Mental health and Physical Activity in Northern Ireland

Most people know that engaging in physical activity is not only important for our physical health, but also our mental wellbeing.

Much of the existing research focuses on the impact of physical activity on depression (Hull, 2012) with multiple studies finding that physical activity is associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms.  The Royal College of Psychiatrists states that a moderate level of exercise can be as good as antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)[1].

The relationship between physical activity and mental health appears to work both ways (Steinmo, Hagger-Johnson & Shahab, 2014), with increased physical activity resulting in better mental health and vice versa.  Not surprisingly, then, those with severe mental health problems are less likely to engage in physical activity and more likely to be physically unwell (Hull, 2012).

The evidence for the positive effects of exercise on a range of mental health problems is growing, with studies demonstrating that exercise can improve the lives of people with schizophrenia (Rimes et al., 2015).  Despite this, exercise interventions are often neglected in mental health care (Callaghan, 2004) and the mortality gap for people with serious mental health problems continues to widen.  This is particularly pernicious in Northern Ireland, a country in which the recent political turmoil has exacerbated the mental health crisis to catastrophic proportions.

The Mental Health Foundation, along with several partners, including Queen’s University Belfast and three Recovery Colleges (Northern Recovery College, South Eastern Recovery College and Western Recovery College), has received funding from DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning) to conduct a one-year pilot study to address the high levels of physical ill-health and preventable deaths of people with serious mental health problems in Northern Ireland.

What the study will involve

Co-production will inform the entire study.  Individuals with lived experience of psychosocial difficulties will receive accredited training from Queen’s University Belfast to become peer-researchers on this study.  They will then have an instrumental role in co-producing the programme design, research methodology, analysis, research findings recommendations and promotion.   The physical exercise programme targeted to people with a range of serious mental health problems will be developed from a series of co-production workshops with people with lived experience, and consultations with recovery colleges, sports organisations and health professionals.  Participants will undergo tailored health checks to determine the programme’s impact on participants’ physical and mental health measures.


The sustainability of the programme will be explored via interviews and consultations with partners, and recommendations and next steps will be identified.

The shocking fact that more people in Northern Ireland have died by suicide in the past 18 years than were killed during 30 years of conflict[1] highlights the urgency of the situation.  Mental health problems can no longer be ignored, and innovative, creative approaches and solutions should be explored.

This is exactly what we seek to do with our partners through this large-scale physical exercise programme designed to empower people with serious mental health problems to incorporate physical activity into their lives.  Not only does this innovative study seek to develop the evidence base for physical exercise interventions in mental health, it also hopes to provide practical solutions that will improve the delivery of services in Northern Ireland.



Callaghan, P. (2004). Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? Journal Of Psychiatric And Mental Health Nursing, 11(4), 476-483.

Hull, D. (2012) The relationship between physical activity and mental health: a summary of evidence and policy (Paper 198/12). Retrieved from Northern Ireland Assembly website:

Rimes, R., de Souza Moura, A., Lamego, M., de Sa Filho, A., Manochio, J., & Paes, F. et al. (2015). Effects of Exercise on Physical and Mental Health, and Cognitive and Brain Functions in Schizophrenia: Clinical and Experimental Evidence. CNS & Neurological Disorders – Drug Targets, 14(10), 1244-1254.

Steinmo, S., Hagger-Johnson, G., & Shahab, L. (2014). Bidirectional association between mental health and physical activity in older adults: Whitehall II prospective cohort study. Preventive Medicine, 66, 74-79.


For further information please refer to project

Blog and News archives