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 plan a safe routine?

When you're starting an exercise routine, you'll be more likely to stay motivated, enjoy it and keep it going if you consider the following:

Getting started

If you haven’t been active for some time, doing too much exercise at first will make you feel tired and may put you off. When you're just starting out, it's helpful to bear the following in mind:

  • Choose an exercise or sport that you really enjoy. Don't feel that you have to stick at something that's not working for you. There are hundreds of activities you can do and you're much more likely to keep doing it if it's fun.
  • Have realistic expectations. If you used to be active in the past remember that age and inactivity can take its toll on fitness levels, so have some realistic expectations about what you can do when you first start.
  • Try to build more activity naturally into your daily routine. For example:
    • take the stairs instead of the lift
    • walk or cycle to work instead of driving or getting the bus (if it's too far, see if you can walk or cycle for at least part of the journey)
    • leave the car at home, walk the children to school and jog home
  • Be patient, and gradually increase the intensity of your exercise as your body adjusts.

So many people force themselves to do stuff they don’t enjoy for the health benefits. But they usually give up instead of finding the thing they love and can’t get enough of.

How regularly should I exercise?

To stay healthy the NHS says that adults should do 150 minutes of moderate activity every week. That's roughly 30 minutes of activity on at least five days, or smaller chunks of activity spread more frequently over the week.

This might be beyond the reach of many of us, particularly older or less mobile people. But health professionals agree that even a small amount of physical activity is better than none. Try not to worry too much about meeting this target – but aim to get started by building activity into your daily routine and then work your way up.

Looking after yourself

Warming up

Warming up before your main activity is an important part of a session – it helps your body prepare for activity by raising your heart rate and increasing blood flow to your muscles, which can help to prevent injury and discomfort. A good 10-minute warm up could include:

  • some cardiovascular exercise such as marching on the spot or jogging
  • some gentle stretching once your pulse has increased and your muscles are feeling warm (you should never stretch a muscle that's been resting as this can cause injury)

Cooling down

Cooling down after your main activity should also be a key part of your session – this means keeping the movement going but reducing the intensity of your activity to help your body move from being active to resting. Cooling down properly can help prevent:

  • feeling dizzy or light-headed after exercising
  • aches and pains the next day

A 10-minute cool down is usually enough time to allow your breathing rate to return to normal and for your body to feel less hot.

Listening to your body

When exercising, it's important to listen to the signals that your body is sending you. These can tell you if you're pushing yourself too hard. For example:

  • Feeling that your muscles are working or slight muscle soreness the next day is normal and shows that exercises are working.
  • If your muscles feel very sore it might mean you're doing too much too soon. You may need to reduce the intensity of your sessions and make sure you're doing a correct warm up and cool down.
  • If you experience chest pain, dizziness or severe shortness of breath, stop immediately and contact your GP. Call an ambulance if you feel very unwell and your symptoms do not go away when you stop exercising.

Keeping hydrated

When exercising, you can lose up to a litre of fluid in an hour depending on how long and how hard you’re working. You will lose fluid through sweating and in the air that you breathe out. If you don’t keep your fluid levels topped up, you will quickly become dehydrated, which can affect your health and ability to continue exercising. It’s really important to make sure you get the right amount of fluid before, during and after exercise.

Taking care in the sun

Remember to use a good sunscreen if you're planning on being outside for any length of time, especially on a bright day. Some types of medication can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight so that you burn more easily; in this case you'll need to use an even higher factor sunscreen and take extra care.

Keeping it going

When you're feeling low it can be difficult to stay motivated so it's worth thinking about some options you can use when you need that bit of extra inspiration. For example:

  • Involve a friend. Having a buddy to exercise with can be a great way of keeping you motivated.
  • Develop your support networks. Our network of local Minds and our Elefriends online community can be great places to develop supportive networks. You could link up with people in your area who have similar experiences (see our pages on staying safe online if you choose to seek support online).
  • Set realistic goals and reward yourself as you meet them. Don’t forget to step up your challenges as you work towards your 150 minutes per week.
  • Keep an activity log to track your progress. Think about how your activity is helping you meet any physical, mental and social goals. This can be a powerful way of remembering the highs – and may help you work out how to avoid the lows.
  • Use technology to help. If you have a smart phone there are lots of apps that can help motivate you. For example, the NHS Choices’ Couch to 5K app is free and aims to get you running 5k within nine weeks. If you don't have a smart phone, the NHS Choices website also has Couch to 5K podcasts to motivate you.
  • Have a back-up option. There may be times when you can't exercise so it's a good idea to have an alternative option that will help lift your mood. For example mindfulness can be a great accompaniment to any exercise routine.

Exercise has certainly helped with my depression. I love setting myself a target then getting out there and achieving it.

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


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