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Trigger Warning: Whilst this blog has been created with the purpose of promoting positive wellbeing, we acknowledge that the material may be triggering for some individuals. If you or a colleague find that you are impacted by the content, please seek support, for example, through BEAT or any of the organisations on our Need Help page.

This is the fourth blog in our series on optimising your mental wellbeing. As Mental Health Awareness Week is being held 13 - 19 May 2024, with the theme of "Movement: Moving more for our mental health” this is a particularly poignant time to focus on being active.

At Mates in Mind, we believe that there is no health without mental health, and as can be seen below, research has shown that exercise can help with both our physical health (in terms of reducing our chances of long-term health conditions) and in improving our mental wellbeing.

We also advocate for positive mental health in and through work – some of the advice below can be used to improve your mental health within the workplace, but equally during your home and leisure time. In this way, it is possible to build a multiplier effect with all elements coming together to optimise your mental wellbeing.

Why is being active important for mental wellbeing?

The benefits gained from being active are why it is important:

  • ‘Over the long term, aerobic exercise reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer, depression, and falls’ [1], and it can ‘reduce your risk of early death by up to 30%’. [2]
  • ‘Almost one in three people (32%) said that exercise improves their mental health, with over a quarter (27%) saying that exercise lifts their mood and helps them feel less anxious or depressed.’ [3]
  • Research by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that ‘Sedentary time was associated with higher mortality risk but only in individuals accumulating less than 22 min of MVPA [moderate-to-vigorous physical activity] per day. Higher MVPA levels were associated with lower mortality risk irrespective of the amount of sedentary time.’ [4]
  • A study in Australia found that ‘Exercise is an effective treatment for depression, with walking or jogging, yoga, and strength training more effective than other exercises, particularly when intense. …. Exercise appeared equally effective for people with and without comorbidities and with different baseline levels of depression. … These forms of exercise could be considered alongside psychotherapy and antidepressants as core treatments for depression’ [5]. Commenting on the research Dr Paul Keedwell, consultant psychiatrist and fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "Social interaction might be almost as important as the physiological effects of exercise (with group activities such as yoga, dance and walking groups being particularly helpful), and context is probably important too, with additional benefits to be gained in green and natural environments.” [6]
  • An article suggests, “Novelty feels nice and doing something fresh and new is good for our brain, too. Learning a new activity engages your brain more than a repeated one does. So, by adding variety to your exercise routine, in addition to flexing different muscles, you’re challenging your brain to learn motor pathways.” [7]
  • Exercise helps you sleep better (please see our sleep blog for further information).
  • Regular exercise helps you metabolise foods as it boosts your resting metabolic rate which results in burning more calories and using them for energy to keep you active.
  • It can also boost self-esteem as well as reduce your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. [8]
  • “Sport and exercise are also the best ways to bring people together, and in this way, help build stronger and more resilient communities.” [9]

When asked about the benefits of being active, the Mates in Mind team also added:

  • Feeling of energy post-exercise.
  • Mental break from work/desk – going for a walk at lunchtime gives me time to reflect and often come up with solutions when away from the pressure of the screen.

What are the barriers to being active?

Nuffield Health Foundation research found that the cost-of-living crisis was impacting the ability to access exercise with ‘nearly two thirds (63%) of those aged 25–34 stating that cost was a barrier to exercise, compared to just under two in five of those aged over 55’. [10]

At the end of the day motivation, enjoyment and benefits mean nothing if you can’t afford it. So, in the section on ‘things to try’ further down this blog, we will look at both paid for, and free, activities that you could try.

What motivates you to be active?

What motivates you is totally personal and unique to you, but motivation is often associated with the benefits of exercising (see above), and it can evolve from enjoyment – it’s hard to get out of bed and go for a run if you don’t enjoy the activity or how you feel afterwards. Enjoyment and motivation are also important because it will help you to identify one, or more, exercise regimes to try which will lead to an activity plan that you can stick to.

Although I can’t tell you what motivates you, a survey [11] found that the motivations for joining a gym were:

  • 78% said it improves their mental health and wellbeing.
  • 75% said it improves their overall confidence.
  • 66% said it improves their sleep.
  • 55% said it helps them manage a short- or long-term health condition.
  • 43% said it helps them make new friends.

You may also be interested in what motivates the team at Mates in Mind:

  • Setting a goal e.g., running in a local event in 3 months’ time or fundraising for a good cause (like Mates in Mind).
  • Fitness – increasing fitness levels, when you start you may only be able to climb a couple of flights of stairs without getting out of breath, but over time that could develop into being able to complete a 5km run within a certain time.
  • Movement – just the feel of moving, not being sedentary all the time, feeling the pull on my muscles as I stretch.
  • Connecting with others – it is a great way to socialise, whether in the gym, walking with friends etc.
  • Recounting the tales – this ties in with connecting with others, but also through sharing our experiences it can encourage those around us to get more active. One colleague had noticed other members of the team going for a swim, or doing an exercise class before work, and started a conversation asking for advice.
  • Something I enjoy doing – this was shared by everyone in the team.
  • Weight management – for some it helps maintain a healthy weight, whilst for others the motivation is to lose weight, or to gain weight, particularly muscle weight.

What tips are there for being active?

Before we look at some exercise options, first a few tips and pointers:

  • As with many things, there is an optimal level of activity with either extremes – complete inactivity or excessive exercise – having negative impacts on overall health.
  • Remember to keep your physical health front of mind – stretches before and after exercise (see the NHS website [12] for tips), keep hydrated and check with a doctor before you start if you have any underlying health conditions.
  • The NHS recommends adults should aim to ‘do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week, and to spread exercise evenly over 4 to 5 days a week, or every day. [13]
  • You should aim for at least a moderate intensity activity which raises your heart rate, makes you breathe faster and feel warmer. The NHS says you know you are achieving this level if you are still ‘able to talk but you won't be able to sing the words to a song’. [14]
  • Research has found that ‘exercising outdoors tops the list of most popular type of activity for boosting physical health, with 38% of people saying that is the main way they have exercised in the last year.’ [15]
  • Try to make it part of everyday life, e.g., walking or cycling to work. In my last role, I parked half an hour from work and walked in, not only was it quicker than sitting in a queue of traffic, but it was better for the environment, was less stressful and it helped me prepare for the day as I walked in to work, as well as wind down at the end of the working day.
  • Whilst a smart watch can help you to track your activity, you might already have a free source of activity data on your phone – have a look for a ‘health’ app, e.g., a symbol with a heart on it.

Types of activity to try

As you discovered above, not everything is suitable or affordable, so you need to find something that fits your lifestyle – what you’re motivated to do on a regular basis, what time you have available to do it and of course what you can afford.

As the old expression goes ‘variety is the spice of life’, so why not mix and match different activities to find a good balance that works for you.

Below are some ideas (including from the Mates in Mind team (in bold)) – they are a mix of moderate aerobic activity, vigorous and very vigorous activity, as well as strengthening muscles – the aim is to provide some options for you to try so you can discover what you enjoy the most:

  • Getting up every hour (when possible) helps us to have a mental break from whatever you are working on, improves your mood, it helps your eyes to refocus at a different distance, and it helps to get your internal waste disposal system moving.
  • If your job is sedentary, then find ways (if safe to do so) to move whilst sitting – refocus your eyes on an object further away than your work, lift and drop your shoulders, put your feet flat on the floor and lift the heel, then the toes, and when possible, take a walk around the office/site/home.
  • Jogging or running – why not download the NHS’s Couch to 5k [16] app which provides an audio 9-week plan to get you running.
  • Walking – with a dog or without, alone or with a walking group, a ten-minute walk around the block or from Land’s End to John O’Groats (read Sean’s epic fundraising walk).
  • Climbing – whether this is climbing the stairs instead of getting the lift/escalator, using an indoor climbing wall, or climbing Ben Nevis whilst wearing a 15 kg weight vest (read Gary’s heroic fundraising climb).
  • Dancing – whether in a class (Jazzercise, Ballet, Tap etc.), at home, in the pub or a local night spot.
  • Whilst sitting on the sofa why not try stretching, or clench and relax muscles, or get a little foot bike and cycle whilst watching TV or reading.
  • Skipping – this is a nostalgic activity.
  • Bike ride – if you don’t have your own bike, you could look to hire one to see if you like it or ask a friend if you can borrow their bike. Your local charity shop may be able to offer refurbished bikes at a reduced price, e.g., Cyclists Fighting Cancer. [17]
  • Online class e.g., Joe Wicks has teamed up with the BBC to create two mood-boosting workouts. [18]
  • Gardening – weeding, digging, planting, pushing a lawn mower.
  • Football – whether it’s an after work or interwork match, or your local football league, you benefit from being outside, connecting with others, and getting fit.
  • Swimming or Aquarobics.
  • Yoga, Pilates etc.
  • Martial arts, e.g., Tai-Chi, Judo etc.
  • Gym.
  • Boxing.
  • Lifting weights.
  • Spin class.
  • Boot camp.

Please read our Relaxation blog for more details on how to engage with some of these activities and the benefits you get from them.

You may also be interested in Steven Bartlett’s podcast ‘Diary of a CEO’, in which he talks about how he treats trying new things as an experiment and bins worrying about what other people think – get inspired and listen here. [19]

Where to find support 

Being active is a proven way to improve, and maintain, your mental and physical wellbeing. However, whilst this blog has been created with the purpose of promoting positive wellbeing, we acknowledge that the material may be triggering for some individuals. If you or a colleague find that you are impacted by the content, please seek support, for example, through BEAT. Please remember, there is always someone who will listen, and the organisations below are a good place to start:


You can also download free infographics and guides from the resources section of this website. We also offer a range of training courses that can help you build knowledge and understanding across your organisation.

Next steps

If your organisation is one of our Supporters, please ask your representative to download the calendar which is packed full of ideas on small things you can do each day, at work and at home, to increase your activity levels.

In this blog we have looked at how being active can help to optimise your mental wellbeing. The next blog in the series will be on Nutrition and will be published in June.

If you would like to be kept informed about new blogs, resources, training and more, please sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please share a link to it on your social media channels and if you are able to, we would really appreciate you finding out how you can support us to raise awareness of mental health, address the stigma and create positive mental health in and through work.

Remember, you are not alone, there is always someone to talk to or somewhere to find additional help.





















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