Exercising our bodies and our minds

We're celebrating World Physiotherapy Day with a piece from our Chair Janice Mueller about the benefits of physiotherapy to mental health

Today is World Physiotherapy Day, and an opportunity to raise awareness about the contribution the physiotherapy profession makes to the health and wellbeing of our community.

Being active is good for our body but it’s also good for our mental health. There are endless studies showing that people who exercise regularly have a substantially lower susceptibility to mental illness than those who don’t. That’s why physical therapy and mental health is the key theme of today’s celebration. It’s a theme that underscores the value of physiotherapists as health professionals who actively work with patients who may have mental health issues.

As practitioners we all too often see the effect of injury, disability and chronic pain on our patients’ mental wellbeing. Exercise is a matter of habit, one that is unfortunately all too easy to fall out of if rehabilitation from injury or illness takes too long. That habit is extremely important because it’s the regularity of exercise rather than the degree of exertion it involves that most determines its value to our minds. Indeed, I’ve often suspected that the “winter blues” are largely the result of a lot of regular incidental exercise disappearing into the long nights and rainy days of our middle months.

Most physiotherapists advise their patients to mix types of exercise, to stretch properly, and to work regular activity into their day to day life. But sometimes there can be a tendency for our practitioners to neglect their own advice. Like many other health professionals, physiotherapists often spend long hours doing relatively inactive but simultaneously physically tiring work. They’ll be standing most of the day and doing repetitive therapeutic treatment that activates only a few of their own muscles. On top of that is the emotional exhaustion of having to constantly engage with people who are in pain. It’s little wonder that putting their sore feet up at the end of the long day can sometimes hold more attraction than going out for a run.

One of the things the Physiotherapy Board has to pay heed to as the Responsible Authority for physiotherapy in New Zealand is the health of physiotherapists. It is extremely important that our practitioners maintain good health in order to ensure they can provide the public with the care they require. Practitioners with health issues, including mental health issues, are expected to use one of our self-assessment tools to determine if their issue will affect their ability to safely do their job. If it does, we work with them to figure out whether there are parts of their practice that are unaffected they can continue with or, failing that, what’s required to put them on a pathway to being well to practise again. We know that practitioners’ wellness is critical to the best outcomes for their patients.

Regular, quality physical activity isn’t the sole cure for all New Zealanders’ mental health issues. However, there is strong evidence that as little as a couple of hours of aerobic exercise a week can help many people manage their mental health and wellbeing, and increase their resilience. Against this background it is clear that physiotherapists play a huge role in not just helping people recover from injury so they can maintain regular activity but in helping them find the types of exercise that are best for their body and their minds.