A recent collaboration between the Nice Ride Minnesota bike share program and Hennepin County Medical Center is helping people deal with mental illness by giving them free bike memberships.

The program, which starts its second year April 1, is part of a broader shift in mental health treatment to prescribe physical exercise for people with depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses.

HCMC is taking it a step further, stationing a cardiologist in its mental health day treatment program to do a more intensive assessment of physical health and cardiovascular-specific treatments. It's the only mental health program doing so in the country, according to the hospital.

"We've either treated the brain or the body, and we're taking it as a holistic approach, trying to treat people," said Amber Courtney, an occupational therapist helping lead the program.

People with mental illness, she said, are "as capable of living a healthy lifestyle."

While exercise and diet have been discussed before, the new partnership between the psychiatry and cardiovascular departments at the downtown Minneapolis hospital has cardiologist Woubeshet Ayenew working in the day treatment program to give people with serious mental illness his cardiovascular-specific expertise.

Whether it's helping someone quit smoking, lose weight, gain access to a free gym at HCMC or secure a free Nice Ride membership, Ayenew is helping mental health clients start therapeutic lifestyle changes that can reduce their risk of a heart attack or stroke — and at the same time improve their mental health.

"It's easier to get people prescriptions for pills because it's a quick 10 minutes," he said. "But implementing these slower but high impact changes probably has a bigger benefit."

The Comprehensive Cardiovascular Prevention Program — C2P2 for short — started about a year ago, and HCMC teamed up with Nice Ride as part of it. Thirty-one clients in its day treatment program used the optional bikes. The $2,300 program was paid for by Nice Ride and a $1,000 donation from U.S. Bank.

"This is a way to bridge the gap," said Tina Cho, Nice Ride's access manager, who trained staffers.

For people dealing with anxiety or depression, it can be difficult to do things like maintain a bike or make it to appointments. Some are homeless or have lower incomes, so the program seeks to make biking more accessible and affordable.

In 2016, the 31 participants biked 957 hours, the second highest ridership group for Nice Ride. One woman hadn't biked in 20 years. A homeless man who was diabetic and obese had never been to Minneapolis' Chain of Lakes and biked there for the first time.

"Their Minneapolis was within 2 square miles of their neighborhood," Cho said. "It kind of opened up their world."

Nice Ride is looking to increase fundraising for its scholarship program in hopes of expanding HCMC's model to other hospitals. Ayenew is compiling data to see if anecdotal success also results in measurable improvement to people's mental and physical health.

"They actually went out there and rode their hearts out," he said. "The better they feel, they'll go out and take better care of themselves."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141