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Exercise gives mental health a boost

Professor Guy Faulkner calls it win-win strategy

Yoga and other forms of exercise can help relieve stress and reduce the risk of mental health. (photo by Pascal Paquette)

While most people know physical exercise helps them in losing weight or achieving better physical health, perhaps less well known is the extensive evidence concluding that exercise also benefits mental health. Professor Guy Faulkner, associate professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, says improved mental health is one of exercise’s biggest benefits, something that’s worth emphasizing during Mental Health Awareness Month.
He says there’s a growing evidence base demonstrating that being physically active can play a preventive role in reducing the risk of mental health problems and it can promote mental health. For example, physical activity has been shown to improve sleep, increase feelings of well-being and reduce stress. Faulkner has conducted physical activity research with staff at the University of Toronto and with students.
“When it comes to students we are interested in those coming into first year. When people are thrust into a new environment there tends to be a reduction in physical activity. We‘re looking at ways to help students maintain levels of physical activity before the decline starts,” he said.  “People often say they don’t have time because they’re trying to focus on their studies, but the time they spend being physically active, they’re more likely to study more effectively and they’re academically performing better as well.

“We’ve published research examining a cross-section of U of T students’ physical activity through a survey from health services and the data shows that people who are more physically active are self-reporting better grades.”

In terms of staff, Faulkner conducted a web-based intervention using pedometers called Walk@Work in the winter of 2010.   In addition to significant increases in steps over the twelve week program, staff who increased their steps also reported higher levels of vitality at the end of the study.

Faulkner describes physical activity as a ‘win-win’ strategy for health promotion. The physical health benefits of physical activity are indisputable.  Yet physical activity may also provide mental health benefits for many.

Faulkner offers some tips to those on campus for increasing their physical activity.

“There is growing concern around prolonged sitting. Try to break up the time spent sitting. If you find you do spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, try to break that up and get up and move every hour for five minutes. It’s also about incorporating brisk walks into the day, roughly 100 steps per minute for 10 minutes. You’ve got plan it like you plan your classes, schedule it in.”

He adds just incorporating this routine for 30 minutes a day will improve physical and mental health.