When Ben came to see me the first time as a college sophomore, he was extremely anxious with OCD symptoms that made him fearful of leaving his room as he thought he would pick up an illness. This was pre COVID. Ben started cognitive behavioral therapy and I also prescribed him a medication specifically for OCD. His symptoms greatly improved but it was still hard to get to class and feel comfortable. Then one of his roommates asked him to sign up for intramural basketball, and he agreed to this, as he had played basketball in high school. When Ben started to play on the team, he felt much better and his anxiety level dropped significantly. He was not as worried about getting an illness and instead looked forward to playing basketball with his friends.
This is one of many patients I’ve seen over the years who had a partial response to medication and therapy but found exercise to be the crucial ingredient to their recovery. Exercise has been shown to have significantly positive mental health effects. With the start of the new year, I hope you can encourage your student to engage in regular exercise to promote good mental health.
Knowing the benefits of exercise for mental health, I ask every new patient if they exercise and what they like to do. In this article, I’m going to talk about how exercise improves mental health. (I will not be discussing collegiate sports, which have benefits but also some unique challenges). In general, exercise is not a sole treatment for mental health disorders, but it is a good addition to standard treatment. For anyone with health limitations, check with your doctor first before embarking on an exercise program.
Top Ten Workouts for College Students
- Yoga: The mindfulness, breathing exercises, and stretching of yoga activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes us feel calm. In fact, yoga has been found to reduce both depression and anxiety. Most campuses offer yoga classes and there is also free or low cost yoga instruction available online.
- Rock climbing: I have never rock climbed, but many students love the rock climbing wall at our university, and some use a second climbing wall in town. There are climbing clubs on various campuses as well. Students tell me this can be a great way to relax and meet people.
- Running/walking: Endurance exercise that increases our heart rate has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety and improve sleep. This kind of exercise increases the release of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in our brains, chemical messengers that make us feel better. Endurance exercise also improves attention in ADHD.
- Dance: Students join clubs for hip hop dancing, ballroom dancing, and salsa. As I write this, I remember taking a non-credit modern dance class when I was a freshman. It’s great to have all these opportunities to try new activities that might lead to a lifelong hobby. Students describe to me the camaraderie they feel if they are in a dance troupe that performs for a special occasion, like Black history month.
- Tai Chi: There have been studies demonstrating the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects of Tai Chi, which is a form of mind-body martial arts that uses movement, breathing, and postures. Tai Chi’s antidepressant effects may be related to its reducing inflammatory markers, altering brain networks related to depression, and increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity. There are Tai Chi programs that have been simplified and designed to specifically address depression.
- Strength training: A study showed strength training decreased anxiety in young adults. A meta-analysis demonstrated strength training reduced depressive symptoms in people with mild to moderate depression.
- Swimming: For anyone who does not want to stress their joints and seeks a good endurance workout, swimming is a wonderful activity. Most schools have indoor pools, and some southern schools have outdoor pools as well.
- Intramural sports: My intramural sport was rowing crew, which provided for beautiful sunrise views as we moved peacefully along the river in the early morning. I’ve had many patients enjoy intramural basketball, soccer, and volleyball. Studies show group exercise to be more effective than individual exercise in decreasing stress, probably through the positive impact of social connection.
- Hiking: While providing endurance training, hiking has the added benefit of being outdoors. One study showed that walking in a natural environment has a greater positive impact on emotional well-being and stress than walking in a city environment. In addition, being outdoors in general increases exposure to sunlight, generating melatonin to help you sleep better at night.
- Horseback riding: Living in a place surrounded by horse farms and a few therapeutic riding centers, I would be remiss in not mentioning the mental health benefits of riding horses. Equine-assisted therapy has been shown to be an alternative treatment for PTSD, perhaps by facilitating emotional regulation, communication, and self-efficacy. Some colleges have horseback riding nearby or even offer classes. I have seen students find great emotional satisfaction in riding.
How Your College Student Can Get Started
If your college student is someone who does not like to work out, there are sometimes exercise groups on campus that offer additional support and supervision. A campus may have personal trainers at reduced rates in their rec centers to get students started. The most important thing is for your student to create a plan that they will find enjoyable.
For students who feel more comfortable starting on their own, they can review different offerings at their campus gyms and rec centers that might include spin, yoga, and Zumba classes. They can also look at extracurricular activities like intramural sports, dance, cheering, and hiking. Northern schools sometimes have ski clubs, while southern schools may have surfing.
Each student can set a few goals for the semester, while being flexible and knowing they may not be able to work out during exams. You can also do a family exercise activity while your kids are home for vacation – a walk, a hike, a session at the gym. It’s a great way to connect. So let’s get moving joyfully in 2023!
©2023 Marcia Morris, all rights reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.
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