The joy of movement: bringing the mental health benefits of exercise to the world’s most vulnerable

UNSW Medicine’s Scientia Associate Professor Simon Rosenbaum has studied the mental health benefits of sport and exercise for the past ten years. He’s achieved global recognition for his work showing the benefits of physical activity as part of treatment for people living with, or at risk of, poor mental health

| 02 Sep 2020

Simon’s work began in a private hospital in Sydney where he conducted the first clinical trial of exercise as an added component to the treatment of veterans and emergency service workers experiencing severe posttraumatic stress disorder. It has now evolved to include a broad range of contexts all over the world.

“I set out to explore  the positive impact of physical activity in some of the most vulnerable communities in the world, from group- based exercise for young people living with schizophrenia in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, to rock-climbing interventions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, to the mental health benefits of walking groups for Rohingya women living in refugee camps in Bangladesh,” he said.

His research shows the immediate mental health benefits of sport and exercise regardless of age and context. It doesn’t require expensive equipment or highly skilled professionals, and he argues that physical activity should be considered as a routine part of mental health care.

After completing six-months as a Mental Health and Psychosocial Officer with the United Nations Migration Agency in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Simon was appointed Co-Chair of the Olympic Refuge Foundation’s international think tank in 2020. It was formed on behalf of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to further explore the role of sport within humanitarian settings.

As part of Simon’s ongoing work in Bangladesh, he teamed up with Books Unbound to develop an animation in Rohingya language to communicate the mental health benefits of physical activity.

simon rosenbaum working with kids

The COVID-19 pandemic, with the increasing mental health impacts of isolation and uncertainty, has added urgency to Simon’s work. He and PhD candidate Grace McKeon are using social media platforms to deliver virtual, group-based exercise programs to improve health and increase social connection for older adults isolating alone. These individuals are particularly vulnerable to declining mental health during the pandemic.

As an exercise physiologist, Simon wants to “continue building capacity among professionals providing care to people living with mental illness, including nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists.”

He has delivered trainings to thousands of health workers in over 25 countries, including many in low-middle income settings. He is a champion of multidisciplinary research, supervising several exercise physiology Masters and PhD candidates within the School of Psychiatry.

Simon’s driving vision is the universal right to health and creation of a society where those most vulnerable can participate in meaningful physical activity to improve and protect their physical and mental health.