In a world that prefers to sit and watch, movement towards recovery — despite chronic disease and mental illness — could begin by simply moving more. And the best role models are among us.
Dora Amirault leads others to dance despite her anxiety and panic attacks. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and osteoporosis, she wanted to find a way to stay active. “I didn’t let pain stop me from doing whatever I wanted to…I started line dancing for exercise. I couldn’t keep up with a lot of the fast moves because of my arthritis so I decided to teach line dancing to seniors. Here I am thinking I can’t do anything because I have no self-confidence, but I’m still thinking I have to do something.”
Dora’s seniors’ line-dancing class grew quickly from 15 seniors to almost two hundred. “To be in front of 200 people was unbelievable for me and all that kept me there were the seniors who made me feel so good. I couldn’t believe they liked something I was doing. I was having anxiety and panic attacks but I was having a ball.”
Like Dora, many in the mental health field are starting to appreciate the connections between physical and mental health. In order to go beyond this understanding to support people in their recovery, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, in partnership with the YMCA and the York University Faculty of Health and with funding from the Ministry of Health Promotion (MHP), initiated the Minding Our Bodies project. Mental health is a priority area for the MHP’s Healthy Communities Fund (see sidebar, page 20), giving an opportunity to merge mental health services and chronic disease prevention activities. Through the creation of a toolkit and an information sharing website, Minding Our Bodies helps community mental health organizations deliver programs that promote positive physical and mental health connections through physical activity and healthy eating.
The first phase of the Minding Our Bodies project (2008 to 2010) facilitated six physical activity pilot programs in different settings across the province. All the pilots have kept their programs running and similar experiences from other organizations are cropping up and are shared through the Minding Our Bodies network. This first phase of the project has generated some important lessons that can be shared with others planning similar programming.
Physical activity can be an important support on one’s recovery path CMHA Cochrane-Timiskaming’s active recovery approach is one example. Clients who express interest in improving their physical fitness can be referred to “active recovery,” which is not a separate program, but is an integrated part of the overall recovery support. Chris Hill, a certified personal trainer and case manager, does a separate intake to understand each client’s baseline abilities as well as their interests. He tailors an activity program to these needs.
Hill describes a shift in the dynamic between himself and his clients: “Some people don’t want to interact across the desk … in physical activity they get to work alongside a mental health worker or be a part of a team. It’s easier for them to open up when their heart rate is elevated.” Engagement in sports helps clients build bonds and breaks the ice without having to say a word. “[It helps people] start to be sociable, build confidence, stabilize moods and reduce manic state severity and depressive lows,” explains Hill.
The experience of service providers like Hill reflects the evidence from emerging research regarding the mental health benefits of physical activity for people with serious mental illness. Physical activity can improve quality of life by improving physical health, reducing the high risks for cardiovascular disease and diabetes among people with mental illness, and alleviating mental health symptoms. Recent research shows that physical activity complements traditional therapies to treat mental illness and can be a standalone treatment for some cases of mild to moderate depression. As a recovery-focused activity, being physically active can build an individual’s skill level, provide a sense of accomplishment, foster inclusion as part of a team and support identity outside of illness.