxiety or panic attacks you might find that doing exercise can cause some sensations which may feel like you're having a panic attack, such as raised heart rate, feeling shaky or dizzy, breathlessness or feeling hot. When running, it’s also easy to hyperventilate (rapid breathing upsets your body’s balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen).

  • Start off slowly. This may help you spot the difference between physical effects of exercise and those of a panic attack.
  • Take deep, slow breaths. This may help to reduce the likelihood of you starting to hyperventilate.
  • Avoid triggering situations. Always try to opt for activities where you can minimise risks. For example if you want to avoid crowds or travelling it might mean you choose to do some jogging or walking at the local park rather than heading for a busy gym.

If you could be at risk of over exercising

Exercising is usually a beneficial thing to do for your mental health, and can be helpful as part of a long-term recovery or treatment plan. But there are some situations in which you might need to take extra care in case it starts to become a problem for you.

  • If you have an eating problem. If you experience an eating problem such as anorexia, it may be tempting to over exercise as a way of controlling your weight or burning calories after eating. (See our page on treatment and support for eating problems for more information).
  • If you have compulsive or addictive feelings about exercise. If your exercising is starting to take over your life – for example if you feel anxious if you miss a session, or if it's becoming more important than work, family or friends – you could be developing an exercise or training compulsion (sometimes called an exercise addiction). Having an exercise compulsion can be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and can often accompany an eating problem.

The risks of over exercising

Over exercising can be very harmful for your physical health:

  • Excessive exercise can damage tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage and joints, and when minor injuries aren't allowed to heal, this can result in long-term damage.
  • Instead of building muscle, exercising too much destroys muscle mass, especially if your body isn't getting enough nutrition, forcing it to break down muscle for energy. This can become life threatening.

This information was published in July 2015. We will revise it in 2018.


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