Connecting mental health and exercise: A key player in the path to wellbeing

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When senior visual arts major Sabrina Sergott was a sophomore in high school, she thought it was normal for her to be as stressed as she was. 

She frequently skipped class because she felt anxious and distracted. One day, with the eyes of her entire school on her, Sergott collapsed in the middle of a halftime performance at a basketball game, unable to breathe and terrified that she was having a heart attack.

“My mom rushed me to the doctor and it turned out it was just a panic attack,” Sergott said. “I knew right then I needed to make changes in my life because I was tired of being so scared.”

Sergott was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. She met with doctors and therapists who gave her the tools to prevent panic attacks, including an anti-anxiety medication. After slowly going off the medication following an allergic reaction, she continued to attend weekly therapy. 

Sergott’s therapist suggested physical activity as a remedy.

“My therapist recommended I find a way to naturally release my anxiety. She told me about a patient she had who would dance in her room when she felt anxious,” Sergott said. “That inspired me to go to the gym and join local sports like ultimate frisbee and kickball. I even joined the BSU ski club.” 

Exercise is only one aspect of living a healthy lifestyle, but its impact on the brain makes it a commonly recommended tool. This “prescription,” paired with support and accommodations, can be an effective solution for managing and improving mental health.

Exercise as medicine

Nate Fauntleroy, a licensed social worker for Boise State Counseling Services, suggests exercise to all of his patients. 

“I do recommend it to everyone, especially folks who are considering going on medications,” Fauntleroy said. “Everyone’s body is different, but I’ve always kind of, as a general practice knowledge, told people that if they can get themselves to sweat three times a week on three different days, that’ll have the same psychological effect as an introductory dose of an antidepressant or an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor).”

David Rosenberg, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Wayne State University, cited research in 2018 showing that close to 1 in 5 college students struggles with anxiety or depression. Exercise can help those with anxiety because of the effect it has on the body, according to Fauntleroy.

“It forces the mind’s attention to be on the body, which pulls it away from ruminating or erasing thoughts about the future or the past,” Fauntleroy said. “Which is why exercise is normally helpful for creating patterns in which we’re more thoughtful about the way that we feel now and less thoughtful about the things that are coming or the things that have already happened.”

Sergott has found that bikram yoga has proved the most beneficial for managing her anxiety. She enjoys the heavy breathing and challenging poses, as well as the mind-clearing meditation.

“After I leave the studio, I feel like a stronger, calmer woman,” Sergott said. “I definitely think exercising has helped me become a less anxious person. Ever since I started working out again, I sleep easier, study and work harder and I make healthier choices when I eat. I also find myself being more sociable.”

Like Sergott, it is crucial that students find their remedy before internal tension builds. Dr. Eric Martin, an assistant professor for the Department of Kinesiology, teaches several classes on sport and exercise psychology, which focus on how physical activity influences a range of consequences. 

“We know that a lot of mental health issues start as more acute things, so things like stress. If we never deal with that stress, it can build until we don’t have the capabilities to handle them and they develop more into that mental health issue,” Martin said.  “…So if we can use exercise in that way to eliminate stress, we can hopefully move back towards that more healthy aspect on the continuum.”

While exercise is among the most common recommendations for those working on their mental health, it is just one piece of the puzzle. 

Building support on campus

For those seeking wellness and balance, BroncoFit has worked to develop the all-encompassing “Dimensions of Wellness” featuring eight key components: emotional, physical, financial, occupational, social, spiritual, intellectual and environmental.

“We know we want people to find community and so we offer programs in all types of wellness areas,” said Holly Levin, assistant director of BroncoFit. “But the main purpose is that we’re connecting students with things that interest them and with others, and hopefully keeping them well while they’re here.”

Because there is no universal definition for physical activity, fulfilling this particular dimension of wellness can be accomplished in many ways. 

“Sometimes when we think ‘exercise,’ our mind maybe has a certain picture,” Levin said. “But really just walking can be a great place to start. I think sometimes people think that walking is not enough but if somebody isn’t exercising, walking is a fantastic place to start, especially if you enjoy nature and you can combine your physical activity with being outside.”

Five years ago, sophomore pre-business major Morgan Hett was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, meaning that her adrenal glands were exhausted and not producing enough hormones. According to Hett, adrenal fatigue is usually caused by chronic stress or infection; in her case, it was due to anxiety and a poor diet. 

Hett sought treatment from an applied kinesiologist, who suggested a change in diet and to go on walks or runs any time that she feels sluggish. While this may seem like a simple solution, the act of training her body to respond to fatigue with exercise was not an easy task. 

“It was very difficult for me to find the motivation to go out and work out when I felt exhausted and depressed for most of the day,” Hett said. “Some days are still harder to motivate myself to go out.”

Hett has enlisted the help of her friends and dogs to motivate her on those harder days.

“I found if I had someone relying on me, I could be more motivated than if it were just myself,” Hett said. 

A commonly recommended solution for overcoming those feelings of apprehension is to utilize a support system like Hett has. This could mean getting a gym buddy, joining a team or finding someone who can help make reminders of short or long-term goals.

“Having a support system in place, people in your life who encourage you to be active, people in your life who are concerned about your health and your welfare, including your mental health… that awareness, or the awareness of a community, of all of the benefits of physical activity helps provide that social support that we all need to stay active,” said Dr. Bob Wood of the School of Allied Health Sciences.

Campus Recreation is working to help students find that support system. Rodo Leone, Campus Recreation’s associate director of programs and student development, strives to make the Rec a diverse and inclusive space. 

Roughly a month ago, all group fitness classes at the Rec became free for anyone with a membership. The Rec is also offering fitness classes at Towers Hall, one of the furthest dorms from the center. By training their fitness attendants on inclusion and sociability, the Rec is seeking to make patrons feel more comfortable.

“The purpose of having that position is to kind of bring [down]the level of intimidation that this place can cause by having people who are visible and identifiable,” Leone said. “We are training them to be social and to try to help people without being invasive.”

Another way the Rec is aiming to help its student patrons to gain confidence and feel included is by modeling their staff after the student population, such as hiring fitness attendants of many different majors and experience levels.

Of the many ideas Leone has to accommodate the gym’s population, some include adding braille and QR codes to exercise machines, turning a fitness room into a stretching space and creating a feedback form for reporting needs or suggesting improvements.  

By alleviating the concerns of intimidating spaces, the Rec is on its way to supporting students in their pursuit of the dimensions of wellness. Whether it is at a gym, on a running trail or even in the comfort of one’s own home, having a support system is a key to accomplishing the sometimes daunting task of tackling your mental and physical fitness. 

“It is very daunting to set out with a goal of ‘I am going to cure my mental health,’” Hett said. “Start small with ‘I am gonna change my outlook on today by working out.’ Bring a friend so you don’t feel as alone and you have someone to keep you motivated. It is always easier with someone but once you get in that routine you can start to rely on yourself and your body will expect it.”

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