Top Ten Exercises for College Mental Health

When Ben first came to visit me as a college student, he was extremely concerned with OCD symptoms, afraid to leave his room because he thought he might catch an illness. This was pre COVID. Ben started cognitive behavioral therapy and I also put him on a medication specifically for OCD. Her symptoms improved significantly but it was still difficult to go to class and feel comfortable. Then one of his roommates asked him to sign up for intramural basketball, and he agreed, as he had played basketball in high school. When Ben started playing on the team, he felt great and his anxiety level dropped significantly. He wasn’t worried about getting sick and instead looked forward to playing basketball with his friends.

This is one of many patients I have seen over the years who had a partial response to medication and therapy, but found exercise to be a critical component of their recovery. Exercise has been shown to have many positive mental health effects. As the new year begins, 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 am going to talk about how exercise improves mental health. (I won’t discuss collegiate sports, which have benefits but also some unique challenges). In general, exercise is not the only 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 starting an exercise program.

Top 10 Workouts for College Students

  1. Yoga: Mindfulness, breathing exercises, and yoga stretches activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes us feel calmer. In fact, yoga has been found to reduce both depression and anxiety. Most campuses offer yoga classes and free or low-cost yoga instruction is also available online.
  2. rock climbing: I’ve never done rock climbing, but many students like the rock climbing wall in our university, and some use the other climbing wall in the city. There are also climbing clubs on various campuses. Students tell me it can be a great way to relax and meet people.
  3. Running/Walking: Endurance exercise that elevates our heart rate has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety and improve sleep. This type of exercise increases the release of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins in our brain, chemical messengers that make us feel better. Endurance exercise also improves attention in ADHD.
  4. 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 can lead to lifelong hobbies. Students tell me how they feel if they are in a dance troupe that performs for a special occasion like Black History Month.
  5. Tai Chi: There have been studies demonstrating the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects of tai chi, a form of mind-body martial arts that uses movement, breathing and postures. The antidepressant effects of tai chi 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 specifically designed to address depression.
  6. strength training: One study showed that strength training reduced anxiety in young adults. A meta-analysis demonstrated that strength training reduced depressive symptoms in people with mild to moderate depression.
  7. float: Swimming is a wonderful activity for anyone who doesn’t want to stress their joints and wants a good endurance workout. Most schools have indoor pools, and some Southern schools have outdoor pools as well.
  8. Indoor Games: My inner game was the rowing crew, which provided beautiful sunrise views as we drifted peacefully along the river in the early morning. I have seen many patients enjoy intramural basketball, soccer and volleyball. Studies show that group exercise is more effective than individual exercise at reducing stress, possibly through the positive effects of social connectedness.
  9. hiking: While providing endurance training, hiking has the added benefit of being outdoors. One study showed that walking in a natural environment had a more positive effect on emotional well-being and stress than walking in a city environment. Plus, being outside in general increases your exposure to sunlight, which produces melatonin, which helps you sleep better at night.
  10. Horse riding: Living in a location surrounded by horse farms and a few therapeutic riding centers, I would be remiss not to mention 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 offer horseback riding or even run classes nearby. I have seen students find immense emotional satisfaction in riding.

How Your College Student Can Get Started

If your a college student who doesn’t like to exercise, sometimes there are exercise groups on campus that provide extra support and supervision. To get students started a campus may have personal trainers at their rec centers at low rates. The most important thing for your student is to create a plan that they find enjoyable.

For students who feel more comfortable starting out on their own, they can review the various offerings at their campus gyms and rec centers which may include spin, yoga and Zumba classes. They may also pursue extracurricular activities such as intramural sports, dance, cheering, and hiking. Northern schools sometimes have ski clubs, while southern schools may have surfing.

Each student can set certain goals for the semester, while being flexible and knowing that they will not be able to work during exams. You can also do a family exercise activity when your kids are home for vacation – a walk, a walk, a session at the gym. It’s a great way to connect. So let’s move happily into 2023!

©2023 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved.
Details have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.

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