Frederic Leroy is 52 years old, a Frenchman who has been living in Brussels for the past 5 years. He is a father of three children, and it is in fact their influence that led him to the mental health project in which he has been involved for the past two years in Eastern France : "Je bouge pour mon moral" (I move for my mood).
Frederic is an enthusiast of both writing and reading, but his true passion lies in sports (yet another connection to his mental health project!) : an avid climber, he once considered becoming an instructor or opening his own climbing center. It was a difficult life decision for him not to pursue that path. Instead, he went on to have a lengthy career in the corporate world, working for Danone for 20 years in various roles such as marketing management and general management, a significant portion of which was spent internationally in countries such as Germany, Portugal, Austria, and the Nordic countries.
I met him at the famous Belga Café in Brussels, located in the Ixelles district, to find out more about his promising project.
What is the moment you realized you had mental health ?
Around ten years ago, when I first assumed the role of general manager at Danone in Austria, it represented a huge shift in terms of responsibility and stress for me. The company was in a period of transition, with significant transformations and restructurings taking place. Amidst this intense stress, I came to understand that I indeed had mental health to consider, in the sense that I was truly at risk of losing my overall well-being and health.
During that time, I sought the support of a coach who assisted me in comprehending the challenges and stakes for both myself and my team. It proved incredibly beneficial; we managed to successfully implement all the transformations and changes within the company while maintaining a healthy atmosphere and relatively good mental health for both myself and my team.
"Having personally experienced pressure, challenges, and difficulties, I was able to enhance my listening skills, empathy, and compassion for others."
It was then that I truly grasped the importance of mental health in the professional sphere. Following this tough experience in Austria, I believe I evolved into a much better manager, which manifested in the quality of work-life balance, particularly in the teams I later led in Sweden. There, people have high expectations in terms of job satisfaction, work-life balance, and overall well-being.
Having personally experienced pressure, challenges, and difficulties, I was able to enhance my listening skills, empathy, and compassion for others, which I believe are essential qualities in a managerial role.
What is the problem you wanted to solve in terms of mental health in France ?
The core objective is to make physical activity accessible for individuals experiencing psychological distress ! Nowadays, there is an abundance of scientific evidence highlighting the positive impact of physical activity on mental health. We recognise that it serves as a fundamental driver of well-being, both as a preventative measure to stave off mental health problems and as an exceptional therapeutic tool when dealing with psychological disorders. Physical activity can accelerate recovery, stabilize conditions, and minimize the risk of relapse or recurrence. However, it remains, unfortunately, largely inaccessible for those who are unwell. Whether it's depression, burnout, or any other type of psychological disorder, it's incredibly difficult for someone struggling mentally to find motivation and engage in physical activity.
"There's a genuine lack of suitable programmes, particularly for depression and burnout."
Attempting to exercise alone can be particularly challenging due to the motivational and energy-related issues intrinsic to the illness, especially in cases of depression. Joining a club or association requires self-confidence and the ability to interact with others, which isn't always straightforward. Of course, there's always the option of working with a coach, but that can be both costly and intimidating in a one-on-one setting.
So, if people prefer a group environment tailored to the needs and limitations of patients, there aren't many options available. There's a genuine lack of suitable programmes, particularly for depression and burnout.
In France, legislation passed in 2016 allows doctors to prescribe sports activities for health purposes. However, there isn't a standardized national framework, and reimbursement for these treatments varies significantly from region to region, predominantly focusing on physical conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Mental health is somewhat lagging, it is only very recently that corresponding conditions have become eligible for reimbursement, for instance, as part of the sports health scheme in the Grand-Est region.
What is your proposed solution to solve this problem ?
The project I've been working on for two years aims to make physical activity accessible to people with mental health issues, so they can use it as a lasting tool for their recovery. Our solution is a co-constructed effort involving a multidisciplinary team of mental health and physical activity professionals, and it's part of a non-profit organization called "Je bouge pour mon moral" (“I move for my mood”)
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the needs to address, we consulted roughly 150 patients through individual interviews, discussion groups, online questionnaires, and more. This helped us develop an innovative support system – an ideal framework to encourage physical activity among people experiencing depression.
Our support system kicks off with a seven-week programme, during which participants engage in tailored physical activity twice a week and attend a weekly stress management workshop based on sophrology if they wish. They can also watch webinars on lifestyle habits beneficial for mental health, including diet, healthy sports, sleep, and positive psychology. What's crucial is that everything is done collectively in small groups of 10-12 people, supervised by professionals to maintain motivation over time. After the initial seven weeks, individuals can choose to continue with individual or group support for up to a year.
This first stage is critical, and we've worked hard to ensure its effectiveness, even receiving scientific validation from researchers at the University of Reims and Grenoble. We have supported 300 patients over a year and we know that the severity of depression reduces by more than 50 % and the self-esteem scores increase by more than 20 % by the end of the programme.
"By integrating physical activity as a tool, we can establish a range of new lifestyle habits that, in addition to exercise, will promote recovery."
As for the activities, we've chosen to focus on Nordic walking for now because it's highly accessible, offers real cardio intensity (essential for mood improvement), is outdoor-based (encouraging people to leave their homes), and fosters social connections. Unlike running, Nordic walking allows participants to maintain enough breath for side-by-side conversations in small groups, which helps build social bonds. Importantly, each session is supervised by instructors trained in adaptive physical activity and individual and group support for those with physical or mental health issues.
Moreover, our team is genuinely multidisciplinary, as the idea is to create holistic support that goes beyond mere physical activity. By integrating physical activity as a tool, we can establish a range of new lifestyle habits that, in addition to exercise, will promote recovery. Within the organization, we have psychology researchers specializing in physical activity and non-drug interventions, therapeutic patient education specialists, patients or former patients (or "expert patients") who can offer advice, adaptive physical activity instructors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and sophrologists who contribute to the workshops.
What are your plans for the future ?
I'm fortunate to be in a very dynamic region, the Grand-Est, where the Maison Sport Santé de Strasbourg has been a real pioneer many years ago. We're truly in an innovative and pioneering ecosystem that is committed to investing in sports and health. Today, we're delighted to have recognition from the ARS Grand-Est and Alsace-Moselle health insurance, providing us with a solid foundation, especially in Nancy and Metz, and the active support of the CROS (Regional Olympic & Sportive Committee)
Our primary goal is to turn Lorraine into a hub of innovative practices. We'd like to develop additional therapeutic approaches there, particularly a specific programme for young people who are facing a genuine health crisis. We'd also like to enhance post-programme maintenance and ensure people commit to independent, long-term physical activity. We're considering individual coaching, activities co-hosted by former participants for the community, and apps to connect participants so they can organize and offer activities. There's so much to explore!
Furthermore, we have a highly effective and economically viable solution with an optimized, low support cost per participant. Our next step is to expand this solution as widely as possible in big cities, but also to invent a way to expand it in less densely populated, rural or semi-rural areas where our organizational and economic model isn't currently valid.
We'll need to secure public funding in each region, as there isn't a harmonized framework at the national level that would allow us to offer our solution across France as quickly as possible. We have a concrete goal of being active in 40 territories by 2025 so that we can support around 10,000 direct beneficiaries that year.
Is there an artistic work, or someone inspiring that had a positive impact on your mental health ?
Siddhartha from Hermann Hesse. I have read it probably 4 times, finding every time useful meanings and perspectives. The novel tells the life journey of Siddhartha, who lives in the 5th Century BC (so at the same period Bouddha Gautama lived) in his quest for wisdom. Without spoiling the story, Siddhartha finally reaches wisdom and enlightenment after several, sometimes difficult, life experiences that help him gain insights and grow personally. It is a story about hope and finding meaning even in the most difficult periods of life.
What is the best way to contact you ?
Alternatively, feel free to contact me on LinkedIn. I'd be delighted to explore any partnerships or philanthropy offers! Currently, we need €350,000 over the next three years with a total budget of around €50,000 to set up an innovation laboratory in Lorraine and €300 000 to structure our activity and recruit staff to expand nationally 🙂
Interviewed by Thomas Cantaloup, on February 03, 2023
Photo credits : Thomas Cantaloup