As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, Sharon Hastings says churches should consider how physical fitness can help boost our mental and spiritual wellbeing


Source: Jacob Lund / Alamy Stock Photo

Most of us have found it hard to summon the will to exercise at some point.

The gym sounds like a good idea until the end of the workday when we just want to go home and collapse in front of the TV. Or we plan to take a brisk walk at lunchtime until we look out the window and see heavy rain falling.

But what if you knew you were at increased risk of several life-threatening illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and bowel cancer, and that the risk could be reduced with regular exercise? Would that make you more likely to prioritise your workout?

People with severe mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) carry all of these added risks, yet they often face extra barriers to getting the exercise they need. Chronic low mood, sedative medication, poor body image (often as a result of drug-related weight gain), and lack of financial resources can all get in the way of taking exercise. Some of these are hard to modify, but one large study showed that the second biggest barrier to exercise for those with mental illness was a lack of someone to exercise with. That is a modifiable barrier, and I believe the Church can step in to help.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme this year is “Movement: Moving more for our mental health.” Here are five ways Christians and churches can get involved in helping those with mental illness to get moving:

1. Start a walking group. With summer approaching, bringing (we hope!) better weather and bright evenings, now is a great time to get this going. Walking is a free form of exercise accessible to people with a wide range of health concerns. It is also amazing how much easier it can be to talk while you walk, and this can improve a sense of connection with others and with the church - both important benefits for mental and spiritual health.

2. Offer a weekly fitness class. My church runs an annual four-week programme of aerobics classes followed by a healthy supper and a brief testimony from a local Christian. This is popular with churchgoers and has been an opportunity for others to connect with the church community. Some people with mental illness may have limited mobility and stamina, so consider your group’s needs – you might want to provide a low-intensity alternative such as chair aerobics or a walk.

3. Partner in a ‘Psalms and Stretches’ class. According to its official website, Psalms and Stretches is a type of exercise class “where wellbeing meets worship”. There are in-person offerings in various locations, but also several options to join online classes throughout the week. There is even a chair-assisted online option for those needing a gentler start. Could you encourage someone to move and stretch, all the while praying through the Psalms, by joining them in a class? You’ll improve your own strength and flexibility too!

4. Set up a ‘Gym-Buddy’ scheme. Many Health Trusts and GP practices have referral schemes for free gym memberships available to those with mental illness. A gym-buddy scheme partners church members who are already using local leisure centre facilities with those who have mental (or physical) health problems and need support with getting active. It often benefits both partners and may be the beginning of lasting, spiritually-enriching, friendships.

5. Get creative! Church group having a social outing? Switch out the cinema for a climbing wall or similar - even crazy golf will get people moving! Make use of facilities local to you. Ice-skating, cold-water swimming, orienteering… There are many possibilities, and these activities are great for group bonding. Just be mindful of costs - take advantage of group rates and consider having a discreet way for those with more means to support those who have less.

Christians believe that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and so we should look after them - and any plan for healthy living must include exercise. We were clearly created to move: fail to use a muscle and it will atrophy

Getting people moving has benefits in terms of modifying the risks of physical illness, but the endorphins produced also enhance mental wellbeing, while improved fitness and body image boost confidence. When churches support people with exercise, they can potentially help them to improve their physical and mental health - and even increase their life expectancy - as well as promoting belonging and spiritual wellbeing.

There are not many interventions so simple yet proven to be so effective! So why not try one of these strategies in your church today?