Feel better with the mental health benefits of fitness

Staying fit and keeping active isn’t just about keeping your body healthy. Regular physical activity is an integral part of a student’s well-being. Exercise is definitively linked to good mental health.

Some Ryerson students, however, are neglecting the mental health benefits of exercise when they need it most: exam season.

“It seems clear we peak in use in September and January and then experience a decline across the term, before the sharp drop at the start of exams,” Andrew Pettit said, recreation manager for Ryerson Athletics.

Ultimate workout is a high-energy and high-intensity circuit training method that uses unconventional equipment. (Photo by Julie Germansky)

Last year, 11,439 students accessed the Recreation and Athletics Centre (RAC) or Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) in mid-September, according to figures provided by Ryerson Athletics. That’s about 30 per cent of the total Ryerson student population.

Once exams rolled around in December, the number of students accessing athletics facilities dropped to 5,099, 14 per cent of the student body.

As schoolwork mounts, Ryerson students are hitting the books instead of the gym.

Unfortunately, that means the mounting stress of projects, midterms and exams isn’t being counterbalanced by the mental health benefits provided by regular physical activity.

“Unequivocally, we know that being active on a regular basis benefits your physical and mental health in significant ways,” Pettit said. “It’s irrefutable.”

A report published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) outlines the benefits of regular physical activity. Thomas Stephen’s Physical Activity and Mental Health in the United States and Canada population survey also reported the positive relationship between physical activity and well-being. Through the release of endorphins, exercise can help ease depression and anxiety, while also improving one’s overall mood. Moderate-to-vigorous exercise also acts as a form of meditation, helping to block out negative thoughts and manage stress.

Ryerson student Mohamed Harbi knows that getting active can help him de-stress. So when things are rough, he hits the gym.

“If I’m stressed, I’ll go out (and) get some shots up in the gym,” Harbi said. “Whatever issues I’m having in life, it takes me away from that.”

But not all students feel welcome or at ease in a gym setting.

Some students may be entirely unfamiliar with working out, not being sure what to do, which can create a sense of displacement and confusion.

For the most part, male students have an influence in Ryerson’s sports spaces, which makes it seem a lot easier for them to head into Ryerson’s athletics facilities.

Groups of young, physically fit men are almost always found in the RAC’s gymnasiums and weight rooms, dominating the space, even if they aren’t conscious of it.

And for some female students, this can make the gym an anxious, stress-inducing setting, a deterrent to working out.

Rebecca Xie is a business management student who works at the RAC and MAC. She has seen what effect a dominant male presence at the gym can have on female students.

Xie finds a lot of the men working out to be intimidating, and at times, are sexually objectifying the women working out around them.

“Even when pointing it out to some of these male students who are displaying these actions, they’re not very sensitive on the topic, and that creates a very negative space for women to come back,” Xie said.  The negative space that can be created by male students in the gym is an issue already addressed by Ryerson’s athletics department.

To solve the problem, at least in part, “women’s only” hours were implemented at the RAC.

“The whole reason we did women’s hours is because women are marginalized in sport,” said Kianna Hydil, a Ryerson student-employee at the RAC.

“This provides a space where (female students) can feel comfortable and not feel like people are judging them for the way they’re working out.”

For many female students, women’s only hours at the RAC has provided a positive space to work out, aiding both body and mind.

“I find it more welcoming,” said Cindy Quach, a Ted Rogers School of Management student. “I find that the environment is more peaceful, more calm… it’s more positive.”

Quach is also a member of SMASH, a mental health and wellness student group at Ryerson that regularly promotes paths to good mental health, including physical activities like yoga.

Quach can speak from personal experience on the important link between regular exercise and good mental health.

“Physical activity gets me less distracted. I can be thinking about, ‘Oh, I have this due, this is causing me stress, I have so much running through my head,’” Quach said. “But if I’m at the gym, I’m more focused.”

The payoff extends to after a workout too, says Quach. After working out she says she has more energy to do other things, like hang out with friends or do homework.But being active doesn’t have to mean “hit the gym.”

There are plenty of ways to stay active, and in good mental health, without forcing yourself into a weight room.

Giant tires, along with battling ropes and sledge hammers are used in Ultimate Workout. (Photo by Julie Germansky)

This is something Juannittah Kamera, co-ordinator for Ryerson’s Health Promotion Programs, understands and explains to students who may come to her office for help.

“The challenge for most people is that they feel that they have to factor in gym time in order to get physical exercise time,” Kamera said, and “because they’re doing that they don’t find opportunities to do it any other way.”

The Student Health Assistance and Resilience Program (SHARP) is one of the initiatives set up by the Health Promotions Office. It is a peer-to-peer support service co-ordinated by Kamera.

One of the pillars of SHARP is physical activity, and the SHARP team does its best to educate students on the ways regular exercise can improve their physical and mental well-being.

Kamera and the SHARP team point students towards the resources available to them, like counsellors, but also dieticians and fitness trainers at the RAC, depending on a student’s unique goals.

SHARP also collaborates with the Ryerson athletics department on wellness initiatives.

Members of the SHARP team will set up at the RAC at least twice a month throughout the year to provide support to students and create more visibility on the interrelation

Some of the resources the SHARP team may recommend to students are intramural sports, which they say is a great way to keep active while building strong community bonds. Group fitness classes at the RAC are another example.

Mood Routes is a weekly initiative set up by Ryerson Student Affairs that takes participants on a 30-minute walk through nearby green spaces to improve fitness levels.

All provide a schedule to physical activity and accountability, making it more likely that students will follow through with their physical fitness commitments.

According to Kamera, students can also incorporate physical exercise into their daily life.

Choosing to walk instead of taking the subway, or climbing a few flights of stairs rather than using an elevator are simple ways students can stay active and in good mental health.

“It’s about doing what you like and doing more of it,” Kamera said. “Because some is better than none.”

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