The importance of physical activity for young people’s mental health and wellbeing

The theme of Mental Health Awareness week this year is “Movement: Moving more for our mental health”. This is important, as we know that being physically active is good for our mental health, however there is a decline in physical activity levels of young people. Using #BeeWell data, PhD student Georgie Parker looks to understand more about why and how we can support a change.

A large body of research suggests that physical activity has a beneficial effect on mental health and wellbeing, with the Mental Health Foundation detailing how physical activity can help us to manage stress, improve our mood, and increase our self-esteem (amongst a range of other benefits). Studies have found that being physically active during childhood and adolescence can persist across the lifespan. This means that improving the levels of physical activity in children and young people can help to improve life-long mental health and wellbeing.

Despite this, it’s common for physical activity levels in young people to decline, with activity levels in this group currently below what is recommended – just under half of children and young people aged five to 18 years old in the UK are currently meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidance of an average of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. These are activities which cause our heart rate and breathing to increase, such as a brisk walk, swimming, riding a bicycle, or playing football.

As part of my PhD at Anna Freud, I am interested in understanding more about the nature of the relationship between physical activity and mental health and wellbeing in children and young people.

To do this, I plan to look at how the context of physical activity impacts participation. For example, I am going to look at how factors such as the type of activity, who the activity is done with, and where the activity takes place, impacts on how young people take part and the benefits they experience. Alongside this, I will be looking at the breadth of what is offered within schools, as well as looking specifically at the role of self-esteem and body image, to try to unpick the association between this and physical activity participation. This will involve analysing data from the #BeeWell programme, plus data from other large UK cohorts. As part of these projects, I also want to talk to teachers and young people directly to gain an insight into their thoughts and experiences, to understand from their perspective what barriers may be in place and how we can support them to improve physical activity within their everyday lives.

If we can better identify the factors that influence young people’s participation in physical activity, then our research can be used by schools and voluntary and community organisations to keep young people physically active throughout their lives, better supporting their mental health and wellbeing.

I hope to be co-producing large parts of this research, working with young people. If you would like to find out more information or would be interested in helping to shape some of these research projects, please do reach out:



Georgie is a PhD researcher at UCL and is based at Anna Freud. Her research focuses on the impact of physical activity on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Kent and a Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Sciences from UCL. She has previously held Research Assistant roles in the NHS and at UCL.