Promoting physical activity for individuals with mental health problems

Advancing understanding of the benefits that physical activity can have for people experiencing various mental health problems.

The World Health Organization suggests that by 2030 mental health problems such as depression and anxiety will be the leading cause of global morbidity and mortality.

As well as the significant contribution to disease among individuals and their communities and societies, the estimated costs towards improving mental health are more than £105 billion per year within the UK.

Current treatment for symptoms of mental health problems and severe mental illness largely includes medication and/or psycho-therapy interventions, such as talking therapies or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Whilst both approaches are effective treatments for mental health symptoms, they carry with them some unwanted side effects and do not address the growing physical health problems in this population group. Those with mental health problems are more likely to be obese and have a range of physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The European Psychiatric Association has argued that there is clear evidence of the benefits of physical activity for improvements to physical health, as well as the prevention and treatment of mild to moderate mental health problems, and as an adjunct treatment for severe mental illness.

The mental health benefits of physical activity are extensive for people experiencing various mental health problems (including severe mental illness) and include improvements in social cognition, quality of life, social interaction, self-esteem, psychotic and depressive symptoms, sleep and psychological distress.

Dr Florence Kinnafick

Research in focus

Academic partners for Mind, and their work in the sport and physical activity sector

We have worked with Mind, the mental health charity, for 7 years evaluating their Sport England and Lottery funded national physical activity programmes (Get Set to Go and the Sector Support Programmes) aiming to get people with mental health problems into exercise and supporting the sport/ physical activity providers to be equipped with the skills to support and engage people with mental health problems.

Associated project reports and research outputs:

  • Tweed, LM., Rogers, E. & Kinnafick, F.E (2020). Literature on peer-based community physical activity programmes for mental health service users: A scoping review. Health Psychology Review. DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2020.1715812

Engaging people with severe mental illness living in secure settings in physical activity

Our work investigating physical activity behaviour and severe mental illness, in collaboration with St Andrew’s Healthcare (a secure psychiatric facility), and via three PhD studentships, has culminated in the development of an evidence-based short online module aimed at ward-based Health Care Assistants to improve attitudes towards, and develop skills for, physical activity promotion on the hospital wards.

This module is now compulsory for all new and existing staff at St Andrews Healthcare and has over 900 completions (from 4,200 staff at St Andrews Healthcare). We have recently been awarded for an 18-month project to develop this module into a toolkit for staff and patients to use to effectively engage in physical activity within a secure setting.

Research outputs:

  • Rogers E, Papathomas A, Kinnafick FE. (2021). Inpatient perspectives on physical activity in a secure mental health setting. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 101827. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2020.101827
  • Rogers E, Papathomas A, Kinnafick FE. (2021). Preparing for a physical activity intervention in a secure psychiatric hospital: reflexive insights on entering the field. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 1-15. DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2019.1685587
  • Anthony J, Kinnafick FE, Papathomas A, Breen K. (2020). Physical activity for adolescents with severe mental illness: a systematic scoping review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-34. DOI: 10.1080/1750984X.2020.1833360
  • Rogers E, Kinnafick FE, Papathomas A. (2019). Physical activity in secure settings: A scoping review of methods, theory and practice. Mental health and Physical Activity. DOI: 10.1016/j.mhpa.2018.11.004
  • Stubbs B, Vancampfort D, Hallgren M, Firth J, Veronese N, Solmi M, Brand S, Cordes J, Malchow B, Gerber M, Schmitt A, Correll C, De Hert M, Gaughran F, Schneider F, Kinnafick FE, Falkai P, Möller H-J, Kahl K. (2018). EPA guidance on physical activity as a treatment for severe mental illness: a meta-review of the evidence and Position Statement from the European Psychiatric Association (EPA), supported by the International Organization of Physical Therapists in Mental Health (IOPTMH). European Psychiatry (Q1: SJR: 1.82 SNIP:1.19). DOI: 10.1016/j.eurpsy.2018.07.004
  • Kinnafick FE, Papathomas A, Regoczi D. (2018). Promoting exercise behaviour in a secure mental health setting: Healthcare assistant perspectives. International Journal of Mental health Nursing (Q1: SJR 0.78 SNIP: 1.085). DOI: 10.1111/inm.12484

Meet the expert

Dr Florence Kinnafick is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, and a member of the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine. Florence’s research seeks to understand the social, contextual and environmental determinants of physical activity behaviour (long-term persistence, drop out and lapses), and how engagement in physical activity can lead to positive mental health outcomes. Her current research focuses on individuals with mental health problems and severe mental illness living in the community and in in-patient services.

Toby Keel

Postdoctoral student