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Physical activity aids the mental health of university students

Physical activity aids the mental health of university students
June 28, 2017

Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) is highlighting how university students should include physical activity as a means of maintaining and promoting positive mental health throughout what can be a particularly stressful period of life.

As a part of a series that aims to uncover a hidden side to university life, The Guardian has published online articles on the extent of poor mental health within academia, specifically within students.

ESSA Chief Executive Anita Hobson-Powell explains that Australia as a nation is not exercising enough, with 60% of Australian adults failing to undertake the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day. A common excuse regularly heard for not exercising is simply not being able to find the time.

Hobson-Powell explains “life is full of busy schedules as a student, but doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you find that you’re currently undertaking no physical activity, start by doing some, and then gradually build up to the recommended amount.”

While inactivity figures are high, research led by headspace found that 65% of students at university and TAFE also reported high to very high levels of stress, and more than half suffered panic attacks.

Mental illness can have an impact on a person’s cognitive, behavioural and social functioning, and with the high stress levels of meeting the expectations of being a student, this can lead to changes in their health going unnoticed.

Hamish Fibbins, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist who is also completing postgraduate research on how mental health professionals perceive the impact of exercise, notes that a lack of education is at the heart of the problem.

Fibbins states “while the impact of exercise on mental health is well-researched, it can be easy to forget the wider public is still coming to grips with how the two relate. Students in particular can underestimate the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind, making them particularly vulnerable when facing new academic challenges and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle of study and work.

“Universities, with their clubs, societies, and wider-reaching communication channels, are in the perfect position to better educate students about the topic early. Focusing on prevention rather than cure is an effective way to tackle any mental health issue in universities across the nation.”

Research shows that even small amounts of physical activity can reduce risks associated with developing chronic conditions and diseases, such as mental illness, and exercise should be a part of routine and standard care when preventing and treating mental health disorders.

Dr Simon Rosenbaum from UNSW Sydney and the Black Dog Institute adds “university can be a stressful period as students try to juggle moving out of home, studying, assignments, work and having a social life. With the competing demands, it’s easy to see how exercise can slip down the list of priorities. However, building exercise into our routine, no matter how minimal, can help us deal with stress, reduce our risk of experiencing a depressive episode and improve cognition, ultimately helping with academic performance.

“Getting moving should therefore be a priority, not only for students, but academics too.”

Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines indicate that accumulating 150 to 300 minutes (2.5 to 5 hours) of moderate intensity exercise each week will greatly benefit your physical and mental health.

It can be helpful to work with an appropriately educated exercise professional, such as an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, who understands the complexity of the challenges faced with mental health conditions, and has the skills and knowledge to help individuals manage their condition and any barriers they may come up against.

Images courtesy of Australian University Sport.

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