Adjusting to University

University Life Tip: Move Your Body!

Neglecting our bodies is easy, as we become preoccupied with intellectual and organizational demands. Physical exercise is one of the most straightforward methods for improving your mental health. If you’re already feeling good and functioning well, exercise will help you stay that way despite new stressors.

Beginning university or college for the first time brings new life challenges – many of them all at once. Throughout our many universities and colleges in Halifax and across Nova Scotia, thousands of students are starting post-secondary education for the first time. It takes time to adjust to university or college. You are learning course material, learning about your program, learning the importance of structure in managing your time across school responsibilities and forming new social and working relationships. Potentially, you are paying rent and other bills for the first time. As you face new academic and life demands, there is a lot of emphasis on what we might call mental activities and strategies. Mental skills are essential, but we may forget about the importance of the physical bodies we live in.

What We See in Students

Increased stress and lower mood is common among students in the early years of university. Some students will have difficulties with loneliness and depressive symptoms within the first few months of school. A wealth of psychological research provides evidence that regular exercise can reduce anxiety, depression, and feelings of stress. Researchers have observed that students often aren’t getting enough vigorous physical activity before even starting university. First year university students’ physical activity often decreases after school starts, regardless of how much exercise they were doing before.

Getting Active Reduces Stress

Starting is never going to get easier, so you may as well try today. Getting vigorous exercise three times or more, for 20 minutes each, can help mitigate stress during the transition to university and college life. If you can do more, you will likely experience even more benefits and stress reduction. Make it an experiment: try it for two weeks, and make a quick note of your mood each day. Don’t assume exercise will make you feel better or worse – test it in the real world. What happens for you?

Getting Started: Every Small Step Matters

If you put down your computer or phone right now, how long would it take to put your shoes on, bring a mask, jog to the end of your block, and come home? Those few minutes probably won’t interfere with anything else you have planned today. Exercising for even a minute or two, intentionally, proves to us that we can do it. Small steps make us more likely to exercise again, and take gradually bigger steps. Each day, do a few minutes more.

The more you exercise, the more helpful it will be. However, anything is better than nothing; if you can’t do 20 minutes, try 3 minutes. If you can’t do 3 days, try 1 day. We have to run one meter before we run a thousand. You can make today more active than yesterday! Indoors, try some simple at-home exercises that don’t require expensive equipment. You might enjoy some of these:

  • Pushups
  • Sit-ups
  • Dips between chairs
  • Bent leg raises
  • Squats
  • Calf raises
  • Chin-ups.

It’s About Effort – Not High Scores

The important thing is that exerting yourself physically will help you feel good. If you want to compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself to you from last week. It doesn’t matter if you’re not spending half the time in the gym your friend is. If you’re spending 10 minutes a day exercising, and you did 8 minutes a day last week, you’ve made progress! Going for a jog for the first time in your life is a WAY bigger deal than an experienced runner shaving 2 seconds off their mile time.

If you can’t do five sit-ups at once, that’s okay – try one sit-up every few minutes. If you can’t do one at all, that’s okay. If you can’t jog 20 minutes, walk for two minutes and jog 30 seconds – repeat that 8 times, and you’ve got 20 minutes of exercise at your own level.  It’s about making an effort for a good amount of time every week. It’s not about getting a high score, becoming a model or getting big muscles. We all need to start where we are at right now, and build up slowly. Exercise is for you! It’s good for your mental health – it’s not about pleasing other people.

More Information

See these pages from the government of Canada for some more general information and tips on physical activity https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/being-active/physical-activity-your-health.html , https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/tips-for-healthy-eating/physical-activity/  Outdoors, Nova Scotia has lots of green spaces and scenic areas where you can exercise. If you’re in Halifax, there’s lots of room in Point Pleasant Park to maintain appropriate physical distancing during the pandemic as you get exercise to strengthen your body and mind. There are also forests and seaside vistas to hike not far away by car, like Herring Cove provincial park reserve and the rocks of Peggy’s Cove. Remember to respect the sea and stay off the dark rocks! Over in Dartmouth, you might enjoy a jog in Shubie Park. There are beautiful places to walk, run, hike, swim and bicycle all across the province while staying safe and following all necessary public health and other guidelines.

We Can Help

Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mind. Any benefits to your physical health are a bonus. If you’re finding that exercise is helpful, but not enough to reduce your stress or other difficulties, consider emailing or calling a psychologist today. Your mental health matters, and we’re here to help. School and adjusting to adult life can be hard, and we have the clinical tools to help you navigate and make the most of this time in your life.

References

Bray, S. R., & Kwan, M. Y. W. (2006). Physical Activity Is Associated With Better Health and Psychological Well-Being During Transition to University Life. Journal of American College Health, 55(2), 77–82. doi:10.3200/JACH.55.2.77-82

Denovan, A., & Macaskill, A. (2013). An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first year undergraduates. British Educational Research Journal, 39(6), 1002–1024. doi:10.1002/berj.3019

Ensari, I., Greenlee, T. A., Motl, R. W., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2015). Meta‐analysis of acute exercise effects on state anxiety: An update of randomized controlled trials over the past 25 years. Depression and Anxiety, 32(8), 624–634. doi:10.1002/da.22370

Hamer, M., Taylor, A., & Steptoe, A. (2006). The effect of acute aerobic exercise on stress related blood pressure responses: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Biological Psychology, 71(2), 183–190. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2005.04.004

Kvam, S., Kleppe, C. L., Nordhus, I. H., & Hovland, A. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 202, 67–86. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2016.03.063

Mead, G. E., Morley, W., Campbell, P., Greig, C. A., McMurdo, M., & Lawlor, D. A. (2008). Exercise for depression. Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (4).

Pluut, H., Curşeu, P. L., & Ilies, R. (2015). Social and study related stressors and resources among university entrants: Effects on well-being and academic performance. Learning and Individual Differences, 37, 262–268. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2014.11.018

Rebar, A. L., Stanton, R., Geard, D., Short, C., Duncan, M. J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2015). A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 366–378. doi:10.1080/17437199.2015.1022901

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