Innovative partnership project shows benefits of physical activity for those with mental health conditions

A pilot project delivered in partnership between Solent NHS Trust and BH Live has provided adults accessing secondary mental health services with access to leisure facilities to improve their physical activity levels.

More than 80 adults accessing Solent NHS Trust’s community mental health services were supported to attend gym sessions at various BH Live venues in Portsmouth. The project was funded by a grant from No Wrong Door, the adult community mental health transformation programme across Hampshire, Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight. It aimed to support adults who experience severe mental illness, which may make it more difficult to engage in healthier lifestyles including taking part in physical activity.

Physical activity has proven benefits to mental health and wellbeing, including  better sleep, increased mood, better self-esteem, managing stress, anxiety, reducing the risk of depression and connecting with others.

Previous local feedback from those with mental illness indicated that attending the gym alone could cause high anxiety, there was a lack of confidence in remembering how to use equipment and a reluctance to seek assistance, instead many choosing not to return.

The project aimed to break down barriers to fitness by supporting the person to come into the space initially by meeting them at reception, keeping the same instructor and working with them to build confidence in using the gym. Sessions took place over six weeks followed by a further 12-week personalised programme.

Toni King, Consultant Occupational Therapist at Solent NHS Trust, said: “The funding from No Wrong Door enabled us to deliver a project that we’d aspired to deliver in Portsmouth for some time. People living with severe mental illness are more likely to experience poor physical health so there was a need for a holistic approach which considered both their mental and physical health needs.

“Working in partnership with BH Live meant we were able to bridge a gap between the fantastic services provided by BH Live and adults we support through NHS mental health services who struggle to access these facilities.”

Results from the project indicated that the supported sessions improved one or more aspects of an individual’s wellbeing, including improvement in physical health, improvement in access to leisure time activities and increase in overall life satisfaction.

 Feedback from one attendee was as follows: “Good to meet new people. Every time I attended the gym, I got fed up of who I am and lonely. However, this group helped me to remain interested in the gym sessions as I met people in the same situation as me.”

 Kerry Morgan, Portsmouth Interaction Manager for BH Live, said: “The results of this programme so far have been fantastic. As well as providing more vulnerable individuals with opportunities to stay active, we have also seen that people’s quality of life has improved and that they have had lots of fun. We’re so thankful to our BH Live instructors and our Physical Activity and Improved Lifestyle (PAIL) partners for delivering the sessions and improving lives across the city.”

A subsequent pilot project was undertaken by NHS Allied Health Professionals and BH Live Active between March and October 2023, which explored the benefit of hiring exercise professionals to provide physical activity and exercise sessions across psychiatric wards and a psychiatric intensive care unit.  This resulted in an increase in patients’ physical activity levels as well as improved mental health. Feedback from patients included how the exercise sessions helped add structure to the day. Some feedback did suggest patients would like to visit the gym to exercise.

The pilot projects demonstrate the benefits of collaborative working for the benefit of improving provision for patients and ensuring opportunities to improve physical health and lifestyle are more accessible.