Helen Quirk: physical activity and health

Dr Helen Quirk, researcher in physical activity and health at The University of Sheffield

In the promotion of physical activity, sometimes we need to take a step back and listen to people’s experiences before moving forwards.

I’m fascinated by people, always have been. Their backgrounds, behaviours and why they do what they do. Some call it nosey, I call it inquisitive! My job as a researcher is to channel this into working closely with people to understand their experiences of physical activity. So much can be gained – personally and professionally – from really listening to people’s stories. Qualitative research (research that deals with non-numerical data) allows me to understand people’s opinions, thoughts and experiences of physical activity so that we can feed this into attempts to promote more activity across the population. What I really like about qualitative research is that it provides people with the opportunity to have their voices heard which means the programmes and initiatives being delivered have a better chance of success.

This piece of research didn’t involve us collecting the data ourselves, but instead we looked for all the qualitative research that has already been done and tried to reach a new understanding of it. We wanted to understand how people living with serious mental illness experience taking part in community-based physical activity. There is plenty of evidence to show the many benefits of being active – both physically and mentally. And the benefits of getting out and socialising with others in the community are huge. But for people living with serious mental illness it is harder to start being active and stay being active, and the reality is that although they may want to be more active, there are many things that get in the way and make it harder.

We’ve shown that the ‘journey’ to starting physical activity for people living with serious mental illness is long, complicated and full of set-backs and triumphs. Some things we found were expected – such as the important role social support has. But what was more surprising was how hard it can be to start the activity in the first place. When we say journey, we don’t mean the actual journey to the activity (although that did come with its own challenges!) but a metaphorical journey. One that involves underlying beliefs, past experiences, navigating the side-effects of medication, opinions about the activity, worries and concerns about the activity venue, thoughts about who will be there, dependency on others to get to there and how people feel in the company of others – all of which influence the experience. By talking about this journey, we hope that physical activity opportunities can be designed and delivered in a way that supports people living with serious mental illness on their journey to being more physically active.

Please get in touch with your experience or if you’d like to hear more! [email protected]

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