Mind and Body: How We Are Harnessing the Power of Physical Activity to Boost Mental Health

EFL Get Set to Go Launch

We all have mental health in the same way as we have physical health. Both can fluctuate over time, meaning they both need looking after. In fact, the relationship between the two are intertwined and there’s good evidence that getting more physically active can have real benefits for our mental wellbeing.

Being physically active can reduce your risk of developing depression by up to 30% and is a vital tool in supporting and enabling mental health recovery and in tackling stigma and discrimination. Physical activity is so good for us that it is one of the first forms of treatment that should be offered by doctors for people experiencing mild to moderate depression.

How can physical activity benefit your mental health?

  • Reduced anxiety and happier moods. When you’re physically active your brain chemistry changes through the release of endorphins (often known as the ‘feel good’ hormones), along with dopamine and serotonin which can calm anxiety and lift your mood. Known as the “runners high” this feeling of improved mood is immediate unlike many other health benefits that can take weeks or months to benefit from.
  • Reduced feelings of stress. Had a hard day at the office or caring for children or elderly relatives? Then lacing up your trainers and heading out to the gym can really help reduce your stress levels. Being active helps to reduce feelings of stress and tension as your body is better able to control cortisol levels.
  • Clearer thinking. ‘Running clears my Mind’. Many people find that being active 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 for yourself to be active can give you space to think things over and help your mind feel calmer. This is increased when being active outdoors with over 90% of people reporting increased mood having been active in open spaces.
  • Increased self-esteem. When you start to see your fitness levels increase whether it is going further or faster and achieve your PB (personal best) and your body improve (whether it’s your clothes becoming baggier or feeling firmer), 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.
  • More energy. As your body adapts to increased activity levels you get a natural energy boost, which can make you feel less tired. Researchers say that even low intensity levels of activity can be beneficial if you usually feel very fatigued.
  • Improved sleep. Many people find they are able to sleep better at night after having been more active during the day, sleep plays a key role in managing your mental health.
  • Social benefits. Being physically active with others can have even greater impact as it provides an opportunity to strengthen social networks, talk through problems with others or simply laugh and enjoy a break from family and work. The impact of social support was one of the key findings of our Get Set to Go programme research.

Getting outdoors

Outdoor activities can be a particularly good way to improve our mental health and wellbeing, and evidence supports this. The University of Essex carried out some research for Mind, which found that 94 per cent of people who took part in outdoor exercise activities said that green exercise activities had benefited their mental health. In fact, ‘ecotherapy’, a type of formal treatment which involves doing activities outside in nature, can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety.

Unlike working out in the gym or other indoor activities, the colours, sounds and smells we find outdoors stimulate our senses in a different way and can boost our mood. Getting away from modern life and into a relaxing outside space can allow us to switch off from everyday pressures, can help relieve stress and give us time to clear our heads of day-to-day pressures. Participating in activities outside with others can also help build social connections, improve our self-esteem and reduce loneliness. Being outside in natural light can also be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular times of year.

Getting out into nature can take many forms. Some people like walking but there are plenty of things to try such as gardening, growing food, or even open water swimming or outdoor tai chi or yoga! There might also be projects in your community which focus on a specific cause like saving the environment and include activities like going on litter picking walks, planting helpful seeds or building an animal habitat.

While all forms of physical activity can bring benefits for mental wellbeing the most important thing is to find a type of activity you love and can stick at. A team sport might be best for you if you value your boost of a strong social element, while for others who benefit from time to yourself an activity like running might work better. Don’t feel that you have to stick at something that’s not working for you.

Why is Mind particularly interested in physical activity?

Simply put, Mind wants to support more people with mental health problems to become and remain physically active and to use sport for social good to raise awareness of mental health with audiences that traditionally do not access mental health services. We know that while physical activity is really important for mental wellbeing, too many people with mental health problems face significant barriers to getting active.

Mind research in 2015 demonstrated that that four fifths (80 per cent) of people with mental health problems who do not take part in sport, are put off because they feel self-conscious about their bodies. Nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of people with mental health problems say they enjoy taking part in sport, or exercising, however around nearly two thirds (64 per cent) are worried about taking part in sport by themselves. Nearly 70 per cent of people also told Mind that they feel their mental health makes taking part too difficult.

There are also particular barriers for women with mental health problems. Mind found that they are not exercising because of bad experiences with P.E. at school – putting them at greater risk of poor physical and mental health. More than half of women (57%) do not participate in sport because they were not good at PE at school while nearly half (43%) feel it is too competitive.

Mind’s own Get Set to Go programme, funded by Sport England and recently expanded with support from the EFL (English Football League), aims to address these barriers by helping people with mental health problems to get more active. In its pilot phase participants felt it improved their resilience and their ability to deal with anxiety, panic attacks, and even suicidal thoughts. The programme was largest of its kind anywhere in the world, launched with support of Sport England and the National Lottery in July 2015 to help people with mental health problems benefit from being physically active.

The programme has since supported 3,585 people with mental health problems get more active. After 6 months of taking part in Get Set to Go, 78% of people rated it as very good or excellent. Participants increased their activity levels by an average of 1.3 days each week, and felt like they had more support available to them after taking part in the programme. They also felt it had improved their resilience and ability to cope. The research, which was independently evaluated by experts from Loughborough University, worked with 1,000 participants to track their progress.

Nationally, Get Set to Go campaigned to promote the benefits of getting active on mental health, reaching over 19 million people with specially developed information. Thousands more accessed information and support to help them get active online through Mind’s Elefriends website.

What is the wider sector doing?

Since launching Get Set to Go we have established a wide range of partnerships from across the sport, physical activity and health sectors with more partners looking to us for best practice on how to support people with mental health problems in their activities.

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  • English Football League (EFL) – At the start of the 18/19 football season we were named as the EFL charity partner for the next two football seasons. With over 21 million fans attending EFL matches each season (and 55 million watching on TV), this partnership has been a brilliant opportunity for us to promote awareness and understanding of mental health amongst football fans, and to help more people living with mental health problems access the support they need. With an extension to the partnership for an additional two seasons we hope to continue to harness the power of football to raise awareness of mental health, improve the approach to mental health in sport and raise funds to deliver life changing national and local support.
  • England Athletics launched #runandtalk in 2016 actively encouraging clubs and running groups to recruit mental health champions and ambassadors to provide local support to get people running for their mental health and to start talking about mental health in the running community. Based on learnings from our peer support models we have worked together to encourage more people into running groups and to help people maintain their activity levels when their mental health takes a dip. We also partnered on a campaign for the World Athletics Championships in 2017 #17minutesforme to encourage over 10,000  people to become active for their mental health through influencers, physical activity programmes and tips along with short educational content on the mental health benefits of activity.
  • UK Coaching – We initially partnered with UK Coaching in 2015 to develop learning for the sport and physical activity sector to better understand mental health and to support them to feel more confident both talking about mental health and including people with mental health problems in sessions. Since 2016 Mind has delivered the ‘Mental Health Awareness for Sport and Physical Activity’ training course to over 1,000 physical activity professionals with support of UK Coaching. 81% of respondents to Loughborough University research agreed or strongly agreed that their knowledge of mental health had improved following the training. This was maintained at the six month follow up (83%). 84% of respondents agreed their attitude to mental health has changed, with 81% reporting they had used the knowledge from the training course. This spring with UK Coaching, 1st4Sport and Sport England we will launch an eLearning course to reach more people from across the sector.

For more information and ways to support your mental health see mind.org.uk/sport

About the author






Hayley Jarvis joined Mind, the leading mental health charity working in England and Wales, in April 2015 and now heads Mind’s Physical Activity team. Hayley leads on Mind’s partnership with the English Football League, its national ‘Get Set to Go’ programme and its support to the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation in partnership with the Sport and Recreation Alliance and the Professional Players Federation. Hayley has extensive experience of sports development within local authority, education and the charity sector at a local, regional and national level. Hayley has a real passion for inclusion and getting those of us with mental health problems more active through breaking down barriers and misconceptions within the sports and physical activity sector.


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