Exercise and mental health: for young people

This webpage explains the link between physical activity and mental health and offers some suggestions about getting started. 

It is for young people who want to know: 

  • how being active can make you feel better
  • how exercise can help depression and anxiety
  • how active you need to be to feel better.


This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Anything that gets your body active and makes you a bit out of breath is exercise. It might be sports like football or netball, playing with friends or part of your everyday life like a brisk walk to school.

Exercise keeps our heart, body and our minds healthy. There is evidence that exercise can help in depression, anxiety and even protects you from stress. To work properly, your body needs regular exercise.

Regular activity helps you to:

  • feel good about yourself
  • concentrate better
  • sleep better
  • have a positive outlook on life
  • keep a healthy weight
  • build healthy bones muscles and joints.

Most of us feel good when we are active. So - don’t worry about not doing enough – get started by building a bit more physical activity into your daily life now. Even a small change can get your heart healthier, make you feel happier.

Why does exercise make me feel better?

When you exercise it releases ‘feel good’ chemicals called endorphins in our brain. It also affects chemicals called ‘dopamine’ and ‘serotonin’ which are related to depression and anxiety.

Exercise can help brain cells to grow. In your body, regular exercise makes your heart, muscles, and bones stronger and work better.

Activity can help you feel more in control which helps when you are worried or stressed. You can even make new friends and have fun when you exercise with other people.

Any activity is good. You should try to do some activity everyday. Regular exercise for about 40 minutes which gets you out of breath, five times a week, will have the best results on your body and mood.

You choose! Don't worry if you have never done it before or if you don't like sports. Exercise does not have to be about running around a track or going to a gym. It can just be about being active each day.

There might be easy ways to get more active like getting off the bus and walking, taking the stairs instead of a lift, or taking your dog for a walk. It might be active sports like football, netball, hockey or rugby, or you might prefer something less competitive like walking, jogging or rock climbing.

If you like something relaxing, then walking listening to music on earphones or doing yoga might suit you more. Have a look around and find something you think you'll enjoy.

  • Making the start if the first step.
  • Start gently especially if you have not done exercise for a long time. If you have physical health problems, do check with your doctor or specialist.
  • Don’t overdo it – even if you are very fit. Too much exercise or exercising too intensely will make you feel worse. Even Olympic athletes have to make sure they do not overstrain themselves.
  • You may need to watch your diet. Make sure you are eating healthily, especially breakfast, and avoid too much tea, coffee or energy drinks.
  • Watch your weight. Usually exercise helps us keep to a healthy weight, but sometimes exercise can get out of control. If your weight goes down too much it can cause problems.
  • Avoid exercising too late in the day because it can make it hard to switch off and go to sleep.
  • Finally, enjoy it. If you find it’s making you anxious or unhappy, then speak to someone or check out the websites mentioned below to find something that works better for you.

The most important thing is to make a start. This might mean getting help and support from your friends, family, teacher, school or health professional like nurse:

  • Making a plan to go with someone else can help you to keep going.
  • Going to an exercise class or gym can boost your motivation.
  • Some people find using an exercise diary or timetable helpful.
  • Writing the goals can make them easier to remember. Try to keep it simple and set a plan you can do for few weeks. See how you do before you set the next target.

It is important that you have fun. If you are finding it hard, boring or it makes you feel worse, then think again, ask for help or try something new. Nobody’s perfect.

You can have times when you find it difficult or stop doing it. Don’t worry about it. Tomorrow is another day and you can start again. If you need it, talk to someone or ask for help.

“We moved house last year and I started at a new school. It wasn’t easy to make friends at first and I got picked on a bit.

School went right downhill and I got into a few fights. One of the teaching assistants told me about a football team near where I live.

I’ve met other young people and made some friends.

My confidence has got better and I get less angry now. I go to training every week and last week I got the winning goal.”

“It’s been a tough time. We had family problems and then I had exams on top.

I started to get really stressed out, couldn’t relax at night or concentrate at school. Sometimes I found myself just bursting into tears.

I’ve been talking to the woman at school and starting running helped me to get some space for myself.

I’ve really improved in how far I can go, but mostly I run because I enjoy it. It’s given me my energy back.

My sleep has got better and I don’t feel so depressed any more. A friend has asked if she can run with me sometimes. I’m kind of ready for that now.”

Active Places - This website allows you to search for sports facilities anywhere in England. You can browse an interactive map of the country, search for facilities in your local area, or use the name and address of a specific facility to find out more information.

Change 4 life - An NHS website to help people move more, eat well and live longer with a section specially for families.

Disability Sport England - Tel: 0161 953 2499; email: info@dse.org.uk

Organisation that supports and promotes sport for people with disabilities.

Sustrans - Provides advice on cycling opportunities locally and further afield, including the National Cycle Network.


Department of Health (2011), Start active, Stay Active. A report on physical activity for health from the four home countries, Chief Medical officers.

Ekeland E, Heian F, Hagen KB, Abbott J, Nordheim L., Exercise to improve self-esteem in children and young people.Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;(1):CD003683.

L Larun et al, (2009) Exercise in prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression among children and young people, Cochrane database.

Management of depression in primary and secondary care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2004. www.nice.org.uk/CG023

M Gonzalez-Gross et al, (2008). The “healthy lifestyle guide pyramid” for children and adolescents, Nutricion Hospitalaria, 23(2) 159-168.

Taylor AH and Faulkner, G (2008). Inaugural Editorial. Mental Health and Physical Activity, vol 1, issue 1, pages 1-8. A new academic journal with a specific focus on the relationship between physical activity and mental health.

World Health Organization, (2010), Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health, 2010, ISBN 978 92 4 159 997 9.

Revised for the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Education Editorial Board for young people from the leaflet on Physical activity and Mental health.


Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

With grateful thanks to  Dr Jennifer Cumming, Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy..

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

About this information

This information reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing. This mental health information for young people was written in 2015.


© 2015 Royal College of Psychiatrists