Pioneering exercise class helps older people stay on their feet

A circuit-training based exercise class for older people living with a mental health condition has been praised after feedback showed it was improving the confidence and balance of participants.

Community Mental Health Physiotherapist Jackie Hodge set up ‘Fit for Life’ five years ago after spotting a gap in the support for those suffering from anxiety, depression or dementia.

As well as encouraging social participation and helping to build self confidence, the programme helps participants to stay active, improve their balance and, in turn, aims to reduce the risk of falling.

The programme has since picked up an award from the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland and outcome measures have shown that the classes helped improve the balance of 73% of participants and 90% requested referrals on to mainstream group after completing the 12-week-block.

Jackie said: “People who have cognitive impairment and dementia are eight times more likely to have a fall compared to people without dementia.

“For this group of patients keeping active is really important. Inactivity leads to deterioration in a person’s physical condition, so an older person may become more unsteady on their feet if they are not up and about very often. Their confidence takes a knock and they become scared of falling, so they don’t want to go out. Then they become socially isolated which has a detrimental impact on their mental health. It’s a vicious circle.

“I saw how hard this group found it to keep active and realised there was a gap between NHS and community services.  Many older people with mental health problems are too anxious to attend groups in the community or have such low confidence they don’t think they’d be able to take part.”

Running weekly throughout the year, the free ‘Fit for Life’ classes are supported by volunteers, some of whom have themselves experienced mental ill health.

Jackie said: “Often the first hurdle is getting people in the door on day one. About 50% of participants will have dementia so often I’ll phone them up to remind them to come along. The other half will have anxiety or depression so a quick chat on the phone can also help those who’re really anxious about starting something new too.”

Every class sees participants completing a circuit of exercises specifically chosen to help build strength and balance.

Jackie said “Some participants will also have long term physical conditions such as back pain, arthritis or Parkinson’s Disease, so we have to match the right exercise to each person.

“During the first few classes we’ll start off doing 45 seconds of each exercise, using  hand weights, leg weights or resistance bands and by the end of the block we’ll be doing two minutes. It’s really amazing to see the progress, bearing in mind some participants can be in their nineties!  We end each session with some Tai Chi which is always popular”.

The classes have been so successful that the ‘Fit for Life’ programme recently received an award from the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, for its ‘person centred and recovery focused principles in the support of people experiencing mental health problems’.

Jackie said: “It’s a simple idea but really works. We’ve had amazing feedback and results, and have never had anyone leave because they didn’t enjoy it.”

Meet some of the class participants and see the class in action in this short film: