Mental Health Awareness Week: Movement theme for 2024

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is currently underway, having started on 13th May and running until 19th May. Spearheaded by the Mental Health Foundation, this year’s theme focuses on “Movement: moving more for your mental health.”

In this post, we will not explore the benefits of movement and exercise for mental health. Instead, our focus is on the report released on 13th May by the Mental Health Foundation, examining the barriers to engaging in physical activity and enjoying its well-documented benefits.

Movement and mental health

The widely acknowledged benefits of movement for both physical and mental health are not easy to attain despite the advice to “move more for your mental health.” In the UK, over a third of adults (36%) fail to meet the recommendations set by the World Health Organisation. The UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines underscore that those who are least active have the most to gain from upping their activity levels. Even minor increases in physical activity can yield a plethora of physical and mental health benefits.

Physical inactivity detrimentally affects both physical and mental health. Research suggests that inactive individuals experience three times the rate of moderate to severe depression compared to their active counterparts. Strong evidence supports the role of physical activity in alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, with regular physical activity potentially reducing the risk of depression by up to 30%. Furthermore, being active is associated with boosted self-esteem, reduced stress, and an enhanced quality of life.

The Mental Health Foundation recently conducted research across the UK, engaging with a diverse range of people to understand the barriers to physical activity among those at higher risk of poor mental health. Despite more than one-third of the population not meeting recommended activity guidelines, 82% of UK adults acknowledge that regular physical activity is important for mental health and wellbeing. This raises the question of why there is such a disparity between understanding and action.

Several factors can influence an individual’s ability to be more active, including income, gender, age, and ethnicity. Higher levels of inactivity disproportionately affect certain populations, such as those with long-term health conditions and individuals living in socio-economic deprivation. To address these inequalities and support people in becoming more active, it is vital to understand the specific barriers that different segments of the population face in relation to physical activity.

What barriers did their research identify?
The Mental Health Foundation found that nearly half of UK adults (45%) believe their mental health and wellbeing can be enhanced through physical activity. Awareness of its benefits is high, with 82% of UK adults recognising the importance of physical activity for mental health and overall wellbeing. However, despite this awareness, several barriers prevent many from being more active.

One significant barrier is the high cost associated with exercise classes and gym memberships, cited by 14% of survey respondents. Rising living costs, additional expenses like childcare, and the need for appropriate clothing further exacerbate this issue. Although free activities such as walking are preferred by many, factors like poor weather and shorter daylight hours often reduce motivation. Limited access to green spaces, inadequate public transport, and the closure of local facilities also impede engagement in free or low-cost physical activities.

Daily life stress prevents more than one in six people (17%) from moving more, a figure that rises to nearly one in three (30%) among young people aged 18-24. Additionally, feeling low or depressed is a barrier for 18% of the general population, increasing to 24% among young adults. Anxiety similarly affects young people more, with 24% of those aged 18-24 reporting it as a barrier compared to 15% of the general population. Despite recognising the benefits of physical activity, young people often struggle to see its positive effects and may view it as an additional stressor rather than a beneficial activity. Low mood can also lead to a lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities, including exercise.

Long-term conditions or disabilities prevent 15% of adults from being more active, with this figure rising to 24% among those aged 50 or over. Common barriers cited include pain, fatigue, and managing fluctuating symptoms. Additionally, more than one in five individuals (22%) report being too busy to exercise, with time constraints particularly affecting young adults aged 18-24 (38%).

Fatigue is another significant barrier, with 28% of respondents feeling too tired to engage in physical activity. This issue is most pronounced among young adults aged 18-24 (38%), with women (32%) and students (39%) also notably affected. Furthermore, around one third of people (31%) cite weather as a barrier to physical activity, as it can inconvenience, cause discomfort, disrupt plans, and negatively impact mood and energy levels.

Cultural barriers also hinder physical activity for some. Women from minority ethnic communities often struggle to find local activities that align with their cultural preferences, especially following the closure of many women-only spaces. Asylum seekers and refugees face additional challenges, including limited knowledge about local facilities and financial constraints affecting access to transport, sports equipment, or activity fees. Lack of information on available local physical activity groups and their benefits further prevents participation.

Self-esteem and body image concerns also pose barriers to physical activity. Worries about physical appearance and feelings of inadequacy hinder participation, particularly among younger women. About 9% of women report that dissatisfaction with their body image prevent them from exercising more, a figure that rises to 16% among 18-24-year-olds. These concerns are particularly pronounced in the context of structured exercise.

Why do the figures seem more pronounced for 18-24 year-olds?
The barriers identified in this research are consistent with those found in other studies. However, what stands out to me is that these challenges seem especially difficult for individuals aged 18-24 years. While the report does not explore the reasons behind this, further reading suggests several factors that could contribute to the heightened barriers to physical activity among this age group. However, more research is needed to validate these suggestions.

  • Mental health challenges: Young adults in this age group often face higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression compared to other age groups (see links). These mental health issues can significantly impact their motivation and energy levels, making it more difficult to engage in regular physical activity.
  • Academic and career pressures: The transition from adolescence to adulthood involves significant life changes, such as entering higher education or starting a career. The pressures of studying, part-time jobs, and early career demands can lead to time constraints and fatigue, leaving little room for exercise.
  • Sedentary lifestyles: The rise of digital technology has increased sedentary behaviour among young people (see links). Social media, streaming services, and online gaming contribute to longer periods of inactivity, which can reduce the inclination to participate in physical activities.
  • Economic constraints: Young adults often face financial challenges, such as student debt and lower income levels at the start of their careers. The cost of gym memberships, exercise classes, and sports equipment can be prohibitive, limiting their ability to engage in regular physical activity.
  • Body image and self-esteem issues: Concerns about physical appearance and self-esteem are particularly pronounced in this age group. The influence of social media can exacerbate these issues, leading to feelings of inadequacy and reluctance to participate in activities that involve public or group settings.
  • Urbanisation and access issues: Many young adults live in urban areas with limited access to green spaces and recreational facilities. This urban lifestyle can restrict opportunities for free or low-cost physical activities, making it harder for them to stay active.

While these barriers are not exclusive to the 18-24 age group, their convergence and intensity during this critical developmental period can create significant obstacles to maintaining an active lifestyle.

In summary, a comprehensive strategy that tackles barriers to physical activity across different levels – societal, environmental, community, and individual – is needed to foster a supportive environment for people to embrace and sustain active lifestyles. This approach requires collaboration among policymakers, healthcare professionals, community organisations, and individuals to effectively address the diverse challenges and create lasting change.

Mental Health Awareness Week | Mental Health Foundation
MHF – MHAW Movement – Report 2024.pdf (
Depression | Signs and Symptoms | Mental Health | YoungMinds
Depression in young people | Action Mental Health (
The associations between screen time and mental health in adolescents: a systematic review | BMC Psychology | Full Text (
Excessive Screen Time in Children and Young People – Should We Be Worried? — Youth STEM 2030

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Dave Lee

Dave Lee

Dave Lee is the co-founder of Amac, he continues to write and produce all our courses and you might even find him teaching you.

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