Physical activity and mental health
This section gives information on being active and mental health. It explains how to improve physical and mental health by being physically active. This information is for people affected by mental illness in England who are 18 or over. It’s also for their carers, friends and relatives.
Getting enough exercise and being active can be important for both your mental and physical health. Some medications might make you feel more tired. But moderate exercise can help to improve your mood and general wellbeing and help you to feel better about yourself.
How can physical activity improve my physical health?
Physical activity has lots of benefits including:
- making you fitter,
- helping you to lose or keep a healthy weight,
- helping you to build strength and muscle, and
- keeping your joints supple.
Regular physical activity can also lower the risk of developing physical health conditions, such as:
- heart disease,
- type 2 diabetes,
- stroke, and
- certain types of cancer.
How can physical activity improve my mental health and wellbeing?
Physical activity has a lot of benefits for your mental health and wellbeing including helping:
- your body to release feel good hormones called endorphins,
- your concentration,
- you to have good sleep,
- you feel more confident, and
- your motivation.
Even a short amount of exercise has been shown to enhance wellbeing and can help you feel good about yourself. Regular exercise can improve your quality of life.
Can my medication or mental health condition make me less active?
Your medication or your mental health condition might make it harder for you to be physically active. You may feel:
- slow moving,
- a lack of energy, and
- a lack of motivation.
But hopefully our advice and information below will help you.
What is motivation?
Motivation is a process that can help you move towards a wish or a want.
Some examples of motivation are:
- to meet other people,
- exercising to improve your mood,
- working out because it helps relieve stress and anxiety.
What can help to keep me motivated?
If you haven’t exercised for a while, it can be difficult to get motivated. Some people choose to use personal trainers, but they can be expensive. If you have friends or family that you can exercise with, you can support each other.
Your mental health issues might impact your motivation to get started. It can be helpful for you to make some goals when you start. These can help to keep you on track. It’s best to make your goals realistic.
Doing little bits often can make a big difference to your physical and mental wellbeing. You may find it helpful to start small. This maybe something as simple as walking or cycling to a shop instead of driving or using public transport. Our getting started blog has some great tips to help.
Having a routine can help motivation. So, you might decide you’re going to go for a 3-mile run every Wednesday and Saturday, for example. Having a routine can develop into a good habit, where you just get on with it without thinking about it too much.
What is physical activity?
Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving. It can be different for everyone. You can try different types of activity to find the right one for you.
Physical activity can include:
- exercise at a gym,
- team sports,
- housework, and
What physical activity can I do if I have a physical health condition or disability?
You might have a physical health condition or disability. It might be harder for you to find a physical activity that you can do.
We are Undefeatable is a campaign to support and encourage people with long term health conditions find ways to be physically active. The campaign understands that moving more when you can is just as important as accepting when you can’t. They believe that every achievement, no matter how small it might seem, is worth celebrating.
Rethink Mental Illness is a charity partner of the campaign.
Not all routes are suitable for people with disabilities. But canal towpaths can often be flatter and more accessible than other footpaths. The Canal and River Trust have an accessibility map on their website here . It provides information on the accessibility of canal towpaths on the canal network:
The NHS have fitness advice for wheelchair users here.
Wheels for Wellbeing is an award-winning charity supporting disabled people of all ages and abilities to enjoy the benefits of cycling. You can find their contact details in the ‘Useful contacts and websites’ section below.
Exercise that increases your heart rate can have a bad affect for some people with health conditions. You can discuss this with your GP to find the right type of exercise to suit you.
How much physical activity should I be aiming for?
The NHS publish guidelines on that recommends the amount and type of exercise you should aim to do.
There are guidelines about:
- Physical activity guidelines for adults aged 19 to 64
- Physical activity guidelines for older adults
- Physical activity guidelines for children and young people
- Physical activity guidelines for children (under 5 years)
- Why we should sit less
- Fitness advice for wheelchair users
You may have not done any exercise for some time or have other health problems. If you are worried about increasing your physical activity you can discuss this with your GP.
How can physical activity help mental illness?
Physical activity has been shown to improve mental illness in several ways.
- improve mood,
- relieve symptoms of stress,
- increase self-esteem, and
- reduce cognitive decline.
How can physical activity help with the symptoms of anxiety and depression?
Physical activity has been shown to improve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- reduce levels of anxiety,
- alleviate the symptoms of depression,
- be used as a treatment for the conditions, on its own, or together with other treatments.
How can physical activity help with the symptoms of schizophrenia?
If you live with schizophrenia, you may be at more risk of physical health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Exercise can help reduce the risks of developing these conditions.
It can also:
- improve sleep, and
- reduce the side effects of anti-psychotic medication.
You can read more about exercise and schizophrenia here.
You can see our webpage on Schizophrenia for more information on the condition.
How can physical activity help with the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Physical activity can be helpful for the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
- it can help reduce symptoms of depression, and
- exercise can sometimes help symptoms of mania.
But if you live with bipolar disorder, it’s best to seek advice from your GP or psychiatrist about the best type of exercise for you.
You can see our webpage on Bipolar disorder for more information on the condition.
How can physical activity help with the symptoms of panic disorder?
Physical activity has been shown to improve the symptoms of panic disorder.
- ease tension and feelings of fear and worry, and
- can reduce panic attacks
How can physical activity help with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Physical activity can help the symptoms of PTSD.
- help with sleep, and
- reduce symptoms of depression.
You can see our webpage on Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for more information on the condition.
Can I get a physical activity prescription from my GP?
You might be able to get a physical activity prescription from your GP. Often these are called ‘exercise prescriptions’ or ‘social prescriptions.’
These prescriptions give you free or reduced rate exercise sessions. You could ask your GP surgery if they are able to provide exercise prescriptions. They might only offer them to people who are over a certain weight or body mass index (BMI) or who have certain health conditions.
Can I access cheap or free physical activity?
If you get certain benefits, you may be able to get a cheaper gym membership. You might even be able to get a free trial at some gyms.
There are also many ways to exercise for free, such as:
- going for a walk or run,
- using outdoor gyms, or
- exercising at home by using online videos.
You can find more information here.
You can find local walking routes on the websites of the Ramblers Association and The Canal and River Trust. You can find their details in the ‘Useful contacts and websites’ section below.
You can look on your local council’s website or contact them to find your local outdoor gym.
Can I use my personal budget for exercise?
A personal health budget is an amount of money to support your health and wellbeing needs. It is planned and agreed between you and your NHS mental health team.
A personal health budget allows you to manage your healthcare in a way that suits you.
Only people who have a high enough level of support needs receive these budgets. You can get a personal health budget if you are entitled to section 117 aftercare. You can read more about person budgets and who can get them here.
See our webpage on Section 117 aftercare for more information.
If you receive a personal budget, your NHS mental health team might agree that you can spend the money to:
- buy new trainers,
- try out a local exercise class,
- get a support worker to help you go to a fitness class,
- buy a gym membership,
- use local leisure centre facilities, or
- buy a bike.
You can find more details about what you can and can’t use your budget for here.
You can look on the following website:
People Hub – Personal Health Budgets Network
People with a personal health budget and their families share their experiences. The website also includes information and resources on personal health budgets.
What is the Rethink Mental Illness activity project?
At Rethink Mental Illness we are helping people severely affected by mental illness and carers to:
- be more active, and
- break down some of the barriers they face to being more active.
What is the Rethink Mental Illness physical activity toolkit?
Working with people with lived experience, we have co-produced a physical activity toolkit. It’s for peer support groups, services, local organisations and individuals. It can help them to start arranging physical activity opportunities for people living with mental illness.
The toolkit includes lots of information, including:
- what physical activity is,
- the benefits of it,
- any barriers and solutions,
- top tips and activity ideas,
- case studies, and
- useful contacts.
We want to help people access new opportunities in their community in a supportive and safe environment.
You don’t need to have any experience, just the desire and motivation to help. Here you can download the Rethink Mental Illness physical activity toolkit.
You can now view our physical activity peer support project evaluation report.
Read about the project, findings, impact of COVID-19, and recommendations.
What is the Rethink Mental Illness physical activity pack?
Being active doesn’t have to involve going to the gym or an organised session. You can be active in your daily life and in your own home. Our physical activity pack will give you lots of useful tips and ideas of how you can move more in your daily routine. This is to support your mental and physical health and wellbeing.
Here you can download the Rethink Mental Illness physical activity pack.
You can contact us to find out how you or someone else can be more active. Email Mel Islin at firstname.lastname@example.org
What can I do if I don’t want to exercise by myself?
You could ask a friend or relative if they want to exercise with you, or you can try to find a local exercise group. You can search on the internet or look on your local council’s website.
You might have local organisations that organise physical activities. You could see if there are any local Rethink Mental Illness services (www.rethink.org) or check other organisations such as Mind (www.mind.org.uk). If you have a care coordinator, you could ask if they know of anything available in your area.
These groups are available in many local areas where people meet regularly to walk together. They can be a way to get active and to meet with other people and explore new places.
You can find local walking groups on the Ramblers Association website here.
You can also usually find details of local walking groups through your library.
You can join a sports club to meet and play sport with other people. You can get information on how to find local sports clubs here.
Conservation volunteer schemes
These schemes run environmental projects and community groups where people can volunteer to help keep and maintain local green spaces. They provide a chance to help your local area and be outdoors as well as getting physically active.
They also run ‘green gyms’, which provide a range of practical projects involving physical jobs in the outdoors.
You can find volunteering opportunities near you on the Wildlife Trust’s website here.
The Canal and River Trust also offer volunteering opportunities to help maintain the canal network. See here for more information.
You can find conservation volunteer groups on The Conservation Volunteers website here.
Useful contacts and websites
NHS - Get active
Tools, tips and special offers to move more every day.
NHS - Exercise for depression
Advice and a useful video on exercise for depression.
NHS - Exercise
Exercise guidelines and workouts to help improve your fitness and wellbeing
Parkruns are free, weekly, community events. Saturday morning events are 5k and take place in parks and open spaces. On Sunday mornings, there are 2k junior parkruns for children aged four to 14. Parkrun is a positive, welcoming and inclusive experience where there is no time limit and no one finishes last. Everyone is welcome to come along, whether you walk, jog, run, volunteer or spectate. You can find your local parkrun on the website.
The Ramblers is a charity dedicated to removing barriers so everyone can enjoy walking in green spaces. And to preserving and improving hundreds of thousands of miles of well-loved paths, tracks and trails across England, Scotland, and Wales. They’re committed to campaigning to keep our countryside open to all and to fighting for the things that matter most to walkers. Find your local walking group on their website.
Telephone: 020 7339 8500
The Canal and River Trust
A charity who looks after and brings to life 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales. Their research shows that spending time by water can make us feel happier and healthier. Our canals and rivers run through some of the most heavily populated communities in England and Wales. They provide accessible green and blue space where it’s needed the most. On canal towpaths you can do things like walking, cycling and running. Use the ‘Local to you’ link on the website to find local canals and rivers.
Address: National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port, South Pier Road, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire CH65 4FW
Phone: 0303 040 4040
Email via website: www.canalrivertrust.org.uk/contact-us/ways-to-contact-us
Tips, advice and guidance on how to keep or get active
Sport in Mind
Transforming the lives and mental health of children and adults through sport and physical activity.
The Conservation Volunteers
Connecting people and green spaces. Join thousands of people and communities across the UK connecting to nature on their doorsteps and contributing to its protection. You can find local groups on their website.
Phone: 01302 388 883
This Girl Can
This Girl Can believes that there’s no right way to get active. Provides information on ideas for different types of physical activity.
Wheels for Wellbeing
Wheels for Wellbeing is an award-winning charity supporting disabled people of all ages and abilities to enjoy the benefits of cycling.
© Rethink Mental Illness 2022
Last updated July, 2023
Next update May, 2025
Version number 2.1
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