Integrating physical activity into mental health services for individuals with mental illness is an important and ethical component of a comprehensive treatment plan. Individuals with serious mental illness are at high risk for chronic and lifestyle diseases associated with sedentary behavior, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Although the psychological benefits from regular exercise are well known, research has begun to shift focus onto the impact of physical activity on the mental and physical health of individuals with serious mental illness. Individuals with serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, major depression and anxiety, often have poor physical health and experience significant psychiatric, social and cognitive disability. Physical activity has the potential to improve the quality of life for these individuals through both improving physical health and alleviating psychiatric and social disability.
A plethora of research supports the mental and physical benefits of physical activity, and reports show that even in the absence of weight loss or significant diagnostic improvement that individuals with mental illness self-report increased quality of life and improved self-regard, enjoyment with regard to a safe social atmosphere, as well as viewing a physical activity regimen as an important part of their treatment plan. Research has shown that a consistent physical activity program can alleviate the secondary symptoms associated with schizophrenia, such as depression, low self-esteem and social withdrawal.
Given the overwhelming amount of physical activity programs available, it is important to know what is necessary with regard to the design of an effective physical activity program. According to ACSM guidelines, a minimal exercise program should consist of at least three 20-60 minute exercises session each week. An individual approach incorporating persons goals, as well as working in collaboration with pertinent treatment care providers to provide a comprehensive physical activity regimen that coincides with the individuals overall treatment. The group setting provides a safe social setting for individuals, and as part of the treatment sub-program, it helps to alleviate many factors that often inhibit attendance such as financial and transportation concerns.
Individuals with mental illness are at a substantial risk for chronic lifestyle diseases and obesity as a result of a sedentary lifestyle and are at a much higher risk than the general public. Additionally, psychotropic medications are an important component of one’s treatment plan, and second-generation antipsychotics are known to have side effects associated with weight gain and can contribute to obesity. This often contributes to non-compliance and/or fear with regard to the use of anti-psychotics, which suggests that incorporating a physical activity regimen is a necessary and ethical component of a comprehensive treatment plan. The benefits of physical activity for the general population are profound and well known, and suggest that individuals with a mental illness would significantly benefit from incorporating a physical activity regimen as part of his or her treatment plan.