The journey to becoming physically active for adults with serious mental illness: Findings from the Weight Management Project

Researchers, who originally collaborated on a White Rose Collaboration Fund project, have recently published findings on a new study into physical activity for adults living with severe mental illness. The team of researchers conducted a review of research findings with the theme “Getting started with physical activity: What’s it like for people living with serious mental illness?”

Many people experience barriers to participating in physical activity, however living with mental health difficulties can increase these barriers and make it even harder for people to gain the benefits of being physically active.

The research review focussed on people living with serious mental illness (SMI) which includes Schizophrenia, Bipolar, Major Depression and Psychosis. There is plenty of proof to show that there are health benefits of being active – both physically and mentally – the benefits of getting out and socialising with others in the community are huge. But for people living with mental health difficulties it is harder to start being active and stay being active, and the reality is that although people living with mental health difficulties may want to be more active, there are many things that get in the way of taking part and staying involved in physical activity.
Understanding what life is like for people with mental health difficulties is really important in tackling these barriers. This means that physical activity programmes can be designed in a way that best supports the needs of this group of people.

In the research review, the team looked at 16 research studies from across the world to understand the experience of starting physical activity for people with mental health difficulties from their own point of view. The research which was reviewed included conversations with individuals or groups about the experience of starting a new activity, to understand what the hardest parts of starting something new could be. It looked closely at what each of these studies found out and came up with a new understanding of what starting a new community-based group activity is like for someone living with mental health difficulties. This new understanding, highlighted as the “journey” is shown in the diagram below:

The research found that people go through different stages when starting a new physical activity. These stages are shown in the diagram above. They are:
1) Thinking about being active
2) Planning and preparing for the activity
3) Getting to the activity
4) Beginning the activity

People can move forwards and backwards along the stages at any point during their journey, and stay in one stage for a long time before moving to the next. Along this journey, people with mental health difficulties are affected by issues to do with their illness (e.g. low self-esteem) and side-effects of medication (e.g. tiredness and weight gain) that would affect them more than other people living without mental illness.

The research found that group physical activity gives people a good reason to get out and about, is a way of meeting people and feel a sense of “togetherness”. It also found that people living with mental health difficulties often feel more vulnerable and anxious in new settings and around new people.
They often depend on other people for transport and sometimes the activity setting doesn’t feel welcoming. The cost of transport and activities also makes it difficult to take part. People are helped by knowing what to expect from the activity before taking part for the first time. It is important that the activity setting is supportive, safe, and is non-judgemental. Most importantly, the research found that having help and encouragement from a trusted person such as a friend, family member or health professional played an important part in getting people to the activity.

The research shows the challenges faced by people living with mental health difficulties before they even start a new physical activity. It also shows what helps people living with mental health difficulties to start new activities. By talking about this journey, it is hoped that physical activity programmes can be designed and delivered in a way that supports people living with mental health difficulties to be physically active.

The full research paper can be found by clicking here.

This research was performed by the following people:

University of Sheffield:
Helen Quirk
Emma Hock
Scott Weich

Sheffield Hallam University:
Deborah Harrop
Helen Crank
Katarzyna Machaczek
Robert Copeland

University of York:
Emily Peckham

University of Leeds:
Gemma Traviss-Turner

King’s College London:
Brendon Stubbs

Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust:
Michelle Horspool

The research study was funded by Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust.

For any questions or comments, please email Helen Quirk

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