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Dr Patrick Jachyra from our Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences explains the importance of physical activity for supporting mental health, particularly in neurodivergent and disabled people. He also shares some tools below that can contribute to mental well-being.

Q: What are your primary research interests?

My research seeks to understand how to optimally support the health, well-being and thriving of neurodivergent people (such as autistic people). My research often is co-produced with autistic people to ensure that government policies, clinical guidelines, and rehabilitation practices are reflective of their everyday lives, interests, needs and abilities.

Q: Why is exploring the intersection between mental health and physical activity so important?

Historically, mental health and physical activity have been researched in isolation, with little research that has examined how they are connected. Recently, research exploring the intersection has found that there is a bi-directional relationship between the two, meaning that higher levels of physical activity have the potential to support overall mental health. The intersection of physical activity and mental health is evidenced in two new reviews of research which showed that physical activity can be an effective tool to treat symptoms of low-to-moderate depression and anxiety.

While these reviews of research evidence showed that physical activity can be an effective treatment tool, it is important to note that physical activity may not be appropriate for everyone. It is important that mental health treatments are tailored to individual needs and supported by a healthcare professional.

Q: Why is this particularly insightful when talking about neurodivergent or disabled people and their life experiences?

Neurodivergent people experience high rates of mental health challenges, with numerous barriers accessing and receiving quality support. This has been documented through research and has been identified as a priority area in need of urgent attention in the UK. Neurodivergent people also experience lower levels of physical activity compared to individuals in the general population. Yet, they also experience significant barriers accessing and participating in physical activity.

Looking at the connections between physical activity and mental health are important as neurodivergent people are at increased risks to die prematurely. While there is growing evidence documenting the frequency of mental health challenges, more research is needed to understand how to support the prevention and intervention of mental health challenges experienced by neurodivergent people. For me, my work seeks to understand the role of physical activity in the lives of neurodivergent people, with the aim to support them to live long, happy and fulfilling lives.

Q: Can you explain why a proactive approach to mental health is effective both short and long term?

A proactive approach can be important as it is focused on prevention efforts rather than intervention in response to a crisis, and or the development of a mental illness. A proactive approach draws upon strategies, tools, early intervention and programs to support daily mental well-being. While there has been progress in understanding how biological and psychological mechanisms influence mental health, much work remains in understanding how mental health is shaped by broader social, cultural and political structures, institutions and inequalities woven into the fabric of society. This is an important area in need of further research.

Q: What are some nonconventional tools that can help people with their mental health?

It is important to remember that the tools listed below may not be applicable to everyone, however, they are tools that some people may find helpful to support one’s mental health.

  • Connection with people
    • Isolation and loneliness have been identified as an emerging public health concern as new evidence suggests that loneliness and isolation can increase the risk of developing mental health challenges. This new evidence highlights the importance of connecting with others whether virtually or in real life. One avenue for social connection and interaction with others is through physical activity.
  • Physical Activity
    • Being physically active has the potential to support mental health. It is important to remember that physical activity does not only include playing sport or going to the gym. Common physical activities can include: gardening, walking, dancing, jogging, swimming, cycling.
  • Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness seeks to teach people how to stay in the present with one’s thoughts, feelings, body and the world in which we are immersed in. There is increasing evidence that mindfulness can help with stress, anxiety and depression. While there are formalized mindfulness practices, mindfulness could also include not using headphones if you go for a walk, being present with your food when you are eating, and or turning off notifications on your mobile phone.
  • Helping and Giving to Others
    • Increasing evidence suggests that helping others can potentially reduce stress, improve self-esteem, happiness and one’s mood. Examples can include acts of kindness, volunteering or doing something for a good cause.

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