This article has tips on how to start getting active, advice on overcoming barriers to exercise, and useful links for more information.
It is important that you check with your doctor before starting any new exercise regime. The advice of a health professional takes priority over any of the recommendations in this information sheet.
If you haven’t been physically active for a while, it might feel daunting to embark on an exercise programme.
What's stopping you?
If you have a neurological condition, it could be that physical or psychological problems are holding you back from being active. If you feel your condition is stopping you from exercising, see our separate information on exercise for specific conditions, or skip ahead to our section on barriers to exercise where we discuss fatigue, embarrassment and physical problems.
Finding the motivation
Motivation to exercise can be hard to find. Here are some of the ways that physical activity could benefit you:
- more energy
- weight loss if you are overweight
- build muscle strength
- improved balance and mobility
- reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer
- increased confidence and self esteem
Above all, exercise can be fun. Whether it's walking the dog or salsa dancing, enjoyment is the best motivation of all and will help you stick to your routine without being tempted to give up.
Building physical activity into your day
Even small changes to your lifestyle can help you become fitter and more active. These might not feel like ‘exercise’ as such, but together they can add up to a positive change.
- Do the housework! Hoovering, scrubbing the floor and changing the sheets will all get your heart working a bit harder.
- Get out in the garden – digging and weeding are really energetic activities, and the fresh air and greenery will help you feel better.
- Have a TV-free evening and spend the time playing family games like charades.
- Do you usually stand on escalators, or take the lift? If you are mobile enough, start walking up the stairs instead.
- Park the car in one of the furthest spaces from the supermarket.
- Get off the bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way.
Exercise at home
Your home can be a great place to start getting more active, and you can do it on your own or with family or friends.
Fitness DVDs are an easy and inexpensive way to start. There is a huge range of DVDs available but if you can, it might be an idea to start with one that has exercises specific to your condition. Both Parkinson’s UK and the MS Society have exercise DVDs available (see our Exercise for specific conditions information), or you could do an online search. A yoga DVD might be another good option to get you started.
Exercise on prescription
Your GP may be able to refer you for an exercise programme, to help you start exercising regularly. GPs in the UK can prescribe exercise for patients who are obese or have particular health conditions, by referring eligible patients to their local Active Health Team. The team will work out a programme of exercise that is safe and manageable for the patient. For more information, ask your GP.
Accessible and inclusive facilities
The Inclusive Fitness Initiative is a scheme in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland helping more people exercise regularly. It caters for the needs of disabled and non-disabled people, with a directory of accessible facilities so that you can find your local Inclusive Fitness Initiative gym.
Gyms accredited by the Inclusive Fitness Initiative must be accessible to people with disabilities, have fitness equipment that can be used for a full body workout by a wide range of users with different conditions, and all their staff must have disability awareness training. Find your nearest Inclusive Fitness Initiative gym.
There may not be an Inclusive Fitness Initiative gym in your area. That doesn’t mean that your local gym or leisure centre won’t be suitable for you. By law, all gyms should provide access for disabled people. Some will be better at this than others, but it’s worth talking to your local gym, to see if it can meet your needs.
If you are in Wales, you can search the Disability Sport Wales website for clubs by sport, disability or area.
Once you have your motivation to exercise, and have decided what you want to do, setting yourself some goals will help you stick with it.
Your particular goal will depend on how fit you are, what disabilities you have and how much time you can dedicate to exercise. It’s a good idea to check with your doctor to make sure your goal is suitable for you.
Examples of goals you could set include:
- Walk for 30 minutes without getting out of breath
- Learn a dance routine and perform it to your friends
- Lose a kilogram in weight
- Enter a fun run and run all the way to the end
Don't make your goals too difficult - you can always set a bigger challenge for yourself once you have achieved your initial target. But having something to work towards should keep you focused. You can then work towards your goals, for example by deciding to:
- Walk for 10 minutes every day
- Join a dance class and go every week
Keep a diary of your physical activity to record your progress. It will boost your motivation (those blank pages are hard to ignore!) and writing down your latest achievement will be really satisfying. After a few weeks or months you will be able to look back and be proud of all you have achieved.
Some people with neurological conditions say that there are barriers stopping them from being active. These barriers include a lack of energy, self-consciousness or embarrassment, and condition-specific physical problems. Here's a look at how to overcome these barriers.
Energy and fatigue
Fatigue is a common problem for people with neurological conditions and the exhaustion you feel may make exercise seem impossible. But light exercise can help you to build strength and endurance in your muscles, meaning that you can move around with less effort. It can actually help you to feel more energised, as long as you pace yourself and also get plenty of rest.
Getting the balance right is an issue here. Fiona, a subarachnoid haemorrhage survivor, says: "I am confused about what I can do to get active again because on one hand losing weight would be good for me, but on the other I have awful fatigue and am not meant to exert myself too much."
Gentle walking is a good way to start. It’s important not to overdo it: don’t attempt to exercise when your body doesn’t feel up to it, and make sure you stop before you feel exhausted. Some trial and error may be necessary before you know how much you can cope with, but be conservative and if in doubt, do less not more. You can always build up over time.
Do the best you can for your body by eating well, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep - missing out on rest or nutrition will mean you become fatigued sooner. Give yourself rest days and never exercise if you feel unwell. If there is a time of day when you normally feel your best, you could plan to do your exercise then.
Do a small amount of activity regularly and you should find you can build up very gradually to do more. Even building small amounts of physical activity into your day can help build your fitness, lift your mood and reduce your feelings of fatigue.
See also our article on Fatigue and neurological conditions.
Embarrassment, anxiety and self consciousness
Lots of people feel self conscious about exercising if they haven't done it for a while. If you are overweight or have a disability, you may feel that everyone else is fitter than you or that people are staring. You might also feel anxious about what might happen at the gym. Here are some ways you can overcome your anxiety or self consciousness:
Talk to a health professional or fitness instructor about your concerns. They could provide a tailored programme of exercise to get you started.
Start by exercising at home, either alone or with a friend or family member. (See above for tips on what exercise you can do at home).
Visit a gym or class especially for people with disabilities (see above).
After you have been exercising for a few weeks, you may feel less self conscious about exercising in public. Perhaps you could take a friend with you to a public place and see how you feel.
Remember, most people are more concerned about what people think of THEM, and are probably not paying any attention to what you are doing!
Physical problems due to your neurological condition can be an obstacle to exercise. See our separate information on exercise for specific conditions. If there is a national organisation helping people with your condition you might be able to contact them for further advice - or you could call the Brain and Spine Helpline on 0808 808 1000.
You might also benefit from a physiotherapist's advice. Physiotherapy is sometimes available on the NHS (ask your GP for a referral), but you may find there is a limit to what you can access for free. If you can afford it, you might consider seeing a private physiotherapist. Find out more about physiotherapy here.
Occupational therapy can also help if you have trouble carrying out day-to-day tasks. For example, an occupational therapist (OT) might help you to access mobility aids to help you walk, or suggest an exercise strategy that minimises back pain. Find out more about occupational therapy here.
Useful contacts and further information
Inclusive Fitness Initiative (IFI)
A programme that supports the fitness industry to become more inclusive, catering for the needs of disabled and non-disabled people alike.
You can find out more and search for your nearest IFI accredited centre at
Tel: 01509 227750
Disability Sport Wales National Development Programme
This website has a directory allowing you to search for inclusive clubs and facilities in your area.
Physical activity for neurological conditions
This pdf booklet from the MS Society has detailed information on getting the maximum benefit from exercise, with practical tips and advice.
Health and fitness
The NHS Choices website has lots of information about fitness and exercise for all ages and abilities.
This information was last checked in March 2016