Mental Health, Physical Activity and Physical Therapy

Original Editor - Andrea Sturm - Shaimaa Eldib.

Top Contributors - Simisola Ajeyalemi, Shaimaa Eldib and Vidya Acharya  


Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stress of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contributions to his or her community.[1] More concrete mental health includes different components of life; for example, in terms of relationships, having a good relationship with family and having supportive friends, with the ability to talk about feelings. For leisure time it is about having hobbies, doing exercises on regular basis and having regular holidays. Furthermore, it is important to follow a healthy lifestyle that includes, having healthy eating habits, not smoking or drinking and not taking non‐prescribed drugs and at least being able to achieve some goals in life. Mental health is not merely the absence of a mental disorder. It exists on a continuum to include flourishing mental health, very good mental health, mean mental health, decreased mental health, mental health problems and mental health disorders.[2] Exercise is an evidence-based treatment for people with mental health issues, and physical therapists work with people who may have mental health issues alongside other long-term health issues.[3]

Mental disorders comprise a broad range of problems. They are generally characterized by a combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behavior and relationships with others. Some examples: schizophrenia, depression, intellectual disabilities and disorders due to drug abuse. People with mental illness, like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, often have poor physical health and experience significant psychiatric, social and cognitive disability.


About half of the mental disorders begin before the age of 14. Similar types of disorders are being reported across cultures. Neuropsychiatric disorders are among the leading causes of worldwide disability in young people. About 23% of all years lost because of disability is caused by mental and substance use disorders. War and disasters have a large impact on mental health and psychosocial well-being. Rates of mental disorder tend to double after emergencies. Mental disorders increase the risk of getting ill from other diseases such as HIV, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and vice-versa.[4]

  • 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue of some sort during their lifetime[3]
  • 1 in 6 people are likely to have had mental health issues in the past seven days[3]
  • people with mental health issues are more at risk of having poor physical health[3]
  • 70% of premature deaths in people with mental health issues are due to poor physical health[3]
  • mental health issues are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide.[3]

Barriers to Mental Health services

Misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental ill health are widespread. Despite the existence of effective treatment for mental disorders, there is a belief that they are untreatable or that people with mental disorders are difficult, not intelligent, or incapable of making decisions. This stigma can lead to abuse, rejection and isolation and exclude people from health care or support. Within the health system, people are too often treated in institutions which resemble human warehouses rather than places of healing.[4]

Human rights violations of people with mental and psychosocial disability are routinely reported in most countries. These include physical restraint, seclusion and denial of basic needs and privacy. Few countries have a legal framework that adequately protects the rights of people with mental disorders. Globally, there is huge inequity in the distribution of skilled human resources for mental health. Shortages of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, psychologists and social workers are among the main barriers to providing treatment and care in low- and middle-income countries.[4]

In order to increase the availability of mental health services, there are 5 key barriers that need to be overcome[4]:

  • the absence of mental health from the public health agenda and the implications for funding;
  • the current organization of mental health services;
  • lack of integration within primary care;
  • inadequate human resources for mental health;
  • and lack of public mental health leadership.

Governments, donors and groups representing mental health service users and their families need to work together to increase mental health services, especially in low- and middle-income countries.[4]

The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health

Mental disorders are of major public health significance. It has been claimed that vigorous physical activity has positive effects on mental health in both clinical and non-clinical populations.[5] Mental health problems are the leading predictor of years lived with disability worldwide. Furthermore, without intensified prevention and management, the burden is estimated to increase to a greater extent. The consequences of mental health problems are devastating for the person and society as a whole and are compounded by physical health comorbidities with which most people with mental health problems are confronted. Physical health comorbidities are a major cause of the reduced life expectancy of 15–20 years in this population. The relationship between mental health and physical activity is supported by a growing number of articles. There is rigorous evidence now that physiotherapy improves mental and physical health in this vulnerable population.

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Unfortunately, these efforts are becoming integrated into clinical practice at a slow pace. Physical activity is not always considered to be a worthwhile strategy. The benefits of physical activity are twofold, as people with mental health problems are also at an increased risk of a range of physical health problems, including cardiovascular diseases, endocrine disorders and obesity. Physical activity influences cognition and cardiorespiratory fitness and reduces dropout due to a wide range of mental health problems. The relationship between physical activity and mental health has been widely investigated.

The health benefits of regular exercise are:

  • Improved cardiovascular fitness
  • Improved sleep
  • Better endurance
  • A positive influence on metabolic syndrome and diabetes
  • Stress relief
  • Improved mood
  • Increased energy and reduced tiredness.
  • Exercise reduces anxiety, depression, negative mood and social isolation and improves self‐esteem, cognitive functions and quality of life.[2]

The Role of Physiotherapy in improving Mental Health

Not all physiotherapists realize that mental health is all the business of physiotherapy. However, it is well illustrated in this quotation: ‘no health without mental health'.[2] Physiotherapists are seen as experts in aspects of physical health care and can offer:

  • Non-pharmacological management of pain
  • Expertise in prescribing individualised exercise programs, which can improve mood, promote wellbeing and address co-morbidities associated with mental health diagnoses.
  • Interventions to address physical issues of people with mental health diagnoses which hinder social participation and recovery, eg. minimising or counteracting the side-effects some of psychotropic medications
  • Expertise in motivating, where appropriate, patients and promoting self-management in the context of mental and physical health issues.
  • Management of falls and mobility issues for older people and developmental issues for children and young people.
  • Expert advice and intervention to address impaired body awareness and reduce dissociation (disconnection from ‘thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity) associated with poor mental health.
  • Development and delivery of individually-tailored lifestyle and weight management advice and programs.[6]

Good mental health is fundamental to the well-being of individuals, families and communities. Poor mental health is identified as one of the biggest causes of disability, poor quality of life and reduced productivity. There is also a strong association between mental health conditions and people reporting multiple pain sites. It has been documented that physical activity can improve quality of life for people with serious mental illness. Improved physical health can alleviate psychiatric and social disability. A notable number of longitudinal and cross-sectional studies have proven the usefulness of physical activity as a preventative strategy and as adjunct treatment for mental illness. Several physiotherapy interventions are potentially effective in improving physical and mental health and health- related quality of life. The most commonly used forms of exercise are aerobic- and strength exercises. Aerobic exercises, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression

The burden of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders call for concerted, intersectoral response. Not only to raise public awareness but also to provide treatment and prevention strategies that can reduce this large and growing health problem, including the economic losses attributable to them. The correlations between poor mental health and an increased prevalence of musculoskeletal conditions, multiple areas of pain, chronic and preventable diseases, emphasizes the need for an effective and holistic multidisciplinary approach to the management of these conditions.[7]

Physiotherapists have also a key role in the treatment of patients with schizophrenia and their interventions may have a broad spectrum of benefits for patients. In particular, physiotherapists are physical health experts providing an important bridge between physical and mental health in patients with schizophrenia. Promoting and encouraging physical activity is central to the physiotherapist’s role in treating individuals with schizophrenia.[8]

Definition of Physiotherapy in Mental Health

Physiotherapists who were working in mental health and psychiatry applied in 2011 for recognition as a subgroup within the World Confederation of Physical Therapy. The main goal of this subgroup is to bring the different physiotherapy interventions in mental health and psychiatry together to clarify the role of physiotherapy in this field.

For that reason, the International Organization of Physical Therapy in Mental Health (IOPTMH) developed a definition that generally describes the field of physiotherapy in mental health that is recognizable among most colleagues across the world. Physiotherapy in mental health is a specialty within physiotherapy. It is implemented in different health and mental health settings: psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine. It is person-centered and provided for children, adolescents, adults and older people with common (mild, moderate) and severe, acute and chronic mental health problems, in primary and community care, inpatients and outpatients. Physiotherapists in mental health provide health promotion, preventive health care, treatment and rehabilitation for individuals, groups and in‐group therapeutic settings. They create a therapeutic relationship to provide assessment and services specifically related to the complexity of mental health within a supportive environment applying a model including biological and psychosocial aspects. Physiotherapy in mental health aims to optimize wellbeing and empower the individual by promoting functional movement, movement awareness, physical activity and exercises, bringing together physical and mental aspects. It is based on the available scientific and best clinical evidence. Physiotherapists in mental health contribute to the multidisciplinary team and interprofessional care.[2]


  1. WHO Statement Mental Health - A State of Wellbeing
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Michel Probst (May 31st 2017). Physiotherapy and Mental Health, Chapter 9, Clinical Physical Therapy Toshiaki Suzuki, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/67595
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 WCPT Press Release for the World Physical Therapy Day 8th September 2018, Email-Newsletter from the 30th of August 2018
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 WHO, 10 Facts on Mental Health
  5. C. Barr Taylor, James F. Sallis, Richard Needle, The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health, Public Health Reports, March-April 1985, Vol. 100, No 2
  6. Position Statement ‘Mental Health’ of the Australian Physiotherapy Association
  7. Jaswinder Kaur, Deepti Garnawat, The mental health benefits of physiotherapy, Journal ‘Fysioterapeuten’ 7/16
  8. Brendon Stubbs, Andy Soundy, Michel Probst, Marc De Hert, Amber De Herdt, Davy Vancampfort, Understanding the role of physiotherapists in schizophrenia: an international perspective from members of the International Organisation of Physical Therapists in Mental Health (IOPTMH), Journal of Mental Health, Early online 1-5, 2014