Movement and mental health

We are often told that physical exercise is important for our mental and physical wellbeing. Here we look at how movement is beneficial to our wellbeing, how to overcome barriers to movement and ways we can incorporate it into our daily life.

Trigger Warning: this page mentions anxiety, depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder and self-harm.

What do we mean by movement?

When we think about exercise, we typically only think about high-intensity workouts such as running or going to the gym. However, it’s important to think about exercise to encompass other forms of movement, especially small changes that can have a real benefit to your health and wellbeing.

When we talk about “movement” in relation to physical activity, we really mean any way you move your body that uses energy. This might be everyday activities such as walking or cleaning, or more intensive activities such as running, swimming, and playing sports. Every kind of movement is valid and it’s an individual’s choice.

How does movement benefit mental health?

Physical activity is great our mental health. When we exercise our bodies release a natural hormone called ‘endorphins’, which make can improve your mood.

Our Burnout Report 2024 also found that 56% of adults said exercising regularly helped them to manage stress, and therefore burnout.

Studies show that movement and physical activity helps our mental health by:

  • Managing stress
  • Improving our mood by triggering chemical changes in the brain
  • Improving sleep
  • Improving self-esteem
  • Reducing anxiety by making our “fight or flight” response less reactive
  • Encourages us to set and achieve goals
  • Meeting new people and spending time with others
  • Slowing cognitive decline.

What are the barriers to movement?

There can be numerous barriers to being physically active and moving such as low energy, lack of confidence, or financial constraints. It’s likely all of us will face one or more of these barriers at some point in our lives – rather than be hard on ourselves, it’s important to recognise their validity and find what works for each of us. Below is a summary of most of the barriers people encounter and some of the ways you can overcome and work around them.

  • Realistic expectations: if you expect too much you may be setting yourself up to be disappointed. Set achievable goals and be kind to yourself. Some days will be harder than others, so reshape and reschedule activities based on how you feel.
  • Praise and reward: being active can be challenging for many different reasons, so make sure you acknowledge your accomplishments. Notice how your confidence and self-esteem are being boosted by your activities.
  • Alone or with others: you might feel self-conscious, embarrassed or under confident in the company of others – so consider what would make you feel comfortable. Not everyone likes going to the gym or classes and that’s okay. You could always start off at home and as your confidence builds take on a class. Motivating yourself can be hard, so consider joining forces with friends – it could also be great fun.
  • Anxiety: you may have a mental health condition such as an anxiety disorder, which makes various situations challenging – understanding what you feel comfortable with is key. You could perhaps start off at home with running up the stairs, building up to taking on a local class which tend to be smaller in size than leisure centres. Would it be helpful for a friend or family member to come with you? Perhaps there are times of the day that would suit you better.
  • Body image: relates to how you think and feel about your body, which in turn can influence participation in movement and activity. Whilst for some it can be a motivating factor, for others it can prevent and limit physical activity. It’s important to engage in positive body talk; for example, rather than say, “I’m going to the gym because I need to lose weight,” rephrase this to, “I want to nurture my body and mind by going to the gym.” Focus on what you can do and feel proud that you are doing something for yourself. Understand more about body image.

People living with physical health conditions or disabilities may be prevented from carrying out certain movements and it’s important to consider what you can do given any medical or physical constraints. You may have been injured in the past and feel wary or concerned about the possibility again. Some of the steps below may support your return to physical activity.

  • Professional advice: whether this is from your medical professional, physiotherapist, or personal trainer, it’s important to take your physical condition into consideration so that you don’t undertake movements that may aggravate or place you at risk. They should be able to advise you of low impact movements that you can do without harm.
  • Prevention: it’s really important to take the time to warm up and cool down when exercising, even more so if you have an injury. You don’t have to launch into high impact; work up to where you want to be by stretching and preparing your muscles and don’t forget to schedule in breaks.
  • Tailor it: depending on your age, physical health, motivation, and skills, you can modify your activities to suit. For example, if you have muscle strain, you could start off by swimming thereby reducing the chance of impact. You could work out a different area of your body that isn’t connected to your injury. Work your way up gradually.
  • Pace yourself and be kind: sometimes pushing yourself can cause damage which could be a setback that leads to inactivity, so it’s important to pace yourself. Take breaks when needed and don’t be hard on yourself if you reduce or change what you’re doing. A little activity is better than none.
  • Healthy habits: if you lack energy, you could consider reviewing your diet to ensure you are getting sufficient vitamins and minerals. Perhaps your sleeping habits are detrimental – getting enough sleep is important for your body to restore both physically and mentally.

Stretched finances during the cost-of-living crisis are likely to be a barrier for many. Whilst this might mean you can’t subscribe to gym memberships or classes there may be other options to consider that cost less or are free.

  • Free activities: taking a walk, jogging, or running locally are free, aside from needing trainers. If you don’t like solitary exercise and feel the need for company or motivation you could arrange to do this with a friend.
  • Community resources: your local community may hold classes at local centres, churches, etc., that are much lower in cost than a local gym. You could find out about these on local noticeboards or in your library.
  • YouTube: there are hundreds of free videos you can follow on YouTube covering all ages and abilities, from full-body workouts to yoga, wall Pilates to muscle strengthening.
  • Apps: there are free apps you can download with ideas, videos and and tracking to keep you motivated.
  • Trials and offers: take advantage of local leisure centre offers and trials to see whether it’s worth investing in a membership.
  • Schemes and benefits: your workplace may have a benefits scheme where you can pay for reduced membership or access other reductions relating to leisure. They may also have bike to work schemes, or salary sacrifice options for leisure equipment. Students can often access reduced rates for young people at leisure centres. If you’re eligible, a medical professional could refer you to an exercise scheme, also called social prescribing or activity on prescription.

Our lives can be so full on, with commitments at school, home and/or work, that finding time for physical activity can be challenging. Here are some of the ways you could carve out time in your daily life and work in some physical activity to your everyday.

  • Reshape your daily routines: if you normally drive somewhere, you could cycle instead; if you take the bus to school or work, you could get off a stop earlier. Perhaps you could do something active whilst watching TV such as going up and down stairs or doing wall Pilates. If you’re having a meeting, could it be a walk and talk instead.
  • Identify spare time: When you’re planning your week, find a 10-minute slot each day where you can do something physically active. Share it with others who might need your time such as family and friends so they can support you to respect that time. You could get up earlier if spare time is rare.

The range of activities you can carry out often depends on where you live. Factors such as changeable weather, access to suitable outdoor space or leisure facilities can determine what you can and can’t do. Consider some of the following to overcome these.

  • Rain or shine: plan for unpredictable weather, and have a range of activities for both indoors and outdoors so that you can switch if necessary, rather than cancel. You could buy some wet weather gear if your activities are mostly outdoors.
  • Location is key: work with what you’ve got and where you live. Whilst this can restrict your activities, look to using your environment – do you have a cycle track near you, a local park or woods, or maybe the beach isn’t far? Find the opportunities for movement where you live. There are useful sites that can help you find local places to walk: Find your local park via this government tool, find a wood via the Woodland Trust and visit Ordnance Survey for inspiration.
  • Transportation: depending on your location transport may be an issue. Public transport could be limited in rural locations, restricting your options. Perhaps you could car share, or ask a friend to drop you off on their way. Is there somewhere closer to home you could go?
  • Accessible facilities: depending on where you live you may not have access to accessible venues or adaptive equipment. Inaccessible environments especially impact upon people living with a disability or impairment. You could call your local leisure centre to specifically ask questions about accessibility or there are organisations who could signpost you to your nearest facilities, such as AccessAble, ActivityAlliance, or Better.

How much physical activity should I do?

The UK Chief Medical Officers’ Guidelines recommend that adults should do the following weekly:

  • At least 150 minutes (about two and a half hours) moderate intensity activity, which is any activity that increases your heart rate and body temperature such as brisk walking, riding a bike, dancing, or pushing a lawnmower.
  • Or, 75 minutes’ vigorous activity, which is any activity pushing your heart rate and breathing further, such as running, swimming, or sports.
  • Or, a mixture of the two.

However, the NHS has specific guidelines depending on age. They can be found here:

Any amount of movement, no matter how small, is important for mental and physical health. While the above suggestions are excellent goals to keep in mind, it’s good to fit any amount of movement into your day, especially if it’s an activity you enjoy. Small amounts of movement can add up over time, and all have an impact on our mental and physical health.

What kind of activities might help?

While we’ve covered some of the more well-known types of physical activity and exercise, you might be wondering what else you can do to begin moving your body. What follows is a list of the ways you can fit movement into your day. Many can be performed solo or with others, which also have the added benefit of helping you to meet people. Ultimately, however, you will be the best judge of what you can do based on your interests and limitations. Consider what you have enjoyed in the past, and look to find a way to incorporate that into your life.

  • Walking or cycling instead of taking the car.
  • Stretching in the morning while you’re making breakfast.
  • Dancing classes or social groups.
  • Connecting with nature and gardening.
  • Take up a new hobby or activity eg rollerblading, skateboarding, martial arts, tennis etc.
  • Small changes in your daily activity, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Take time for meditative movement such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi which also incorporate mindfulness.

No matter how you choose to move your body, it’s important that we reframe how we look at physical activity. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and intimidated by intense physical activity, especially if we aren’t used to it, but starting out small can have large benefits for both our mental and physical health.

Committing to movement in your daily life

At work

Whether you work in an office, hybrid or at home you could:


  • walk or cycle to work instead of taking the car
  • if you take the bus, get off a few stops before your destination and walk the rest of the way
  • take your lunch break outside at a nearby park
  • walking meetings to promote getting out and moving whilst making business calls (if appropriate)
  • get active in your breaks
  • stand up and spend a few minutes stretching
  • use a stand-up desk to reduce sedentary behaviour
  • create after work team activities such as a company soccer team.

At school or college

Aside from any scheduled physical exercise on the curriculum you also consider the following:


  • you could walk or cycle to school or college and perhaps meet up with other friends doing the same
  • if you turn up early to a class or lecture, consider walking the hallway or up and downstairs again to get in some extra steps before the lesson starts
  • join an extra curricular club or group that are often run on campus
  • at break time you could run around the playground or walk and talk with friends around the school grounds
  • walk or cycle a longer way back home whilst letting your parent or guardian know.

At home

There are so many ways you can get active at home such as:


  • carry out household chores set to music such as hoovering or gardening
  • make tasks take longer such as hanging the washing out one item at a time
  • during TV adverts you could run up and down stairs, do some stretches or chair based yoga
  • take it in turns to take the dog for a walk or even offer to take your neighbour’s dog for a walk
  • walk to the local shops and carry back the shopping instead of driving
  • create a regular routine where you put aside 10 minutes of the day so you can move your way.

5 top tips to get active

Harry Thomas, Co-founder of No. 1 Fitness, shares his top five ways of getting active to improve your mental health and wellbeing.

  1. Just do it
  2. Set some goals
  3. Hold yourself accountable
  4. Exercise doesn’t have to be going to the gym
  5. Be consistent, stick at it.

Other mental health factors to consider

Living with an eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) might complicate your relationship with exercise. As many eating disorders include obsessive thoughts about exercise and weight loss, movement may be triggering for you or cause negative thoughts about your appearance. It might also lead to an unhealthy relationship with exercise, such as over-exercise, or you might exercise in an unsafe way such as not eating enough before or after.

As with eating disorders, over-exercise and exercise addiction can happen to anyone regardless of body type. Common reasons include:

  • Eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), and self-harm
  • Pressure to perform at a certain level
  • Dependence on exercise as a coping mechanism since exercise can make us feel happier

If you live with an eating disorder or related mental illness, it’s important to follow your care team’s advice surrounding exercise. This might look like following a regimen of reduced or strictly controlled exercise, or limit certain types of exercise. It doesn’t mean that you can’t exercise, but rather it means you have to move your body in a way that doesn’t trigger your disorder.

Physical activity when on medication

Some medication might affect your ability to exercise or move your body. Side effects such as excessive sweating might mean you need to increase your intake of water or replenish salt and electrolytes. Some medication might affect your blood pressure.

If you take any medication, it’s worth checking the information sheet contained within the packet which will specify related side effects. If you don’t have this information to hand you could speak to your pharmacist or GP. More information about your medication can also be found on NHS’ website.

Join us in May:

Move your way

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 13th to 19th May. The theme as set by the Mental Health Foundation is: “moving for our mental health.”


We want to encourage people to find a way to move their body and mind in every day activities.