The benefits of exercise referral therapy.
Bea Thompson, 43, had been suffering from anxiety and depression for several years before being referred to the Active Lifestyles Exercise Referral Scheme in Bromley, London. She credits the programme as the catalyst for her recovery:
'At my low point, around October 2002, I was very ill and debilitated. I’m a graduate and I’ve worked in business and management, but I was homeless and had been socially housed in a completely different area. For about a year, I might have had interaction once a week – my mammoth task was to go out and make sure I had enough benefits or electricity, or to see a doctor.
In the middle of 2003 I saw a leaflet for the Active Lifestyles scheme in the GP surgery. I asked him if he would refer me, as I had a feeling that exercise would be good for me. However, I felt very anxious about going into the gym environment. The night before I couldn’t sleep because I was so anxious about it and I was absolutely wrecked when I got there, but Gloria (the referral officer) was superb. She told me I’d done brilliantly just to get there, was totally positive and didn’t think it was weird that this was a huge step for me.
When I left the gym that morning I felt as if someone had given me a million pounds – it was the sense of achievement, the fact that I’d been understood, the fact that I’d been able to do some work in a gym, and that I now had somewhere to go every Monday and Wednesday. I also had something to work towards a goal – plus good support and a nice environment to go into. Mentally, emotionally, psychologically and socially it was the best (treatment) I’d been given. It was like a club – the exercise referral people would give each other support and encouragement.
There were people who’d had coronary operations, people with MS, people who’d had accidents and were doing rehab – everybody would come in and, whatever their ailment, they’d work out and be normal among other people who were doing the same. There was a huge sense of community. And the emphasis was positive – on getting well, getting fit, overcoming problems – as opposed to sitting in the clinic for a mental health appointment where it’s all sharp intakes of breath and ‘well, we’re not quite sure what you’ve got, it could be an anxiety disorder and it might take six months’. At the gym it was like – we’re all here and we’re going to get well. I reckon the exercise itself was around 20% of it – the rest was getting into the habit of turning out twice a week, doing something physical, interacting with people.
It changed my world. I started rollerblading on a Sunday, I found a swimming club, and someone to play tennis with. And that all enabled me to have the confidence to go forward and find a part-time job. None of that would have been possible without Active Lifestyles and the emotional support I got there. It was the input from the team that made such a difference – if one day I was in a bad state they’d see me and listen to whatever it was I was upset about. It was always an attitude of ‘everything can be overcome’. Whereas before then I had stopped believing in myself, and I had stopped trusting other people. The programme and the support that I got changed everything for me.'