Skip to content

Let’s move more for our mental health

As Mental Health Awareness Week starts, the CEO of the Mental Health Foundation celebrates this year's theme - the positive effects moving has on both our bodies and minds.

13th May 2024

by Mark Rowland
CEO, Mental Health Foundation

Nelson Mandela famously expressed the power of physical activity to keep his mind calm while imprisoned on Robben Island when he said: "Exercise is key not only to physical health but to peace of mind too."

The expression 'peace of mind' is used here as another way to describe good mental health.

It refers to what psychologists call 'the regulated state’ – a feeling of safety and connection between our body and mind when they're not hijacked by our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

Move more, feel better

It’s a state in which we are able to experience a range of emotions without being overwhelmed by them and, as it turns out, moving our bodies is one of the most important tools we have for bringing us back into that sense of safety.

Reducing both the time and intensity of periods when we are overwhelmed by our emotions is key to preventing the onset of longer-term mental health struggles and recovering from them.

As Mental Health Awareness Week kicks off, we are proud to be partnering with Sport England for this year’s campaign – ‘Movement: moving more for our mental health’. 

The week’s aim is to start a national conversation about the benefits of moving for mental health but also about the barriers to movement.

Banner for Mental Health Awareness Week split diagonally so the top half is orange and the bottom one is purple. The words Find your moments for movement are written in white in the middle. The logo of Mental Health Awareness Week is on the bottom-right corner and #MomentsForMovement is written on the bottom-left corner.

Our research shows that only 25% of us are happy with the amount of physical activity we do in a typical week.   

This data is especially relevant if we consider that, more than in any other time in human history, we can survive, work, engage in hobbies and see our friends and family without doing any physical movement at all. 

As a colleague said to me recently, 'we don’t even have to take away our takeaways'!  

This lack for the need movement is a sign of the huge challenge modern life in 2024 represents for us.

Following the research and sharing our own

Because although we are living longer, many of us struggle to build movement into our daily lives and our physical and mental health are suffering as a result.

And this is in spite of knowing the health benefits of movement for some time.

A 20-year study in Stanford in the 1980s, called Reduced Disability and Mortality among Runners, compared the health outcomes of two groups of non-smokers around the age of 50 – one that jogged regularly and another one that didn’t. 

Reducing both the time and intensity of periods when we are overwhelmed by our emotions is key to preventing the onset of longer-term mental health struggles and recovering from them.

Researchers found a 50% reduced risk of a life-limiting disability (health span) for those that were physically active and a 20% reduced risk of survival (life span) among those who were not physically active.

But what about the positive impact of movement on our mental health? This area of study has often been overlooked.  

As little as 15 minutes of movement a day has been shown to positively impact mental health (although the more often we move, the bigger the benefit).

Positive effects of physical activity range from improved mood, reduced anxiety, lowered inflammation and stress, better memory and concentration, boosts in confidence, improved sleep and even increased social connectedness.

Moving more also reduces the risk of long-term physical health conditions, which – in turn – also lowers the risk of poor mental health.

Considering the many benefits of moving, I wonder what other single thing could have the same mental health benefits on us.   

Movement is one of the few proven routes to prevent poor mental health and that is why it is referred to by many as as 'a miracle cure’, due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and help treat.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we will be looking to engage people from every community to consider how they can find their moment for movement.

We want to reclaim movement from being seen as something reserved for fitness fanatics, to something that is for all members of society.

But what is stopping us moving? 

Our research found that while 82% of UK adults knew that movement was important for their mental health, only 25% were happy with the amount of physical activity they did. 

Too many of us do not believe that physical activity is for us and, as a result, we are struggling to overcome psychological, environmental or physical barriers.

Issues like poor weather, stress, low confidence, associated costs or lack of time are keeping us from moving more. 

Our research also showed us that these barriers are higher for those with a disability, for parents and for young people. 

Naming these issues is an important first step, but we want to use the week to explore how to lower them.

The power of kindness

We also want to ask how we can support each other to build movement into our lives and we will be taking our message to the Parliaments across the UK during the week to remind our politicians of their role to create more opportunities for movement. 

And there’s more!

We'll also be using these days to empower people to get the most mental health benefits from the movement they do. 

Movement itself is not a magic wand for our minds, but being kind to ourselves while we are active will be better for our mental health than moving with a critical mindset.  

Similarly, setting realistic goals and connecting with nature or friends can increase movement’s psychological benefits. 

So, join us as we find our #MomentsForMovement and experience that coveted peace of mind we all need so much in this busy world of ours.

Sign up to our newsletter

You can find out exactly how we'll look after your personal data, but rest assured we’ll only use it to make sure you receive our newsletter, to understand how you interact with our newsletter, and to provide administrative information about our newsletter.