The vital link between mental and physical health and wellbeing

‘Mind’ and ‘body’ are often thought of as being separate. However, when it comes to mental health and physical health, the two are intimately linked.

Poor physical health is associated with an increased risk of developing poor mental health. Similarly, poor mental health can affect physical health. For people with intellectual disability, an inability to maintain good mental and physical health can lead to significant health problems.

Research has shown that in Australia, compared to the general population, people with intellectual disability experience:

  • more than twice the rate of avoidable deaths
  • twice the rate of emergency department and hospital admissions
  • higher rates of physical and mental health conditions
  • lower rates of preventative healthcare.

Fortunately, work is being done towards improving the physical and mental wellbeing of the 450,000 Australians living with intellectual disability.

At Active Ability, we’re dedicated to helping people achieve enhanced quality of life and independence. One way we do this is through exercise programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Our personalised programs are created by our dedicated, experienced team of exercise physiologists.

How mental health affects physical health

Research has shown that mental illness can profoundly impact physical health status. A large Western Australian study, for example, showed that the overall death rate was 2.5 times higher for people with mental illness than that of the general population.

There are several reasons why mental health affects physical health. Firstly, people who have experienced mental illness are less likely to receive appropriate health care.

Secondly, a range of behavioural factors can also make people with mental illness more vulnerable to physical health problems. These include:

  • smoking and harmful alcohol and other drug use
  • poor self-care
  • obesity
  • poor diet

Conversely, healthy lifestyle habits such as sleeping well, eating well and exercising are vital for maintaining wellbeing.

Supporting healthy behaviours is important for everyone, but especially so for people with mental illness or intellectual disability who are more vulnerable to poor health outcomes.

Woman with an intellectual disability being supported by an exercise physiologist as she balances on a mat with her hands on her head
Regular physical activity is especially important for people with intellectual disability

The key role of exercise in physical and mental health

It’s well known that physical activity is essential for optimum physical health. Regular exercise supports things such as optimum cardiovascular and metabolic function and maintaining a healthy weight.

A growing body of evidence also shows how important exercise is for protecting mental health. Exercise can benefit mental health in several ways:

  1. Exercise triggers the release of ‘feel good’ endorphins in the brain.
  2. It can distract you from negative thoughts and feelings.
  3. Exercise helps you sleep better, and good sleep is crucial to good mental health.
  4. Exercising outside gives you a boost from being in nature and getting some vitamin D.
  5. If you exercise with someone, you get the benefits of social interaction.
  6. Exercise reduces sub-clinical and clinical feelings of anxiety.
  7. Exercise reduces sub-clinical and clinical symptoms of depression.

The great news is that you don’t need to spend huge amounts of time working out or spend money on fancy gear to reap the mental health benefits of physical activity. Even 10 minutes of brisk walking can help you feel more alert, energised and in a better mood.

Physical activity is simply about movement that uses muscles and expends energy. The key is finding something you like to do and making it part of your routine. Anything from pulling weeds in your garden or a stroll around the block to training for a marathon will make a difference.

Exercise for intellectual disability

For people with intellectual disability, making healthy lifestyle choices is key to experiencing enhanced quality of life and reducing the risk for developing lifestyle-related health conditions.

In the Australian Government’s 2019 Roundtable on the Health of People with Intellectual Disability, it was noted that:

  • on average, people with intellectual disability have about 2.5 times the number of health conditions as people who don’t have intellectual disability
  • approximately 50% of the health conditions of people with intellectual disability are undiagnosed
  • complexity and competing priorities result in many diagnosed conditions being inadequately managed by clinicians, and
  • preventative healthcare needs are poorly addressed.

A great way for people with intellectual disability to be proactive about managing physical and mental health is with a safe, enjoyable exercise program that’s tailored to your needs and goals.

The team at Active Ability are highly experienced at designing and creating exercise programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities and supporting people to implement exercise into everyday life. Your program will be based on an assessment that considers your current level of function, your health, your preferences and what you’d like to achieve.

How exercise enhanced Suzie’s physical and mental wellbeing

Suzie is a great example. In her old neighbourhood, Suzie enjoyed walking and felt safe navigating the familiar environment. However, when she moved to a new area, Suzie lacked confidence and needed support to recommence her walking program.

Active Ability helped Suzie gain the confidence she needed to become more independent and get back into her walking program.

Suzie, a client of Active Ability with ID, standing on a footpath ready to do her walking program for physical and mental health.
Regular exercise helps Suzie with her mental and physical health

Here’s Suzie’s story in her own words.

My name is Suzie, and I am 51 years old.

I have mild intellectual disability, hypertension and need to lose some weight.

Recently I have moved to a new home and neighbourhood. At my old home I knew how to get to places really well and was very familiar with how to stay safe in my surroundings (for example, crossing the road).

Because most of my physical activity was incidental, that is, walking from place to place, when I got to my new home I stopped being active because I wasn’t confident that I would know my way around.

My goal was to start a walking program in my new neighbourhood so that I can be more physically active and independent in doing so. My walking program needed to allow me to walk daily to collect groceries from the local shops because walking for a purpose is the best kind!

Exercise physiology helped make Suzie’s program fun as well as healthy

That’s where my Exercise Physiologist Izzy, came in!

I love spending time walking with Izzy. We chat, laugh and have fun whenever we are together.  I always get really excited when walking past my sister’s house and also my niece’s school.

Active Ability exercise physiologist Izzy standing on grass beside client Suzie before walking together as part of Suzie’s mental and physical health program.
Active Ability’s exercise physiologist Izzy supported Suzie to get back to regular walking

Although it hasn’t been too long, I am now able to walk for 60 minutes without a rest and I have nearly finished memorizing the route from my home to the shops and back again. I am still working on getting some of my road skills right but am excited to keep going.

Izzy says that I am absolutely lovely to work with and that she has seen great improvements with my walking. She really feels that my walking program has helped me feel closer to my new community.


Active Ability are experts in mobile disability therapy. We see clients with intellectual disability in the comfort of their homes. Or, like we did with Suzie, we can see you in an environment that is suited to your needs and goals, such as a gym, pool or your local area.

Click here if you would like to know more about how our team could help you or someone you know achieve better health and wellbeing,

Or get in touch with us on (02) 8678 7874, or via our contact form.