Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year [1].

In England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week [2].

Physical activity has a wide range of health benefits – for your mind and body, and for your social and emotional wellbeing.

Mental health benefits of exercise [3].

  • Reduced anxiety and happier moods: When you exercise, your brain chemistry changes through the release of endorphins (sometimes called ‘feel good’ hormones), which can calm anxiety and lift your mood.
  • Reduced feelings of stress: You may experience reductions in feelings of stress and tension as your body is better able to control cortisol levels.
  • Clearer thinking: Some people find that exercise helps to break up racing thoughts. As your body tires so does your mind, leaving you calmer and better able to think clearly.
  • A greater sense of calm: Simply taking time out to exercise can give you space to think things over and help your mind feel calmer.
  • Increased self-esteem: When you start to see your fitness levels increase and your body improve, it can give your self-esteem a big boost. The sense of achievement you get from learning new skills and achieving your goals can also help you feel better about yourself and lift your mood. Improved self-esteem also has a protective effect that increases life satisfaction and can make you more resilient to feeling stressed.
  • Reduced risk of depression: If you’re more active there’s good evidence to suggest that at most ages, for both men and women, there’s a trend towards lower rates of depression. In fact one study has found that by increasing your activity levels from doing nothing to exercising at least three times a week, you can reduce your risk of depression by almost 20%.
  • Exercise as a treatment for depression: If you have a diagnosis of mild to moderate depression, your GP might suggest you do some exercise to help lift your mood. This is because exercise can be a more effective treatment than taking antidepressants. Exercise is thought to be most effective if you’re able to manage the equivalent of five 30-minute sessions of moderate intensity activity each week (the same as the current NHS guidelines for healthy physical activity). It’s also more likely to work for you if you choose exercise that you find enjoyable and that gives you a sense of accomplishment.

“Running helped with my depression loads; I can run with my music and get away from everything that bothers me”.

Social and emotional benefits [4]

  • Making friends and connecting with people: Being around people is good for our mental health and social networks – plus you can maximise the benefits of exercising by doing it with other people. You may find that the social benefits are just as important as the physical ones.
  • Having fun: Lots of us enjoy being active because it’s fun. Researchers have shown that there’s a link between the things we enjoy doing and improvements in our wellbeing overall. If you enjoy an activity you’re also more likely to keep doing it.
  • Challenging stigma and discrimination: Some people find that joining a sport programme helps reduce the stigma attached to their mental health problem. Getting involved in local projects with other people who share a common interest can be a great way to break down barriers and challenge discrimination.

To read more about the benefits of physical activity for mental health, click here.