Walking a petCreative Commons Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivatives 2.0 license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/ by Florida Fish and Game

Road to recovery

Alone or with others, physical activity can be a valuable part of recovery from severe mental illness.

There have been many studies published on treatments for severe mental illness (SMI) and the use of physical activity programs during treatment of SMI. However, many of the problems faced by community-living individuals recovering from SMI are overlooked or not accounted for. Discrimination, side effects from antipsychotic medications, gaps in treatment referral systems, stigma and misdiagnosis continue to be issues that impede independent treatment of SMI in the community. Relatively little research has examined the reality of recovery and the role of physical activity during treatment of SMI. 

This research explores the perceptions of the role that physical activity can play during treatment of SMI. Adital Joshi conducted semi structured interviews with six individuals suffering from SMI. Analysis using grounded theory yielded the following interconnected themes:

  • Improved symptoms and reduced reliance on medications. Physical activity also provides a sense of accomplishment, purpose and feeling of control for individuals with SMI.
  • Improved social connectivity and exercise adherence. Regular physical activity performed in communal setting helps individuals to develop social connections through meaningful conversations, making new acquaintances and gaining self-awareness. All participants in the present study described how being social made them feel equal and accepted in society. 
  • Confidence and self-efficacy.  Various types of regular physical activity helped individuals build confidence, and created feelings of self-efficacy and independence.
  • Preferences for solo exercise. Solo exercise in the form of walking, for example, provides structure to a daily routine and gradually builds confidence to perform more physical activity.

This study provides some insight into recovery experiences which participants experienced as a process rather than an outcome. Findings from this study indicated that participants gained social relevance by performing physical activity in communal settings, and that inspired them to discover their solo forms of physical activity during individual journeys through recovery. 

For the study participants, structured physical activity interventions were only part of the solution for a successful treatment of SMI. It was largely serendipity that participants found their own way towards solo exercise as opportunities for exercise as a treatment during recovery were not provided/offered. 

Mental health experts should consider providing options for performing physical activity other than just structured physical activity interventions, and educate individuals with SMI that there are various options for individually approaching physical activity and treatment for SMI.