Being physically active means sitting down less and moving our bodies more. Many people find that physical activity helps them maintain positive mental health, either on its own, or in combination with other treatments.

This doesn't have to mean running marathons or training every day at the gym. There are lots of different things you can do to be a bit more active.

How can physical activity help my mental health?

There are many studies which have shown that doing physical activity can improve mental health.

For example, it can help with:

  • better sleep – by making you feel more tired at the end of the day
  • happier moods – physical activity releases feel-good hormones that make you feel better in yourself and give you more energy
  • managing stress, anxiety or intrusive and racing thoughts – doing something physical releases cortisol which helps us manage stress. Being physically active also gives your brain something to focus on and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times
  • better self esteem – being more active can make you feel better about yourself as you improve and meet your goals
  • reducing the risk of depression – studies have shown that doing regular physical activity can reduce the likelihood of experiencing a period of depression
  • connecting with people – doing group or team activities can help you meet new and like minded people and make new friends

But physical activity isn't always helpful for everyone's mental health. You may find that it’s helpful at some times and not others, or just that it just doesn’t work for you. For some people, physical activity can start to have a negative impact on their mental health, for example, if you have an eating problem or tend to overtrain.

How to get started

  • Start off slowly. It may take a while to build up your fitness. Doing too much at first will make you feel tired and may put you off.
  • Plan a realistic and achievable routine. Try to find ways to be active that fit into your day-to-day life around your commitments or build activity into your daily life. Trying to move a bit more every day can really help.
  • Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you can't be as active as you would like, and your energy levels will vary on different days. It's fine to slow down or take a break.
  • Try to identify your triggers and work around them. For example, if you find leaving the house difficult or don't like to exercise in front of other people, you could try doing some exercise at home.
  • Keep trying. It may take a while to find an activity you like. As well as trying different activities, you may find that you prefer a particular class, instructor or group.
  • Work with your highs and lows. If you take medication that leaves you feeling exhausted in the mornings, let yourself rest and build in some exercise later on. If you find that exercising in the evenings affects your sleep, try doing some activity earlier in the day. You may also have periods of time when you're unable to exercise because of your mental health – that's OK. Let yourself have a break if you need it, and start again once you're feeling better.
  • Have some alternatives. If you can't be as active as you would like, it's a good idea to have alternative options that will help lift your mood. See our information on self-care for ideas.
  • Try not to compare yourself to other people. Set your own goals based on your own abilities and what you would like to achieve. Try to pay attention to how you are feeling and the progress you are making rather than other people.

Free and low-cost activities

Find activities you can do for free. The NHS website has lots of ideas for getting active without spending any money.

  • Look for local schemes and discounts. Some councils offer cheaper leisure centre memberships for people who want to be physically active, especially if you have a health problem or are inactive, so it's worth checking your council's website. Many private gyms also offer free trials or discounts.

If you need a confidence boost

  • Look for groups of like-minded people. Some leisure centres and sports clubs provide sessions aimed at people with mental health problems. This can be a great way of boosting your confidence levels.
  • Go with someone else. Some clubs will allow you to attend with someone you know, such as a friend, family member, colleague or support worker, for the first few sessions while you get used to the new surroundings.
  • Consider doing an activity on your own. There's lots of options if you prefer not to be active with other people. Walking, running or cycling are great physical activity - they can help you clear your head and can be built into your daily routine.

If you feel conscious about your body

  • Remember that you're not alone. Most people have worries about their bodies, and other people may well be feeling self-conscious too.
  • Find an inclusive class. There are lots of classes where you will find people of all shapes and sizes. For example, you may be able to find a friendly Zumba class in your community centre or local walking group.
  • You could look for women- or men-only sessions. Many leisure centres and swimming pools run women or men only sessions, which may provide an environment in which you feel more comfortable being active.

How much activity should I do?

There are lots of benefits to being more active, and any amount of physical activity can help. You don't have to begin a vigorous training plan to start feeling better.

How much activity you decide to do is personal to you. This will depend on your current level of activity and fitness, and what you can fit in with your day-to-day life.

There may also be things that affect how much activity is safe for you to do, such as medication you might be taking, an eating problem, anxiety, OCD, or a physical health condition.

What's important is that you work out what feels realistic for you at the moment. This may change from time to time, depending on how you are feeling, and what you are able to do.

The NHS website has information about how much exercise a person is recommended to do each week, and how intense (moderate or vigorous) this activity would ideally be. The NHS's information includes examples of activities which count as moderate or vigorous exercise. However, it's important to remember that this is just a guide based on the average person, and it's OK if you don't feel like you can achieve this right now. The important thing is to start to try to increase your activity levels, and to find something that works for you.

What should I consider before I start getting active?

If you have a mental health problem, or if you're physically unwell, there may be certain things that might affect the type and amount of activity you can do. It's important to think about these before you start getting active, to make sure what you're doing is safe.


Some medication can cause side effects that affect the type and amount of physical activity that is safe for you to do. Always check with your GP before you start a new routine, or if you change your medication or dose.

For example:

  • Some antidepressants can cause dizziness, high or low blood pressure, or affect your heart rate.
  • Antipsychotics can cause muscle spasms, disturbed heart rhythm and palpitations, drowsiness, blurred vision or dizziness.
  • Beta-blockers slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, so your heart will work harder when exercising. You may need to adjust how you exercise to avoid becoming exhausted by this.
  • If you take Lithium you should check with a GP before doing any physical activity. This is because losing fluid from your body during exercise (for example, by sweating) can sometimes increase the concentration of lithium in your blood to a harmful level.
  • Tranquilizers like Diazepam, can slow your reaction times, or cause drowsiness, dizziness or unsteadiness.
Anxiety or panic attacks

If you experience anxiety or panic attacks, you might find that some of the physical sensations you get while exercising, such as raised heart rate, feeling shaky or dizzy, breathlessness or feeling hot, can feel similar to a panic attack. This can then cause you to feel anxious and may cause a panic attack.

If you experience this:

  • Start off slowly. This may help you spot the difference between the effects of physical activity and a panic attack.
  • Do a gentler activity. An activity that focuses on strength and stretching, such as yoga or tai chi, may work better for you than one that requires more intense exercise.
  • Take deep, slow breaths. This may help stop you hyperventilating. Focus on breathing out.
  • Avoid triggering situations. For example, if you want to avoid crowds or travelling, you could go jogging or walking in a local park or try exercising at home.
Eating problems

Many people with eating problems have a complex relationship with exercise, and overtraining can become an unhealthy part of your condition. However, physical activity can still be a positive part of your recovery, you may just need to be more careful about the type and amount of activity you do.

If you have, or are recovering from, an eating problem, it is a good idea to talk this through with your GP before you start an activity.

Compulsive or addictive feelings

Some people experience compulsive or addictive feelings about physical activity (sometimes called an exercise addiction), which can lead to overtraining. These feelings can be a form, or a symptom, of OCD or part of an eating problem.

If you tend to experience compulsive or addictive feelings about exercise, or start to experience them once you start doing more physical activity, it is a good idea to talk to your GP about how to manage this.

Physical health conditions

For many people with a physical health condition, doing an appropriate amount of physical activity can be an important part of managing your condition and avoiding future health problems.

However, depending on your condition, you may need to be more careful about the type and amount of activity you do, to make sure what you are doing is safe and won't have a negative impact on your heath.

You should be particularly careful if you have:

  • high blood pressure
  • chest pains
  • a heart condition
  • diabetes
  • are pregnant or have recently given birth
  • an injury

Always check with your GP about what is safe for you before you start any physical activity.

What if getting active doesn't work for me?

If you find that physical activity isn't working for you right now, there are a few things you can do:

  • Try changing your routine, or doing a different type of activity. Different things work for different people at different times.
  • Try and find something that you enjoy doing because you're more likely to be consistent with it.
  • Do what you can when you can. It's completely normal to have days when you wake up excited about going for a run, and other days when walking upstairs feels like a challenge. It's OK to adapt your physical activity to how you're feeling.
  • 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.
  • Try relaxation, mindfulness and getting into nature.
  • If you're struggling to manage your mental health on your own, seek help from your GP.
  • If you're finding that exercise is having a negative impact on your mental health, you may need to take a longer-term break until you're feeling better.

If you've tried being physically active and it hasn't helped, it's important not to blame yourself. Looking after your mental health can be really difficult, especially when you're not feeling well. It can take time, but many people find that when they have the right combination of treatments, self-care and support, it is possible to feel better.