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Exercise as a form of treatment for mental illness


My name is Joe and I’ve just begun the 2nd year of my PhD in Medicine. I am researching how we can use physical exercise to improve people’s mental health. Specifically, I work with young people (from 18 years onwards), who are experiencing serious mental health problems for the first time in their lives – a condition which is referred to as “First Episode Psychosis”. I am investigating whether specially designed physical exercise routines can help people with First Episode Psychosis to feel healthier; in the body, and also in the mind. 

In Depth

What is First Episode Psychosis

First Episode Psychosis is the first 5 years of any ‘psychotic disorder’, such as Schizophrenia. This affects around 1 in 100 people, and most often starts around the age of 18. The most recognisable symptoms of first-episode psychosis are hearing voices, seeing things which other people cannot see (hallucinations), delusional beliefs and paranoia. Along with these, there are often less obvious symptoms of people severely lacking in motivation, feeling depressed, withdrawing from society and becoming reclusive.

Current Treatment

The most common treatment for first-episode psychosis is antipsychotic medications: There are tablets that sufferers can take which greatly reduce the symptoms of hearing voices, delusions etc. However, people taking these tablets often relapse within a few years, or need higher and higher doses overtime for them to remain effective. Furthermore, antipsychotics do not help with the symptoms of social withdrawal and inability to feel motivated. Unfortunately, it is these unseen symptoms which can really prevent people from living a happy and fulfilling life.

What do I Investigate?

I am investigating whether we can use physical exercise for first-episode psychosis, as an extra treatment for all the different types of symptoms so that they need fewer medications and feel better overall in life. To do this, people with first-episode psychosis are sent to me from their mental health service. I design them a special exercise routine and then take them to the gym twice-per-week for 10 weeks to train with them. In the exercise sessions, we do running, rowing and cycling to work on their fitness, and also weight training to work on the muscles. Past research has shown that these sorts of training can make people feel better, happier and more motivated – even in normal healthy people. It has never been tried for First Episode Psychosis (even though these are the people who may need it most!).

To see if it has worked, we score peoples’ mental health using a psychiatric interview before they start the 10 weeks of training, and then score them again after the 10 weeks to check if they have improved. I also look at peoples’ physical health, fitness, social life and brain functioning, as exercise is known to be able to help with these things too. If proven effective, exercise may eventually become part of NHS treatment programs for first-episode psychosis, and be available to any young person who is in need of treatment, like a new form of therapy! 

Going Further

If you want to know more about first-episode psychosis in general, such as what causes it, what it does, here is a great place to start:

For more information about my specific experiment, you can find the full details of the clinical trial here:

If you’re interested in which physical exercise can improve mental health, this article goes through many different ways in which it may do this:


Researching the Squishyness of Foam

by YPU Admin on December 25, 2014, Comments. Tags: algorithms, applied, business, computer, cycling, finance, foam, helmets, industry, maths, model, patentlaw, pressure, and syntactic


My name is Maria Thorpe and it's now only 10 months until I have to submit my thesis for a PhD in applied maths.

My route to a PhD

I moved up to Manchester 7 years ago really excited to be going to university and studying for an undergrad masters in maths for the next 4 years. I loved every minute of my undergrad, but by the beginning on the fourth year still didn't really know what type of job I wanted when I finished. I was still enjoying my subject and I'd really enjoyed a research project I'd been sponsored to complete over the summer between third and fourth year, so I decided to apply for a PhD on a similar topic in applied maths. 

In Depth

Since then I've been trying to mathematically model the way in which a specific type of composite squashes under pressure. I work with a material similar to syntactic foam, similar to the  sort of foam cycling helmets are made from, however instead of creating small cavities within the material by injecting air into it, tiny hollow balls (called shells) are mixed into the foam before it sets, forming a composite. These micro shells are created from very stiff, glass-like materials and help stiffen the material under low pressures, but under high pressures they crumple like a coke can. I want to understand whether having shells close to each other changes the way the composite reacts to pressure: do the shells reinforce each other and allow the material to withstand higher pressures? Or do they have the opposite effect and cause the composite to squash more than if they were far apart?

The company sponsoring my research wants to understand how their material works so that they know how to improve it. It would take too long to try out all the different ways the shells could be mixed into the foam, and might involve buying new machinery, so it makes sense to model the material instead. Creating a very flexible model means that the same model can be used for many different applications, so I try to model the material theoretically, by extending the models previous generations of mathematicians have created. This means that most days are spent making very small steps forward with my research, but when a whole section comes together it can be really rewarding.

Aside from working on my thesis my PhD has enabled me to travel to some really great places: I spent a month in New Zealand with a company having a go at the more experimental side to my research; I've traveled to conferences all across Europe; and I've spent three months working in parliament to learn how science influences policy.

Moreover these last three years have allowed me to discover all the ways maths is used in industry and business, from patent law and government policy to computer algorithms and financial trading, so that this time round, when it comes to looking for post PhD careers, I have a much clearer idea of where I could go from here.

Going Further

If you'd like to read more about my research and that of the group I work with, the waves in complex continua group, check out our webpage:

There’s also an interesting article on the use of syntactic foams for deep sea exploration here: