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The Role of Physical Activity in Closing the Life Expectancy Gap in Mental Illness

People living with a mental illness die much earlier than the rest of the population, mostly due to preventable cardiovascular disease. Dying 15 to 20 years earlier means that life expectancy for people with mental illness is similar to that seen in the population at large in the 1950s.

Physical inactivity accounts for approximately 9% of premature mortality worldwide, and people living with mental illness are much less likely to be physically active.

The role of exercise interventions is a key component of closing the life expectancy gap for people experiencing mental illness, according to a new international consensus statement released yesterday.

Officially released in the Translational Journal of the ACSM, The Role of Sport, Exercise, and Physical Activity in Closing the Life Expectancy Gap for People With Mental Illness is the first joint international consensus statement by Exercise & Sports Science Australia, American College of Sports Medicine, British Association of Sport and Exercise Science, and Sport and Exercise Science New Zealand.

This international consensus statement aims to delineate the key factors that must be addressed by key decision makers to increase access to appropriate exercise programs for people with mental illness and subsequently contribute to closing the life expectancy gap.

“This statement represents a significant piece of work between like-minded organisations after two years’ worth of collaboration. These international relationships allows our organisation and industry to work collaboratively on global issues that need addressing,” says Anita Hobson-Powell, ESSA Chief Executive Officer and co-author.

The statement identifies that exercise practitioners (such as accredited exercise physiologists), as members of a multidisciplinary team, play a core role as advocates for positive lifestyle change, with the ability to address major modifiable risk factors contributing to premature mortality.

“Although not a magic bullet, physical inactivity is a key, modifiable risk factor that we overwhelmingly know how to address. Helping people experiencing mental illness to live active lives is not a gap in knowledge, rather a lack of implementation,” explains Dr Simon Rosenbaum, lead author and researcher with the School of Psychiatry, UNSW, Sydney, and Black Dog Institute.

Professor Philip Ward, co-author and director of the Schizophrenia Research Unit, South Western Sydney Local Health District, and Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research, states, “This is a great step towards increasing awareness of the critical role that enhancing physical activity can play in improving the lives of people living with mental illness. Enhancing the role of exercise and sports science professionals working with people with mental illness will provide a huge boost to the quality of care they receive.”

The organisations that endorse this consensus statement commit to promoting the role of exercise interventions as a key component of a global strategy toward achieving a 50% reduction in the life expectancy gap of people experiencing mental illness by 2032.

“We believe that enhanced training of our members, facilitating culture change within mental health services, and advocating for the provision of required infrastructure are the cornerstones of achieving this goal,” says Dr Rosenbaum.