People in the Illawarra struggling with a mental illness are more likely to be overweight, inactive and use drugs and alcohol, health experts say.
But diet and exercise programs can significantly improve an otherwise poor prognosis, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District nurse educator Alex Gagan said.
She has joined forces with the University of Wollongong to devise a program of exercise and dietary sessions at Shellharbour Hospital's Mental Health Rehabilitation Unit.
Ms Gagan said the program, now on trial, aimed to bridge the gap between mental health consumers and the rest of the population.
People with a mental illness were more likely to be overweight, physically inactive, have a poor diet, low motivation and use more alcohol and other drugs, including tobacco, with 70 per cent being smokers, Ms Gagan said.
"Common antipsychotic medications can cause weight gain, elevated blood glucose, and high cholesterol and blood pressure.
"Obesity is a key risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Mental health consumers have high rates of diabetes and metabolic syndrome [a cluster of cardiovascular risk factors], with heart disease the leading cause of death."
Ms Gagan said there were "very few services available specifically for this group to manage their poor physical health".
"Many mental health consumers face considerable challenges in accessing exercise and healthy lifestyle-based programs and this project will be an important starting point to bridge that gap," she said.
The National Mental Health Commission's report card on mental health found people with a severe mental illness had their life expectancy reduced by 25 years on average due to the increased likelihood of heart-related conditions, diabetes and obesity.
UOW associate lecturer in exercise physiology Angela Douglas said the Shellharbour project aimed to improve the wellbeing of mental health in-patients during their stay in the rehabilitation unit.
"It also offers them the knowledge, strategies and support to maintain their physical health after discharge."
Patients can volunteer for the first 20-week program, to start in March next year.
Pictured: Exercise physiology student Natalie Thoumine, UOW lecturer Angela Douglas and (back) nurse Nerissa Hartley at the Shellharbour Hospital Mental Health Rehabilitation Unit. Photo: SYLVIA LIBER