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.

Your stories

Centre Court for mental health

Oli Jones a professional tennis coach, and has bipolar. He’s part of the new face of sport...

Posted on 14/07/2015

How dancing helped me cope

Shalini, one of our Happy Monday ambassadors, blogs about how dancing helped her through tough times

Posted on 07/03/2014

The ups and downs of running with bipolar disorder

Laura blogs about why she's found running and training for races quite difficult mentally at times.

Laura H
Posted on 18/03/2015

Which activity is best for me?

Having a clear idea about what you want to achieve should help you to make a decision about which activity to choose. For example, you could think about which of these factors are most important for you:

  • meeting new people and making friends
  • learning a new skill
  • managing your weight
  • making your lifestyle more active
  • improving your physical fitness
  • giving your mental health a boost
  • playing a team sport or exercising on your own
  • being in an outdoor or indoor space
  • ease of access – for example if you have limited physical mobility, or can't afford certain classes or equipment
  • doing something you enjoy

Swimming has helped me. The pool is one of my safe places now and I go twice a week. It means that I’m tired at the end of the day so I can sleep much better, and I feel happier about my body.

Sujan found that joining jogging group helped her manage her anxiety and panic attacks. In this video she shares her story.

How can I compare different activities?

The table below provides key details on various physical activities to help you think about which might suit you best. You might be able to think of lots of other advantages and disadvantages to different activities that aren't listed here, but this table should provide a good starting point.

See below for an explanation of how impact and intensity affect your body.

ActivityImpact and intensityAdvantagesDisadvantages

Low impact

Light intensity

  • Very good if you have very low fitness levels
  • Improves mobility – can help you maintain a range of motion
  • Some strength benefits
  • Limited cardiovascular benefits




Low impact

Light intensity

  • Improves your flexibility, mobility, balance, strength and endurance
  • Improves breathing techniques and your posture
  • Promotes relaxation and spiritual wellbeing
  • Women-only sessions available
  • Limited cardiovascular benefits
  • Some positions may be challenging






Low impact

Light to moderate intensity



  • Can be relaxing
  • Improves your core stability, mobility and flexibility
  • Improves breathing techniques and your posture
  • Women-only sessions available
  • Limited cardiovascular benefits
  • Some positions may be challenging


Low impact

Light to moderate intensity

  • Some cardiovascular benefits
  • Improves your flexibility, mobility and strength
  • Can be relaxing
  • Mental health benefits associated with green space (see our pages on ecotherapy for more information)
  • Can be a group or lone activity
  • Weather can be a barrier
  • Activity cycles are seasonal so tends to drop off in winter
  • You need access to a garden and equipment

Low impact

Moderate intensity


  • Good cardiovascular benefits
  • Can be a group or lone activity
  • Being outdoors in nature can help lift your mood
  • Free of charge
  • If you're walking outdoors some terrain may pose risks – especially if you're older or less mobile
  • Weather can be a barrier

Low impact

Moderate intensity

  • Water can be therapeutic
  • Water buoyancy is helpful if you're overweight or have restricted movement
  • Women-only sessions available
  • Some activities exclude non-swimmers
  • Wearing swimwear can be challenging if you have low body confidence
  • Not appropriate if you have a water phobia
Exercise to music

Low or high impact depending on class or style

Moderate to vigorous intensity

  • Improves your cardiovascular fitness, strength and endurance
  • Can be a group or lone activity
  • Women-only sessions available
  • Challenges your coordination and motor skills, which can be frustrating at first
  • Music and group exercise or studio environment may be intimidating
Team sports

High impact

Moderate to vigorous intensity depending on sport

  • Most activities good for cardiovascular fitness
  • Good for building social networks
  • Builds teamwork skills
  • Promotes a sense of belonging
  • Joining a team may be difficult if you are uncomfortable being in a group

High impact

Moderate to vigorous intensity

  • Good for cardiovascular fitness
  • Stamina building
  • Can be a group or lone activity
  • Can be outdoors in nature
  • Physical sensations of running could potentially feel like a panic attack
  • Weather can be a barrier
  • Risk of injury, especially to joints and knees, but risks can be minimised with good running shoes
Gym-based training

Low to high impact depending on activity

Light, moderate or vigorous intensity depending on activity

  • Improves cardiovascular fitness, strength and endurance
  • Being indoors may be more comfortable during bad weather and can feel safer after dark
  • Limited flexibility training unless specific activities included
  • Equipment can be intimidating, and could cause injury if used incorrectly
  • Gym environment can be intimidating or boring
  • Membership can be expensive

Circuit training

High impact

Vigorous intensity

  • Improves cardiovascular fitness, strength and endurance
  • A good circuit programme should work every part of your body
  • Limited flexibility training unless specific activities included
  • May be seen as 'boot camp'-style exercise, which could feel intimidating

What does intensity mean?

Your body will feel different depending on the level of intensity and impact of your activity:

Intensity (or exertion) refers to how hard your body is working overall (meaning how much stored energy you’re using up) and will be different for everyone depending on your fitness levels so as you become fitter, activities will become easier.

How your body may feel when exercising:  

  • Light intensity – breathing and speaking is easy.
  • Moderate intensity – speaking is easy, but your breathing is deeper and quicker, your heart is beating faster and your body is warming up.
  • Vigorous intensity – breathing is very hard and you may be short of breath, speaking will be difficult and your heartbeat will feel rapid.

Heath care professionals recommend that we aim to do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week. At first this may be a challenge to those of us new to exercise, so it’s really important to pace yourself and build up your fitness levels until you’re able to meet the target.

What does impact mean? 

Low or high impact refers to the impact of exercise on your cardiovascular system (meaning how hard your heart and lungs are working). Low impact exercises can improve your health and fitness without harming your joints. Higher impact activity usually involves more movement, and both feet being off the ground. This can place more stress on your ankles, knees and other joints when your feet touch the ground (for example when running or jumping).

If you have problems with your joints or ligaments, some activities are low impact, but still have higher intensity benefits. For example, walking and swimming are both low impact, moderate intensity activities which put very little stress on your joints. Back to table.

Even when you identify an activity you'd really like to do, you might still face some barriers to getting started. See our page on overcoming barriers for more tips.

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


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