exercise mental health
Regular exercise can do wonders for your mental health. Source: Shutterstock

A study in Canada recently found that international students are not getting enough exercise, which could be negatively impacting their mental health.

Douglas Enrique Rosa, who recently graduated with a Master of Science at the University of Toronto’s Department of Exercise Sciences, recently completed his thesis on how exercise can supplement psychotherapy and psychiatry, especially among vulnerable international students.

Students often reported having high levels of stress, a significant symptom of mental illness, according to Rosa’s thesis. Mental illness symptoms and physical activity had a significant negative association. Whereas exercise and mental health were found to have a positive relationship.

Rosa told the university’s student newspaper The Varsity, “Physical activity could be one of those good positive avenues to help international students feel better on campus whenever they come to our university.”

Yet, only a small fraction of students are exercising enough. Analysing data from domestic and international students from a 2016 national health survey, Rosa found that only 12 percent of international students and 15 percent of domestic students met the World Health Organization’s physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week.

A study on The Health Educator also found that Asian international students – who typically represent the largest group of international students – “appear to be the least physically active
group, which negatively affects their health and wellbeing”.

According to the study, “Particularly with regard to international students’ physical activity involvement, participation rates tend to be low.”

“For instance, multiethnic studies have found that students from Asian and African countries have the lowest levels of physical activity participation, whereas Caucasian students are the most physically active.”

The study also noted that a rising number of both female and male college students are being classified as overweight and obese.

Global problem

Mental health is a serious issue affecting university students worldwide. For international students, additional factors such as acculturation, homesickness, academic pressures and loneliness makes them especially prone to becoming depressed or anxious.

For graduate students, the prevalence of mental health problems seems to be greater. According to a study published in the Journal of American College Health, “Approximately 44 percent of international graduate students responded that they had had an emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affected their well-being or academic performance within the past year.

“International students who reported a more functional relationship with their advisors were less likely to report having an emotional or stress-related problem in the past year and using counselling services.”

“There is an unmet mental health need among international graduate students. Special mental health outreach efforts should be directed at international graduate students, with particular attention on the relationship between students and their advisors and on adequate financial support for students.”

How does exercise help with poor mental health?

Exercise has long been touted as an effective way to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and other related problems.

According to Health Direct, Australia’s public health information service, “Exercise makes you feel good because it releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. It can also get you out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put you in touch with other people.

“If you exercise regularly, it can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and help with recovery from mental health issues.”

When you exercise often, you also sleep better. Lack of sleep can make you feel more anxious and stressed, which leads to more serious mental health problems.

Why aren’t international students exercising enough?

There are many factors why international students – or even university students in general – don’t get enough exercise in college.

In school, exercise is normally mandatory at least once a week, while student athletes get more time for training.

For some students, they are able to maintain self-discipline and keep exercising in university. But many lose the habit when they begin college.

Along with busy schedules, social lives and trying to keep up with the transition to college life, exercise often gets deprioritised. This is also why many college students tend to gain weight during the first couple of years.

Tips to exercise more often

The problem with those suffering from poor mental health is that they often lack the motivation to work out, especially if they’ve never developed a habit for exercise.

Indian students exercise during an event to mark Republic Day in Jalandhar on January 26, 2018. Source: Shammi Mehra/AFP

You might have the intention to exercise but when it comes down to it, you find you just can’t leave your room and bring yourself to hit the gym.

But there are many other ways to motivate yourself to work out. If the gym is too daunting, try exercising at home first using YouTube videos. Or, you can ask a friend who exercises often to be your gym buddy.

Some universities also allow you to take exercise classes that are offered on campus for credit. If your course schedule allows it, see if there are any you can sign up for next semester. Doing it for credit and knowing it could bring down your GPA if you skip class, could be the motivation you’re looking for.

If you’re exercising regularly but still feeling down, please pay a visit to your university’s counselling services centre. Sometimes you need professional help and there is no shame in seeking it, so you can get back to feeling like yourself and enjoy your study abroad experience.

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