University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown

Good moves: exercise can help tackle the mental health crisis

Encouraging students to adopt active lifestyles alongside traditional mental health treatments could help to improve outcomes, says Pitt-Johnstown President Jem Spectar in this article published by Times Higher Education website on September 29, 2019.

By Jem Spectar 

One of the greatest challenges facing the nation is the spiraling mental health crisis among young people, with cases of anxiety and depression mounting. While there is much debate about the causes, it is increasingly clear that sedentary lifestyles also fuel this mental health epidemic. Beyond traditional interventions, efforts to staunch this crisis must also include preventive mental health strategies involving exercise and movement as complementary therapies.

College campuses are now ground zero for the mental health crisis as Generation Z, already suffering mental health challenges, transitions from high school to higher education. One-third of young people aged 13 to 18 have experienced anxiety disorder, and one in eight youngsters suffers from depression. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 22 per cent of high school girls and 12 per cent of boys have had suicidal thoughts, with 40 per cent of teens having engaged in self-harm; suicides among teenage girls are at a record high.

When the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles surveyed incoming freshmen in 1985, 18 per cent indicated that they felt overwhelmed; the number rose to 28 per cent in 2000 and to 41 per cent in 2016. According to the National College Health Assessment survey of mental health over the previous 12 months, 40.8 per cent of students reported feeling hopelessness; 58.2 per cent reported loneliness, 30.5 per cent felt so depressed that it was difficult to function and 6 per cent seriously considered suicide. Visits to counseling centers have spiked by between 30 per cent and 40 per cent, prompting institutions to increase staffing.

In addition to factors such as sugar-laden diets, endemic social media use, poor sleep habits and stress, rising levels of physical inactivity are also exacerbating the mental health crisis.

Americans are increasingly less mobile, spending 60 per cent of waking hours sedentary. About 80 per cent of Americans do not meet the recommended weekly exercise guidelines of 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity or 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic physical activity.

More than 60 per cent of college students report insufficient physical activity, which is particularly troubling because schools are increasingly eliminating physical education to save money. Sedentary lifestyles combined with a lack of exercise are increasingly a major global health threat.

Regular exercise can help to treat or prevent anxiety and depression, with some studies showing that exercise is at least as effective as pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge who tracked more than 10,000 people found that participants were happier when they had been engaged in physical activity in the most recent quarter-hour versus when sedentary.

Another study, in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, revealed that when depressed individuals engaged in physical activity, particularly moderately strenuous exercise, they experienced demonstrably improved mental health.

Researchers theorize that exercise enhances mental well-being because it decreases markers of inflammation and increases various hormones, neurotransmitters (such as glutamate, gaba and dopamine) and other bio-chemicals conducive to brain health.

As the avalanche of mental health issues snowballs, institutions are increasingly looking at a broader range of interventions beyond overburdened counseling centers. Wellness and recreation centers on many college campuses have emerged as key partners as institutions explore more comprehensive ways to address the overlapping realms of mental, physical, emotional, social and intellectual health.

Along with state-of-the-art gyms, wellness centers feature programs such as tai chi, yoga and even Zumba to encourage students to bust a move or two.

At the Curry Health Center at the University of Montana, a wellness coach helps students reduce stress and anxiety through workouts such as strength training and kick-boxing.

Through its Canes4Play initiative, the University of Miami promotes physical activities such as hopscotch as part of its efforts to improve mental health.

Institutions such as the University of California, Santa Barbara and Whitman College sponsor numerous outdoor adventure programs, with field trips that provide opportunities for students to enjoy natural environments.

Programmes in mindfulness and meditation are also popping up on campuses as diverse as the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Bowdoin College and the University of Pittsburgh – which recently launched a campus-wide Healthy U initiative.

At Illinois State University, which participates in the Exercise is Medicine initiative launched by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association, students who receive a referral from student health services or counseling services can have a personalized physical activity program developed for them.

A survey at Arizona State University, which encourages effective stress management and building resilience, showed that 71.3 per cent of ASU students used physical activity to manage stress.

Although these initiatives are promising, institutions need to do more to promote a culture that prioritizes physical activity and exercise. In that regard, campuses such as New York University and the University of California, Davis are taking steps to encourage more physical activity, including posting motivational signage to promote walking and recommending exercise as an enjoyable social activity with peers or friends.

To encourage non-sedentary learning, some innovative teachers are exploring the concept of kinesthetic learning through curricula that incorporate movement and even mindfulness meditation.

To be sure, curbing the multidimensional mental health epidemic would require much more beyond increased physical activity or exercise. Other accelerants such as endemic social media use, unhealthy diets, sleeplessness, loneliness and relationships have to be part of a comprehensive plan.

Nonetheless, complementing traditional therapies with a mix of preventive and holistic interventions, including physical activity, would improve student mental health, with likely additional benefits in terms of overall student performance and institutional retention rates.

Harking back to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, themselves no couch potatoes, physical education should be considered cool, and de rigueur, again.

Success will enable more students to make the most of college and contribute to a healthier society; it will save lives.