Written by Kathryn Anderson

Addressing Mental and Physical Health: Our Journey with Move For Minds

So, how does a very small business raise more than $17,000 and counting for charity?

Move for Minds is a yearly event that we, Viva Physiotherapy, run to support the charity Prevention United. It’s an event that not only raises money and awareness for the prevention of mental health conditions, but also helps those taking part to develop positive mental and physical health habits.

The Story of Move for Minds

Move for Minds was originally hatched in the depths of the 2020 Melbourne lockdown, a difficult period where the physios here at Viva felt a calling. At the time, we noticed that people were finding it hard to leave home, let alone exercise, and as physiotherapists we felt a strong urge to do something about it. One day one of my clients told me he’d done less than 100 daily steps! I realised pretty quickly that something needed to change.

But it was about more than just exercise. We felt that as physios we have a position to inspire and to lead, but also to empathise and understand that many of us were doing it tough. We believed that people didn’t need a big stick to whip them off the couch, but rather a supportive and nurturing program to improve their health in general.

“During the beginning of the pandemic, psychological distress levels in adults were significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, with 10.6% of Australian adults experiencing severe psychological distress in April 2020 compared with 8.4% in February 2017.3 For the rest of 2020, this proportion fluctuated but remained consistently higher than pre-pandemic levels, peaking at 10.9% in October 2020.”
National Mental Health Commission National Report 2021.

We knew that the pandemic led to unique struggles and the Australian Bureau of Statistics were able to capture this snapshot. They found significantly higher levels of psychological distress in the age groups and locales of clients we see here at Viva – those who were 25-65 years old and lived in Melbourne.

Proportion of people with high and very high levels of psychologial stress
Source: www.mentalhealthcommission.gov.au

Driven by such moving statistics, we began putting together a fun run/walk event known as Miles for Minds- focussed on getting people motivated to get up and move. This would quickly evolve into a real passion project for the clinic, where we marry our understanding of good habits, exercise and a healthy body with a want to make deep connections and change in our society. We wanted to make a difference in our locale of Melbourne and so we sought to find a charity partner that had values aligned with our own.

Move for Minds is now in its third year. It’s had a little rebrand along the way (more on that later!) and has now expanded to include participants across other capital cities. We’d love to tell our story….

The Evolution of Move for Minds

A big part of our philosophy at Viva is inclusivity. What started as a fun run and walk back in 2020 evolved into a more inclusive event where we don’t just run a distance or check a time, but rather we support and encourage any type of movement- embedding this within good mental health practices. Hence Miles for Minds became Move for Minds. You’ll notice we don’t give out prizes for the distance or time winner but rather for participation and involvement such as completing the event and fundraising. It’s really about supporting everyone to have a go.

Our Charity Partner, Prevention United

So we did what we do best and we spoke to our clients. We told them what we were hoping to achieve, and were seeking a charity to partner with. We knew that our wonderful community would help us on our way, and of course they did. Our inspiring long-term client Luda had a connection to the charity Prevention United. In fact, she personally knows one of the founding members, Dr. Luke Martin who’s a clinical psychologist.

Prevention United (PU) was started in 2018 by Luke and two of his colleagues who felt concerned by the lack of overall direction we have in Australia for the prevention of mental health conditions. It was established to champion mental health promotion as a complement to mental healthcare.

They helped us to understand the depth of the problem: nearly 1 in 2 Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Prevention United see this rate as unacceptably high.

According the National Mental Health Commission National Report in 2021, only 1% of government mental health funding goes into wellbeing and prevention – the rest goes into providing mental healthcare services for patients after they have started to experience significant mental health difficulties. There are many reports at present around how our mental health system is suffering from being under-resourced and so we believe that refocusing our attention to prevention will assist this greatly.

We are incredibly proud to support PU not only because they’re a valuable charity in the mental health space but because their philosophy in the mental health space aligns with ours in the physical health space. Prevention is our style of physiotherapy here at Viva and we strongly support the idea of injury prevention and physical wellness- going beyond the common perception of physiotherapy being simply the treatment of injury.

Our calling as Physiotherapists to Address Mental and Physical Health Side by Side

Viva Physiotherapy strongly believes that early intervention is the key to reducing the number of mental health issues in Australia, and Prevention United’s focus is to change the system by advocating directly to the government to increase prevention funding.

“The lack of a focus on prevention and early intervention across the general community and within Austalia’s mental health and suicide prevention systems has been consistently highlighted”.
National Mental Health Commission National Report 2021.

But we have also been increasingly called through our professional body to address mental health alongside the physical work that we do. A recent article written by Anja Nikolic, National Chair of the Mental Health group of the APA, calls upon us as physiotherapists to address mental health using our primary physiotherapy skills. Nikolic talks intricately about the link between mental and physical health, most importantly that the most significant indirect mediating factor on mental health was physical activity. The APA President has directly challenged physios to rethink the way we interact with mental health in our roles.

How Exercise Actually Improves our Mental Health

We know that exercise improves serotonin levels in your body and a low level of serotonin is linked with depression and anxiety. It’s also interesting to know that serotonin is not just about mood – it also has a link to digestion, bone health, sleep and sexual health, so the effects of improving it are intrinsically linked to things that we also address as physiotherapists.

Personally, I love the little side reach into bone health and it’s something I consider strongly when designing treatment programs for my clients: not just for a 70 year old woman, but even for 25 year olds of both sexes. But I can tell more about that part of my passion at another time!

We also know that exercise produces endorphins which helps reduce the effect of stress, including adrenaline and that pain-promoting hormone cortisol, which are often part of our fight or flight response. And of course if we are in fight or flight for long periods of time, that’s when the chemical balance in our body becomes challenged and we are more susceptible to mental health episodes.

And what better way to sum it up than with a Harvard Medical School study. In 2019, Choi et all found that running 15 minutes per day or walking 1 hour reduced the chances of depression by 26%.

The lovely thing is that much of what we prescribe for physical wellness we now know also contributes to mental wellness, but as our understanding and training grows, we can be much more deliberate about our prescription.

What is the Format of Move for Minds?

The design of the program is to incorporate both physical and mental health training in a way that allows the progression of fitness and habits over a period of time (more on why down below!)

So we ask participants to sign up ahead of the yearly start date and follow a physical training program of their choice alongside the mental health training to produce good outcomes in their own health.

We ask for each participant to contribute a small fee, as a symbolic reflection of the value they’re receiving through each of the programs, however 100% of that fee is directly donated to Prevention United.

We cheerlead along the way, through regular emails and free live events, using our professional skills to help match our encouragement with the stage of the training the participant may be at with the goal of helping our participants gently change their habits.

We have purposefully chosen the late winter to early spring time for the event each year as research shows that mental health episodes are more likely to happen during winter, and so using our professional influence to encourage people to move at that time of year is a lovely way of connecting the individual’s experience with the broader goals of the program.

It’s all about Habits

We all know that we have good habits and bad habits, from stretching every morning to biting our nails. And it’s really the concept of habits that we were keen to focus on as part of our Move for Minds program design.

By combining the expertise of the clinical psychology team at Prevention United with the physio team at Viva Physiotherapy, we were able to create a side-by-side program that would add up to the best experience for the participant- plus embed the best long-term opportunities to improve their health!

And so while it may take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, we know in 66 days (around the length of the Move for Minds program) new behaviours can become automatic, so we are hoping the behaviours gained through the event gently infiltrate our participants’ long-term self-care and exercise.

In my 20 years of experience as a physiotherapist, I am concerned that our current health system means it’s up to the individual to be the project manager, with information and advice given to patients from multiple different sources- you might have one professional advising you on your knee, while another professional advises you on your mental health. The role of project mananger is left to the individual where no advice on the interrelationship between both are agiven. So what excites me about the Move for Minds program is that we have interlaced two co-dependent systems together, and essentially by supporting one side (mental health) it supports the other (physical health). I see a great opportunity for this kind of health management in the future.

We were able to tap into an existing program that Prevention United had already developed and delivered called Staying Ahead which is a self-paced, online program that allows the individual to self-assess and then follow weekly modules to address different components of their mental health. There’s a second diagnostic at the end of the 6-week program that allows reassessment and reflection of changes observed.

Personally, I’ve loved doing the Staying Ahead program each year as part of my Move for Minds participation and I purposefully register and encourage each of my staff as well. As well as being a unique opportunity for personal development in the mental health space, I felt it was the first accessible tool that I experienced which gave me useful language around what constitutes good mental health. It’s language that I now use in my leadership and relationships within Viva Physiotherapy and outside.

As far as the physical health training programs, our goal was to make them as accessible as possible and so incorporating the opportunity to run, walk, cycle, or move meant people could design their own training program. However, one thing we thought was important with the program design was that our participants had access to a professionally written program including distances and intensities to follow if they were increasing their load and exercise. We’ve seen enough stress fractures and strained muscles from overtraining to know how important this guidance is! We provided 60 full-length pre-recorded training classes to every single participant in the form of Yoga, Pilates, Strength Training and Stretching through our online class platform the Viva Hub, to really allow participants to get the best out of their body and experience what cross training really feels like.

A Huge Opportunity for Workplaces

As a team, the Viva crew have participated in the event every year so far. We started doing this to test our systems and just for a bit of fun, but as our participation matured, we realised that the opportunities for improving workplace culture were really far reaching. And so in 2022, we set out to invite some select workplaces to enter the event as a team to build their culture and provide an easy and accessible way to donate to a really worthy charity.

We have had the teams at Unite Health, Visibility Co and inBalance Physio join the event as a team over the past few years and the overwhelming feedback was that it played an enormous part in creating conversations, keeping workplaces engaged and making employees feel supported to look after themselves holistically which had a trickle down effect to both their work and home life.

Julia May, director of Visibility Co, shares her and her team’s experience of the Program in 2022.

“If there’s one thing the past few years has taught us, it’s the preciousness of our wellbeing, the interrelationship of mental and physical wellness, and our need for connection to one another. I was shocked to learn through Move for Minds that only 1% of funding for mental health is allocated to prevention – so we jumped at the opportunity to sign up as a team and focus, together, on our individual and collective wellbeing. The resources, easily accessible support and invitation to think differently about what wellbeing means to us has been transformational and I highly recommend Move for Minds to other companies wanting to both support their people and contribute to an urgent problem at a national scale. Big thanks to Viva and Prevention United for putting this incredible program together.”

Hear from the Participants

We asked a few of the previous years’ participants to tell us about what they thought of the event.

“There’s nothing to lose and plenty to gain from this program! I loved following along, participating in classes and gradually progressing my fitness every week so I could finally run 5km on the last day.”
– Catherine

“It always feels nice putting money towards a good cause, but the best part was that it just made me feel good throughout all of the draining lockdowns”
– Michael

“I loved that it was all planned for me and my exercise was scheduled in for the entire week! It motivated me to get outside and I loved the scheduled time for myself to unwind and destress. And I ran 10kms!”
– Milly

“Move For Minds did what it said on the packet, and so much more. It brought focus and motivation to my regular pilates and yoga schedule, and boosted my confidence and strength, both physically and mentally. And it was fun…! By trusting and following the Viva team’s advice I ended up smashing my 10km PB by almost two minutes. I’m still on a high, and already thinking about the 2023 event.”
– Fiona

A Call to the Government of Australia

Our work with Prevention United has really opened our eyes to the power of advocacy and the need for big impact changes to happen at the highest level. Where the individual can be powerful in impacting their own outcomes, large scale movement in something as big as the mental health crisis in Australia needs to start from the top. And with their ambitious target to prevent 1 million mental health conditions in Australia by 2050, the opportunity to provide intervention before the fact to the almost 1 in 2 Australians who experience a mental health condition is hugely powerful.

It may surprise you to know that Australia currently does not have a National Strategy for promoting or preventing mental health conditions and so advocating for this strategy is one of the most powerful ways to achieve their target.

In 2021 and 2022, we were fortunate enough to be supported by our ambassador, leader of the Greens and member for Melbourne Adam Bandt. As well as being a keen runner himself, as a member of parliament, Adam is well-placed to take these conversations to the highest level and embed the concepts of prevention both in the physical and mental health space into Australia’s broader long-term strategy.
Our Goal in the Physiotherapy and Mental Health Space

As the leader of a small organisation I feel it’s really important that, despite our size, we embed purposeful work into our structure so that we use our professional skills for the wider good and not just for our day to day work.

So, while much of what we do as physiotherapists is embedded in physical health, we as a clinic have made a commitment to upskilling ourselves around mental health and its relationship to physical wellbeing. Through that you’ll see us weave our expertise into your treatment program whether you’re experiencing a mental health challenge or just looking to thrive. Because our physical and mental selves do belong to one body after all.