A staff member is sitting down at a table near a window and is looking at the camera.

Staying active is an important part of self-management for many chronic health conditions.

‘Movement improved my quality of life’

We spoke to Alice, a Peer Trainer at our Recovery College about the theme of movement for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

“There is often a misconception that movement has to be going to the gym, or following difficult, fast-paced workout videos on YouTube. The truth is that any movement counts – and the trick to staying active is to find something you enjoy.

There are a myriad of perceived barriers to getting movement for those of us dealing with chronic health conditions. When you are already rationing your energy just to keep up with regular life, it’s difficult to find the spare energy to allot to movement.

I get tired easily, so I am active in short bursts because that’s what works best for me. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which means that my joints are very unstable and can slip out of place easily.

I’m a Peer Tutor at the Recovery College which means I use my lived experience to teach courses and workshops that guide others along their own journey of recovery from mental health challenges. This term, one of the courses I am teaching is called ‘Balancing Your Physical and Mental Health.’

This course is aimed at those with chronic (long-term) physical health conditions, both with and without a diagnosis. We aim to provide an open and non-judgmental space to explore, share and choose tools and techniques to promote living well with your health condition(s). We explore the link between our physical and mental health, and how each can greatly impact the other.

About thirty percent of the population in England lives with one or more chronic health conditions, which are often linked with mental health challenges. Having a chronic health condition can be difficult to deal with emotionally.

Some of the most common challenges that our students have identified are feeling isolated, frustrated, low confidence, and fear of what the future might look like for them. These challenges can make it difficult to engage in self-care and management of their conditions, which in turn exacerbates physical symptoms – leading to a vicious cycle which can feel impossible to escape from.

Movement is one of the NHS ‘5 Ways to Wellbeing’ for a reason – it has the dual benefit of supporting both our mental and physical health. Being physically active releases chemicals in our brains that boost our mood, help us concentrate, and improve our sleep. There is evidence that shows being regularly active improves our self-esteem.

Staying active is also an important part of self-management for many chronic conditions. The physical benefits of movement can improve symptoms from chronic health conditions – whether it’s building functional strength, maintaining range of motion, helping keep blood sugar regulated, or improving insomnia.

For a lot of us, movement might look a bit different. I might never run a 5k, but I walk to work sometimes these days, and for me, that is a win. Moving more hasn’t cured me of anything, but it has improved my quality of life – slowly, bit by bit. It is worth sticking with.

Low impact activities like yoga, pilates, and swimming can be really helpful for those of us with chronic health conditions. Similarly, physiotherapy can be really helpful in the self-management of many health conditions – it’s always worth asking your GP if you can have a referral if you think this might be helpful for you.

Of course, you should also always talk with your GP or specialist managing your health condition if you have questions about what kind of movement will be the best for you as our bodies are all different.

In my opinion, it’s the bits of movement we can fit into our daily lives that are the easiest to implement and stick with. It should be something you enjoy – there are so many different ways to get moving, and it takes trying a few approaches before you find something that works for you.

Things like playing with your children, doing stretches whilst you watch TV, or using games like PokemonGo to help motivate you to go for a walk all count. It doesn’t have to be long – for most of us, short and regular movement is much more attainable than hitting the gym for an hour twice a week. Every bit of movement counts!”

Delivered as a partnership with the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, and as part of the UOK Brighton & Hove network of mental health support, the Brighton and Hove Recovery College uses education in a supportive learning environment to help people with mental health challenges become experts in their own self-care and recovery.

The College provides a wide range of courses which are co-produced and co-delivered by people with lived experience of mental health challenges and are delivered online or in community and educational venues across Brighton and Hove.