Skip to content

Mental health pilot helps service users to 'move more, feel better'

Our national partnerships lead for health and inactivity, Suzie Gittus, blogs about our work encouraging people with mental health challenges to increase physical activity levels.

15th October 2021

by Suzie Gittus
National partnerships lead for health and inactivity, Sport England

Numerous mental health studies have shown that increasing physical activity is good for our physical health, as well as our mental health and wellbeing.

However, despite many of us knowing physical activity is good for our mental wellness, for some it can be a struggle to start or stay active.

This is particularly true for people with mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety, due to the nature of the symptoms people experience.

Feeling low, anxious, a lack of motivation, tiredness, perceptions around the financial cost and fears of being judged are common barriers to engaging in physical activity.

Adults with a mental health condition or illness are around 1.6 times more likely to be inactive compared to adults with no disability or long-term health condition.

Active Lives Adult Survey - November 2019/20

In England, there are more than 200 Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services which offer talking therapies to support adults to better manage their mental health.

Yet, despite the evidence base of the benefits of physical activity on mental health, physical activity is not routinely a part of service delivery.

Service surveys showed there is almost unilateral support for the inclusion of physical activity into conversation – with 98% of staff respondents classing it as either extremely or somewhat important to talk to patients about how increasing their level of physical can improve mental health.

Yet only 5% did this routinely with every patient (Icope physical activity staff survey - June 2021).

The main barriers to this were not knowing what resources and local groups are available, followed by a lack of time and not wanting to appear judgemental.

Service users were also supportive of the inclusion of physical activity within conversations, with 70%  saying a therapist talking to them about getting more active would be either very or somewhat helpful (Icope service user physical activity survey - June 2021).

With strong evidence of the benefits of physical activity and support from both staff and service users, we’re working in collaboration with two IAPT services - Camden and Islington’s ICope and Buckinghamshire’s Healthy Minds – to explore how physical activity can best be integrated into psychological treatment pathways.

This is one of our new initiatives to strengthen the connection between sport and physical activity and health and wellbeing, so that those reaching out for mental health support can also easily access physical activity opportunities and support that is right for them.

A variety of partners are working together in support of this work, including local authorities in Camden, Islington, and Buckinghamshire, LEAP Active Partnership, Koa Health and University College London.

Despite many of us knowing physical activity is good for our mental wellness, for some it can be a struggle to start or stay active.

Service users are also a key part of the partnership and have supported shaping the project and continue to be a part of steering groups alongside strategic partners.

Three different approaches are being explored across services:

  • Active cognitive behavioural therapy talking groups - a 10-week talking therapy programme for people experiencing depression, which incorporates physical activity directly into therapy sessions. Service users are encouraged to spend 30 minutes of their weekly session taking part in physical activity, either as a group or individually.
  • Getting active with a health condition – psychoeducational workshops support people experiencing mental health challenges who are living with an existing long-term physical health condition into activity. The workshop introduces behaviour change resources and practical support tools to help reduce the barriers to being active. Peer support and reflective practice is used to encourage and motivate service users.
  • Foundations app - a self-help app providing support on sleep, diet, mindfulness, and physical activity to help people better manage their mental wellbeing.

As part of this project, the impact of physical activity on patient clinical outcomes will be measured. In addition, a toolkit will be created to help other local IAPT services understand how to practically approach and develop integrating physical activity into their local services.

If the results prove promising, we will pro-actively share this learning to help influence others to make policy changes and improvements, so that more local IAPT services can consider physical activity as a routine part of treatment pathway. 

Sign up to our newsletter

You can find out exactly how we'll look after your personal data, but rest assured we’ll only use it to make sure you receive our newsletter, to understand how you interact with our newsletter, and to provide administrative information about our newsletter.