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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness


Physical Activity and Mental Health

Withdrawn April 2018 


Exercise and mental health

This leaflet is for anyone who wants to know:

  • how being active can make you feel better
  • how exercise can help depression
  • how active you need to be to feel better
  • how to get more active safely.


Exercise keeps our hearts and bodies healthy. But how?


We often talk about the mind and body as though they are completely separate – but they aren't. The mind can’t function unless your body is working properly – but it also works the other way. The state of your mind affects your body.




So – if you feel low or anxious, you may do less and become less active – which can make you feel worse. You can get caught in a harmful cycle:


Why bother with exercise?

To work properly, your body needs regular exercise - and most of us feel good when we are active.


Until the last 100 years or so, you had to be quite active to just live your everyday life. Now, in modern Western societies, so much of what we used to do is done by machines. We drive cars, so we walk less, vacuum cleaners make cleaning easy, and washing is done by a machine. At work we may not even have to move around in the office - it’s enough to sit at the computer. It doesn’t help that modern high-energy foods make us put on too much weight – or that, (in the West at least), food has never been cheaper or easier to buy.


So how can you start to get more active, day to day? You may be turned off by the word ‘exercise’ because:


  • I’ve never done it
  • I wasn’t good at sports at school
  • I would feel silly
  • Other people would make fun of me
  • It won’t help unless it hurts - ‘No pain, no gain’ 
  • It’s sweaty and uncomfortable
  • I’m too tired
  • I would rather do something else
  • It’s expensive
  • I think it will make me feel worse
  • I don’t have anyone to do it with
  • I don’t know where, when or how to start.

But - it doesn't have to be about running around a track or working out in a gym. It can just be about being more active each day – perhaps just walking more, or taking the stairs rather than the lift. If medical problems stop you from doing one thing, there may be others that you can do.


What happens if you don’t do very much?

Some people can get away with doing very little and live to a ripe old age – but most of us can’t. Broadly speaking, the less you do, the more likely you are to end up with:

  • low mood / depression
  • tension and worry.

 If you keep active, you are:

  • less likely to be depressed, anxious or tense
  • more likely to feel good about yourself
  • more likely to concentrate and focus better
  • more likely to sleep better
  • more likely to cope with cravings and withdrawal symptoms if you try to give up a habit, such as smoking or alcohol
  • more likely to be able to keep mobile and independent as you get older
  • possibly less likely to have problems with memory and dementia.

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 boost your morale, give you a sense of achievement and help you to feel better in yourself.


What might work for me?

Activity should:

  • Be enjoyable – if you don’t know what you might enjoy, try a few different things
  • Help you to feel more competent, or capable. Gardening or DIY projects can do this, as well getting you more active.
  • Give you a sense of control over your life – that you have choices you can make (so it isn’t helpful if you start to feel that you have to exercise). The sense that you are looking after yourself can also feel good.
  • Help you to escape for a while from the pressures of life.
  • Be shared.  The companionship involved can be just as important as the physical activity. 

Why does exercise work?

We are not yet exactly sure. There are several possibilities:

  • Most people in the world have always had to keep active to get food, water and shelter. This involves a moderate level of activity and seems to make us feel good. We may be built – or “hard wired” - to enjoy a certain amount of exercise. Harder exercise (perhaps needed to fight or flight from danger) seems to be linked to feelings of stress, perhaps because it is needed for escaping from danger.     
  • Exercise seems to have an effect on certain chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin. Brain cells use these chemicals to communicate with each other, so they affect your mood and thinking.
  • Exercise can stimulate other chemicals in the brain called “brain derived neurotrophic factors”. These help new brain cells to grow and develop. Moderate exercise seems to work better than vigorous exercise.
  • Exercise seems to reduce harmful changes in the brain caused by stress.

How much exercise is enough for me?

  • Firstly – any exercise is better than none.
  • BUT a moderate level of exercise seems to work best.
  • This is roughly equivalent to walking fast, but being able to talk to someone at the same time.
  • You need to do about 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise on at least 5 days of every week. This can be done in one 30 minute session or broken up into shorter 10 or 15 minute sessions. 
  • This can not only lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, but also seems to help depression – so you get a double benefit.
  • Don’t start suddenly - build more physical activity into your life gradually, in small steps.

When should I exercise?

As regularly as you can. There will be days when you just don’t feel like exercise – you may feel tired or be too busy or anxious about something. If you keep to your routine and exercise at times like this, you will almost certainly feel better. Why?

If you are tired, exercise tends to give you energy. If you are worried, it can take your mind off your concerns for a while. Even if you can’t 'exercise', a 15 minute walk can help you to clear your mind and relax. You may find it helpful to listen to music at the same time.

It’s best not to do too much in the evening. Being active will generally help you to sleep but, if you exercise late in the evening, you may find it difficult to settle.

Eating and energy levels

Caffeine and high energy snacks will boost your energy quickly - but after an hour or so you will probably feel more tired than you did before. A short walk will boost your energy level for much longer.

Exercise and Coping

If you are active you will probably find it easier to deal with life’s problems and challenges. So - if those problems stop you from regularly exercising, it’s worth remembering that finding time for exercise may well help you to deal with such problems.

Exercise can also help you to cope better by improving how you feel about yourself and getting you together with other people.

How well does exercise work for depression?

For mild depression, physical activity can be as good as antidepressants or psychological treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

It can certainly be harder to get active when you are depressed. But being active lifts your mood and gives you a sense of being in control and in touch with other people.

In some areas in the UK, GPs (family doctors) can prescribe exercise.

What's the downside?

Not much.  If you are normally very active, you may get depressed if, for any length of time, you can't exercise because of an injury. If this does happen, you can carry on with exercises using those parts of your body that are not injured. This will help you to keep fit, feel more in control and keep in touch with other people. It can help to set yourself targets – both for the next few days and longer, for the next weeks or months. 


Some people with eating disorders use exercise to lose too much weight.

Some athletes (such as those in weight-related sports like horse racing, boxing and gymnastics) are more likely to develop eating disorders.


Physical exercise can cause injuries and some health problems – but you are much more likely to get ill if you don't keep active. If in doubt, ask your doctor.


Getting down to it

Any physical activity needs to be something that you can do regularly. But lots of things can stop you, especially if you feel depressed. You may feel that you:

  • don't have the energy
  • don’t feel confident enough
  • don’t know anybody to exercise with
  • don’t have the right clothes
  • can’t afford it
  • just aren’t the ‘exercise or sporty type’
  • won't feel any differenrt for doing it.

Exercise can be about playing sport or doing hard-core exercise – if you want that. For other people, it is just about being more physically active and sitting around less. It doesn’t have to be hard – but try to do something every day. 


Some things aren't expensive – walking is free and jogging just needs a pair of trainers (cheap ones are fine). If you have a bike already, try cycling to work (or for any regular journey) – you may even save some money. 


  • But don’t overdo it!

If you haven’t been active for a while, doing too much when you start can make you more tired – particularly if you also have a health problem (including depression) that makes you tired. One day you may have the energy to be really active but feel completely exhausted the next.


Whatever you choose to do, start with something easy – like walking round the block. Build your level up gradually, perhaps by just doing a minute or two more – or a few metres more - each day. Try to do something most days, even if you feel tired.

Start by working out how much you do already – you can use a pedometer to show you how many steps you take every day. Or you could keep a diary for a few days of how long you spend doing active things. Then set yourself some goals. Make sure they are:

S – Specific (clear)

M – Measurable – you will know when you’ve achieved them

A – Achievable – you can achieve them

R – Relevant – they mean something to you

T - Time-based – you set yourself a time limit to achieve your goals.

They need to be things you can see yourself doing – and take pride in, so you feel good about yourself. You may be able to do it on your own, or with some help from others.

Nobody’s perfect. You will have setbacks when you can’t meet a short term goal, or just feel too tired to do anything. Recognise it when it happens, but don’t worry about it. Tomorrow is another day and short term setbacks don’t matter in the bigger picture of your longer-term goals. And, if you need to, do ask someone else to give you a hand.  


Further information

Mental Health Foundation 

A MHF report entitled ‘ Up and Running’ focused on exercise as a way to treat  depression. A version is available for both patients and practitioners.


Walking for health

Tel: 01242 533337; email:

A nation-wide scheme of group walks backed by the British Heart Foundation and Natural England. The website offers information and support to all, from complete beginners to health/leisure professionals. The initiative supports over 400 local health walk schemes – find your nearest using the Walk Finder.

The Ramblers Association

Tel: 0207 339 8500; email:

Britain's biggest walking charity. Contact them to find out more about where to walk in your area, how to locate your nearest walking group and additional information about how to include children, walk in urban areas and advice for people with disabilities.


Paths for all

Covers walking schemes across Scotland. Use the website to find a local health walk in your area. It also offers support and information about resources and grants for setting up your own walking club.


Keep Fit Association

Tel: 01403 266000; email:

Find out about keep fit aerobics classes, and search for classes across the UK from 65 nation-wide Local Associations.


Spogo: the sports and fitness finder

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.

English Federation of Disability Sport 

Organisation that supports and promotes sport for people with disabilities.


Provide advice on cycling opportunities locally and further afield, including the National Cycle Network.

This leaflet reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing.

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The RCPsych is grateful to Professor Adrian Taylor, School of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Exeter, for writing this leaflet.
Produced by the RCPsych's Public Education Editorial Board. Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms.
Withdrawn April 2018 Royal College of Psychiatrists. This factsheet may be downloaded, printed out, photocopied and distributed free of charge as long as the RCPsych is properly credited and no profit is gained from its use. Permission to reproduce it in any other way must be obtained  The College does not allow reposting of its factsheets on other sites, but allows them to be linked to directly.
For a catalogue of public education materials or copies of our leaflets contact: Leaflets Department, The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 21 Prescot Street, London E1 8BB. Telephone: 020 3701 2552. 

Charity registration number in England and Wales (228636) and in Scotland (SC038369)