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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How can I overcome barriers?

We can all face barriers that stop us being active. Here are some common examples with some ideas for overcoming them:

I'm too tired or often have no energy

Having a mental health problem (or taking medication) can make you feel tired, disrupt sleep and drain energy levels. Feeling low can also dampen your desire to do the things you enjoy, which can make it even harder to get up and go.

  • Work with your highs and lows. For example, if you’re not a morning person don’t go for early morning sessions, and avoid times when the side effects of your medication may be a problem.
  • Start off small, and build up your activity levels at a pace that works for you. Even small amounts of activity can give you a natural energy boost – and remember that exercise can help you sleep better (see our pages on coping with sleep problems for more tips on getting better sleep).

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

I’m short of time

Not being able to find time to exercise is one of the most common barriers, but there are ways to squeeze it in:

  • Be strategic with your schedule. Work out what time you have available and find an activity that fits into your schedule; alternatively, build some time into your week where you can do some exercise.
  • Raise your activity levels at home and work, or when you are out and about. A brisk 15 minute walk or cycle to the station or building some extra steps into your day can help.
  • Choose activities with childcare facilities. Finding time to exercise when you're looking after children can be tough, but many local council leisure centres provide free crèche facilities. Some also allow children to attend certain swimming sessions.
  • Turn exercise into something you really enjoy. Finding an activity that's fun will mean you're much more likely to make time for it.

It’s too expensive

Buying the right clothes and equipment can be expensive, and might rule out joining a private gym or leisure centre. But you don't have to spend a lot of money to be more active.

  • Look for local schemes and discounts. Some councils offer discounted leisure centre memberships for people who want to exercise more, especially if you have a health problem or are inactive, so it’s well worth checking your council’s website. Many local Minds also run physical activity sessions at minimal cost – you can contact your local Mind and ask what they offer.
  • Ask your GP about exercise on prescription. Your GP might be able to prescribe an exercise programme on the NHS to help you manage your mental health problem. You can ask them if this is an option for you.
  • Find activities you can do for free. The outdoors can be a great place to boost your activity levels for little cost. With some comfortable footwear, walking and jogging won’t cost you anything. Your local park may also host a running group. One example is Parkrun where anyone, regardless of their ability, can complete a weekly 5k run for free.

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

I lack confidence

Trying out something new, travelling to new places, or being with people you don’t know can be really daunting at first. But over time, you may find that taking up an activity helps to increase your self-confidence as you become fitter and improve your skills.

  • Ask someone you trust to help you get started. Some clubs will allow you to attend with a friend or support worker for the first few sessions while you get used to the new surroundings.
  • Look for groups of like-minded people. Some sport governing bodies provide sessions aimed at people with mental health problems. You’ll be joined by people who may have similar problems to you – and sessions are run by people who understand your needs. This can be a great way of boosting your confidence levels.
  • Consider doing an activity on your own. There’s lots of options if you prefer not to exercise with other people. Walking, running or cycling are great exercise; they can help you clear your head and can easily be built into your daily routine.

I’m embarrassed about my body

Lots of people have worries about their bodies. These feelings can be particularly difficult if a negative body image is part of your mental health problem, or you're taking medication which causes side effects on your body. But this doesn't have to stop you being more active.

  • Try to reassure yourself that you're not alone. It’s important to remember that everybody has to start somewhere and many people will share similar anxieties about their bodies.
  • Find a beginners class in a friendly environment. If you’re intimidated by gyms, joining a beginners’ class at a local community centre or your council leisure centre may be a friendlier option.
  • You could look for women- or men-only sessions. Many leisure centres and swimming pools run women- or men-only sessions to help support people who feel uncomfortable about attending mixed-gender sessions.

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

I’m not a sporty person

You might feel uneasy about exercise classes or the pressure of a gym – or have bad memories of school sports. But being physically active doesn’t have to be about high impact sport or exercise – there are lots of activities you can do without having to go near a gym. For example:

  • Green exercise. Green Gyms, gardening projects and environmental volunteering can all get you involved in outdoor conservation or horticultural work with other local people (see our pages on ecotherapy for more information about ways to get involved in green exercise).
  • Walking groups. For example, Walking for Health offers over 3,000 free short walks every week. You'll be supported by trained volunteers who will guide you through your walk. The walks are short and over easy terrain so are perfect if you're not used to being active.
  • Dance classes can be a fun alternative to structured exercise and give you all the benefits of a good workout. The popularity of TV dance shows has meant that classes are now more widely available. The NHS Choices website has some useful tips on getting started.

I’m not the sporty type, but I love walking. It really lifts my mood.

Stigma stops me in my tracks

You might feel that some people won't understand your needs, or may be judgmental because of your mental health problem. Experiencing stigma can make you feel powerless, but there are things you can do.

  • Look for activities aimed at people with mental health problems. Some sport and leisure providers are making services more appropriate for people with mental health problems. Our network of local Minds also provides access to different types of physical activities – you can contact your local Mind and ask what they can offer.
  • Support anti-stigma organisations and campaigns. For example, Time to Change's work with The Football Association has resulted in some high-profile football clubs offering training sessions for people with mental health problems, and our Get Set to Go programme is specifically designed to support people to overcome barriers to being physically active. (You can look at our campaigns page for details of lots of different mental health campaigns you can get involved in.)
  • Encourage your local sport organisations to sign the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation. National sport governing bodies are aware of the need for change and many organisations have already agreed to tackle discrimination on the grounds of mental health by signing the charter (you can see which organisations have already signed up here). Although it’s still early days, Mind will be working to help sport organisations bring about change quickly.


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


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