Physical activity, exercise and mental health

This information is for children and young people and looks at the link between physical activity and mental health. It covers the benefits of physical activity and exercise, how exercise can support good mental health, and how active you need to be to feel better.

Disclaimer

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

We do lots of things during our day that count as physical activity. Walking up and down the stairs, walking to the shops or running for the bus are all forms of physical activity.

Exercise is a type of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive and aims to improve your physical fitness. It might be a group sport like football or netball, or an exercise you do on your own like going to the gym or for a run in the park.

Different activities or exercises involve different levels of physical intensity:

  • Moderate intensity makes you feel warmer, breathe harder and makes your heart beat faster. However, you could still sing a song or have a conversation while you were doing it. E.g. riding a bike or going on a long walk.
  • Vigorous intensity makes you feel hot and sweaty, breathe even harder and makes your heart beat fast. You would find it difficult to talk to someone while you were doing vigorous exercise due to being out of breath. E.g. going for a run, playing a game of football or swimming several lengths of a pool.
  • Strengthening bone and muscle activities (resistive) involve using a weight or working against resistance. E.g. skipping, star jumps or weight lifting.

Exercise keeps our heart, body and mind healthy. There’s evidence that exercise can help in depression and anxiety, and help to reduce stress.

To work properly your body needs regular exercise. It can have lots of different benefits for different people including:

  • helping you to feel good about yourself
  • improving your sleep
  • contributing to maintaining a healthy weight
  • building healthy bones, muscles and joints
  • improving your mood
  • increased energy
  • helping you live a long life

Don’t worry about not doing enough exercise when you first start. Even a small change can help you to feel healthier and improve your mood, and over time you can increase how much exercise you are doing in a safe and controlled way.

  • In our brains – When we exercise it releases ‘feel-good’ chemicals called endorphins in our brains. It also positively affects chemicals called ‘dopamine’ and ‘serotonin’ which are related to depression and anxiety. Exercise can also give you a sense of achievement.
  • In our bodies – Regular exercise also helps your heart, lungs, muscles and bones to stay strong and to work well.
  • In our social lives – If you exercise with other people, either by going with a friend or joining an exercise class or group sport, you can make new friends and have fun.

The answer to this question depends on what stage of life you’re at:

  • Babies should be active several times a day. This can include things like spending time on their stomachs or grabbing for toys.
  • Infants aged 1-4 need around 3 hours of activity per day. If an infant is able to walk, this can include swimming, running and hopping. When infants are between 3 and 4 years old, these 3 hours should include at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous activity. Active play on climbing frames and chasing games are the best way to get this.
  • Children between 5 and 18 should get at least one hour of moderate or vigorous activity each day.  Walking to school, riding a scooter or walking the dog are moderate activities. Vigorous activities include fast running, playing chase, swimming, gymnastics, football or martial arts.

Here are some useful tips for staying active:

  • You don’t have to be active all the time, but it’s good to avoid being inactive for long periods of time.
  • Try to keep TV watching and videogame playing to a minimum, and break it up with physical activity.
  • Instead of taking a bus or driving places, try walking or riding a bike instead.

If you’re a teenager or adult, remember any activity is good. You should try to do some activity every day, but to have a positive impact on your mood and body you should aim for:

  • 1 hour of moderate exercise every day
  • 1 hour of vigorous exercise three times a week (including exercises that strengthen your muscles and bones)

You choose! Don't worry if you have never done exercise before or if you don't like sports. Exercise doesn’t have to be about running around a track or going to a gym. It should be something that you enjoy.

Some people find that group sports like football, netball, hockey or rugby help them to enjoy exercising. Other people prefer less competitive sports like walking, jogging or rock climbing. If you prefer exercising on your own, then yoga, swimming, Pilates or going to the gym might suit you more.

Have a look around and find something you think you'll enjoy.

If you have a heart problem, you find you faint after exercising, or are underweight or have an eating disorder, see your GP to get specialist advice on what you can and can’t do as exercise, and how hard you can safely exert yourself.

Here are some things to consider when thinking about exercise that you will enjoy:

  • The type of exercise
    • Exercising in a team or individually
    • Competitive or non-competitive sports
  • Exercising alone or in a group
  • Fast paced exercise, e.g. football or slower paced exercise, e.g. yoga
  • The amount of time you have to exercise, e.g. a quick walk or a long game of golf
  • What is available locally
  • Learning something new or trying something you have done before

Making a start is the first step, but there are some useful tips to ensure you are exercising in a healthy way:

  • Start gently, especially if you have not done exercise before or for a long time. If you have physical health problems, check with your doctor.
  • 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 don’t overstrain themselves.
  • Do not ignore pain and seek medical advice if you are concerned.
  • Make sure you are eating a healthy diet, and are getting enough to eat and drink if you are exercising a lot.
  • Avoid exercising too late in the day because it can make it hard to switch off and go to sleep. Slower exercise like yoga can help you to wind down.
  • 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 or a health professional. Here are some tips for getting started:

  • 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 down your goals can make them easier to remember. Try to keep it simple and set a plan you can do for a few weeks. See how you do before you set the next target.
  • There are lots of useful apps that can help you to exercise safely and effectively. Some people use exercise watches to measure things like their heart rate and how much they have exercised.
  • However, try not to focus too much on completing goals or losing weight. So long as you are exercising regularly and you feel good in your body, that is enough.
  • Try to make exercise become part of your routine so it becomes a habit

It is important you have fun. If you’re finding it hard, boring or it makes you feel worse, ask for help or try something new. You might have times when you find it difficult or stop exercising. Don’t worry - tomorrow is another day and you can start again.

Building muscles can improve your strength and help with everyday activities like carrying bags and climbing the stairs. If you are doing a moderate amount of exercise, you are unlikely to gain a lot of muscle. Girls are less likely to gain a lot of muscle, because of the differences in their hormones.

These are some of the signs that you may be exercising too much.

Physical signs:

  • You exercise every day and don’t give yourself rest days
  • You are exhausted a lot of the time
  • You continue to exercise despite being in pain, injured or sick

Mental signs:

  • You exercise after eating to burn the calories you’ve consumed
  • You feel frustrated or anxious if you are unable to exercise
  • You miss out on social activities to fit in exercise
  • You feel the need to keep exercising more and eating less
  • You do not enjoy it any more

Remember that other people will have the same worries. If you feel uncomfortable exercising in front of others, you could try exercise in your room such as dancing or following exercise routines online. You could also wear loose clothing or change clothes at home if you are going to an exercise class or the gym.

There are lots of different types of exercise suited to different people. The important thing is to find something that you enjoy. You don’t need to be sporty to exercise, and you will build up your fitness gradually the more you exercise. Think creatively about the type of exercise that you might enjoy.

Social media sites like Instagram and TikTok are not a good source of inspiration or health advice. Often people use filters to enhance photographs or share content that is trying to sell a product or service. These sites can lead you make unhealthy comparisons which leave you feeling bad about yourself, or to take unsafe advice on your health and fitness.

“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.”

  • This Girl Can - This Girl Can celebrates active women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look or even how sweaty they get.
  • Get Inspired, BBC Sport - BBC Sport has a list of sports clubs and sessions for lots of different sports.
  • Healthier families, Better Health - Better Health aims to enable people in the UK to live active, healthier lives. This section for families has links to useful NHS apps, cooking ideas, mental health tips, activities for children, a quiz to decide the sport that’s right for you and more.
  • Sustrans - Sustrans is a charity that aims to make it easier for people to walk and cycle. Visit their website for information on getting active and the National Cycle Network.
  • Sport and exercise advice and support, Scope - The charity Scope offers information and support for people with disabilities. This section of their website includes information on exercising for disabled people, financial support available to disabled people who want to take part in sport, sports and exercises for disabled children and young people and information about taking part in a disability sport.

Books

  • Gloves Off by Louisa Reid - This book tells the story of Lily, a 16-year-old victim of bullying who turns to boxing to overcome her negative body image.
  • Summer’s Dream by Cathy Cassidy - This book tells the story of Summer, who dreams of going to ballet school and is willing to sacrifice everything to make this dream come true.
  • Keeping Fit (Healthy for Life) by Anna Claybourne - A guide for teenagers on how to keep fit and healthy

Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB) and the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH).

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

Full references for this resource are available on request.

© August 2022 Royal College of Psychiatrists