Physical Activity Program Helps Individuals with Mental Illness

The World Health Organization defines health as “physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Too often, this holistic view is forgotten. The interdependence of all aspects of health is important when creating wellness programs.

Manadnock Family Services, a non-profit, comprehensive, community mental health service in Peterborough, NH, recognizes the important connection between physical and mental health through their In SHAPE program. Launched in 2003, In SHAPE serves 150 clients with serious mental illnesses in the Keene, NH area.  In SHAPE stands for Self Help Action for Empowerment. Dr. Stephen Bartels, director of Dartmouth College’s Centers for Health and Aging, supervises the program. He feels strongly about addressing mental illness, stating, "It can legitimately be said that this is largest and most important health disparity in the nation that has been unappreciated”. The idea of empowerment is the core of the program—inspiring participants to feel better through physical activity. Exercise has been proven to stimulate endorphins in the brain, which chemically improve one’s mood.  

Through In SHAPE, individuals with mental illnesses are paired with personal mentors to engage in physical activity. With the local YMCA as a partner, participants often work out every day. If a person does not feel motivated to go to the Y, their mentors encourage them to still engage in activity, often coming to their home for a walk. A personal relationship is formed between the participants and their mentors, which allows social well being to develop.

The program’s success has impacted many aspects of participants’ lives. Ken Jue, the creator of the In SHAPE program explains, "As people have become involved in the program and as they begin to improve their physical health, they develop a sense of self-confidence that really frees them up to do some incredible things". Some participants have started jobs, or have pursued education after the program. As a result of such positive ramifications, the program recently was awarded a $10 million grant to expand its services throughout the state. This grant is a significant achievement to help aide the 43,000 individuals in New Hampshire currently living with a serious mental illness. In SHAPE leads the mental health field in recognizing physical activity’s role in treatment. With the rising rates of chronic disease, other types of wellness programs are sure to follow In SHAPE’s example, and consider a more holistic view of health.