Physical activity shown to improve the lives of people with severe mental health problems – new Mental Health Foundation study in Northern Ireland

Location: Northern Ireland

5th Dec 2019

A study of 31 people with severe mental health problems in Northern Ireland conducted by the Mental Health Foundation has revealed evidence of the beneficial impact of physical exercise.

The 31 participants in the study were asked to participate in a three-month exercise programme. Participants reported improvements in sleep and mood, having more energy, and feeling more mentally alert.

Some participants reported that the programme led to them being able to establish new routines, make adjustments to things like diet, and bring more structure to their lives.  The effects were particularly important for people with caring responsibilities, because the weekly activity created an outlet for them to engage socially.

The findings are included in a new report funded by Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning that considered the barriers to being physically active and what kind of programme would encourage people with severe mental health problems to be more active.

The report - “Empowering people through physical activity”  - has been produced by the Mental Health Foundation with Queen’s University Belfast, Praxis and Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke. The programme was funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

A 12-week physical activity programme was run earlier this year for people with severe mental health problems across five sites in Northern Ireland.  31 people regularly participated from all age groups.  Trainers from the Platinum Training Institute tailored the programme to suit participants’ levels of fitness and ability and included covered chair-based exercises, use of resistance bands and walking activities.

Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation said: “At the Foundation, we want to understand how people with severe mental health problems can be supported to live active and healthy lives.  Currently, people living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder live 10 to 20 years less than the general population which is simply unacceptable. Physical activity is vital way to connect with others and good for everyone’s mental health.  This report will make recommendations to support those with poor mental health to take part in physical activity programmes they find enjoyable and rewarding.”

Liam, one of the co-researchers on the report, said: ‘The participants were quick to form a working relationship with someone who had a background of mental illness too and it was rewarding for us to be using our experience to give something back.’

The report recommends that physical activity for people with severe and enduring mental health problems should be recognised as a core responsibility of health and social care and community-based provision of health and leisure facilities such as local council and school-based settings.  Physical activity programmes can appeal to people with mental health problems and do not have to be expensive.  Successful programmes centred on walking and chair-based exercise can meet the government-recommended activity levels.

Many of the participants really valued the social aspect of participation which in some cases was more important than the physical or mental health gains.  This benefit should be a primary consideration when planning programmes.

The report also stresses the need to communicate to health professionals and service providers that people with severe mental health problems are interested in their physical health and they should be supported to participate in such programmes. New programmes should also incorporate the social benefits of activity should be incorporated into the design of new programmes.

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