Sport, Exercise and Mental Health
Rebecca Chidley
Recent increases in media coverage and public knowledge have shed light on Sport and exercise as key contributors to our mental health. However, the contrast between discussions in each of these areas is clear:
  • Sport and mental health discussions link to the concerns for athletes in the pressure environments of high-level competitive sport.

  • Exercise and mental health discussions link to the benefits of exercise to improve mental health.

Mental Health – What is it?

Mental health is ‘a state of well-being in which the individual realises their abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his or her community’. Therefore, in contrast, mental health problems are characterised by alterations in cognition, emotion or social behaviour associated with distress or impaired functioning.

Mental Health and Exercise

There have been many publications citing the mental health benefits of physical activity. These benefits are:

  • the social interaction and mutual support resulting from participating in group exercise.

  • the improved mood, self-confidence and self-esteem resulting from engaging in challenging physical activity.

  • the distraction that physical activity provides from day-to-day stressors.

  • the autonomy that comes from self-selecting the exercise and doing it voluntarily and solely in one’s own interests.

Mental Health and Sport

Elite athletes are not immune from developing a mental illness, they experience unique stressors that can have detrimental effects on mental health including sport-related stress, injuries, living away from home, and burnout.

Behind the attention on the Mental Health challenges that many athletes face we have lost the focus on the many positives that being involved in competitive sport can bring. The sport environment fosters:

  • positive athlete development by facilitating the self-esteem, identity formation and feelings of competence.

  • positive peer relationships, leadership skills, teamwork, commitment, and discipline.

  • reciprocal social support that promotes physical and mental well-being.

Getting the benefits from exercise and sport for your mental health:

If you are new to exercise and physical activity, follow these 4 steps:

  1. Make time - What time do you have available for exercise?

  2. Find the right activity - What kind of activity would suit you best?

  3. Seek support - Will you need support from friends and family to complete your chosen activities?

  4. Get going – start small and build up what you do over time.

If you are an athlete and you train regularly for your sport it can still be useful to schedule in time for activities that benefit your mental health e.g., if you compete in an indoor sport make time to get out for a walk or if you are recovering from an injury, find ways to stay active using the 4 points above.

‘Whether you opt for competitive sport or exercise, find the activity and support network that helps you establish and maintain good mental health’.

If you've enjoyed this article, and would like further support on this area, contact us for more information.


Appaneal, R. N., Levine, B. R., Perna, F. M., & Roh, J. L. (2009). Measuring postinjury depression among male and female competitive athletes. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31(1), 60-76.

Biddle SH, Mutrie N. The psychology of physical activity. London: Routledge, 2008.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). The paradox of achievement: The harder you push, the worse it gets. In Improving academic achievement (pp. 61-87). Academic Press.

Douglas, K., & Carless, D. (2009). Exploring taboo issues in professional sport through a fictional approach. Reflective practice, 10(3), 311-323.

Fraser-Thomas, J. L., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2005). Youth sport programs: An avenue to foster positive youth development. Physical education & sport pedagogy, 10(1), 19-40.

Noblet, A. J., & Gifford, S. M. (2002). The sources of stress experienced by professional Australian footballers. Journal of applied sport psychology, 14(1), 1-13.

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Sawyer, M. G., Arney, F. M., Baghurst, P. A., Clark, J. J., Graetz, B. W., Kosky, R. J., & Zubrick,

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World Health Organization. (2001). The World health report: 2001: Mental health: new understanding, new hope. World Health Organization.

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Rebecca Chidley
Henry is the founder of Integrate Sports. He is a UKSCA accredited practitioner with over 10 years’ experience working with high performing athletes. He has worked with Olympic medallists and prepared athletes for Tokyo 2020 in his role with the English Institute of Sport. Henry is a Lecturer in Strength and Conditioning at Hartpury University, and the Head of Strength and Conditioning at Hockey Wales.
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