How exercise could positively benefit international students’ mental health

Thesis broadens limited research on physical activity of international students in Canada

How exercise could positively benefit international students’ mental health

The mental health crisis affects international students in unique ways due to additional stressors such as acculturation — the changes that result from contact with culturally dissimilar people, groups, and social influences. A recent thesis by Douglas Enrique Rosa, who recently completed his Master of Science at U of T’s Department of Exercise Sciences, dealt with how exercise could supplement psychotherapy and psychiatry, particularly for vulnerable international students.

Rosa completed a literature review and conducted two studies to submit his thesis under the supervision of Dr. Catherine Sabiston, a professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health.

Why do international students face so much stress at universities?

In one of Rosa’s studies, he analyzed data from domestic and international students from a 2016 national health survey that involved 605 international students and 4035 domestic students.

“We did notice that international students are experiencing the same amount of stress, the same amount of high mental illness as domestic students,” Rosa told The Varsity.

Rosa found in his thesis that students generally reported high levels of stress, which was significantly correlated with mental illness symptoms. Yet Rosa also found a significant negative association between mental illness symptoms and physical activity, and conversely a positive relationship between exercise and mental health.

“Physical activity could be one of those good positive avenues to help international students feel better on campus whenever they come to our university,” remarked Rosa.

However, according to the survey analysis, only 12 per cent of international students and 15 per cent 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.

To follow up, Rosa’s second study involved interviews with 12 international students as an initial small-scale study.

The participants reported different sources of stress, including financial concerns, difficulty connecting with peers, perceptions of discrimination, and high academic stress. These combined factors limited the time they perceived to be available for physical activity.

Though exercise does not directly resolve the major sources of stress affecting international students, Rosa wrote in his thesis that three major studies have associated exercise with increased cognitive performance — such as improved attention, reading accuracy, and memorization.

Rosa concluded in his thesis that physical activity could be an effective coping strategy for international students to adapt to the stresses of entering their new university environment. His studies could be useful for advocates’ plans to better accommodate international students, noted Sabiston to The Varsity.

The implications of Rosa’s research

Rosa’s studies have enabled researchers to better understand the barriers to physical activity among international students on campus, wrote Sabiston, which could help “suggest ways to initiate actionable strategies targeting international students specifically.”

Reflecting on his research, Rosa said that physical activity is an important part of his life. While advocates often do an effective job at highlighting the importance of physical activity, he noted, there can be ways to improve the messaging for international students.

“[Rosa’s] work is the tip of the iceberg in the overall care and support for this important group of students on campus,” Sabiston wrote. “Now we can test some of the suggested ways to intervene and see if they work to improve physical activity and mental health.”

As a direct result of Rosa’s studies, Sabiston’s faculty secured a grant from the International Students Experience Fund.

The grant has enabled the team to improve activities geared toward increasing the physical activity of international students, holding focus groups for answering lingering questions from Rosa’s research, and drafting unique messages for physical activity, according to Sabiston.

“Douglas’s findings supported the need for more tailored or directed attention on international students within Sports and Rec on campus,” she wrote.

How physical exercise acts as an antidepressant

In conversation with Garcia Ashdown-Franks on the effects of exercise on depression

How physical exercise acts as an antidepressant

Exercising regularly could function effectively as an antidepressant, according to a recent review paper co-authored by U of T researchers.

One of the researchers, Garcia Ashdown-Franks, a PhD student in exercise science, spoke with The Varsity on how the psychosocial mechanisms of exercise could cause antidepressant effects.

The impact of exercise on self-esteem

Self-esteem is the extent to which one’s conception of themself is positive. According to multiple studies over the past decade, sustained low self-esteem is a predictor of depression.

Symptoms of depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association, include a loss of interest in activities one once enjoyed, mood shifts to sadness, increased fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness. These are indicators of depression when experienced for two weeks or longer.

Low self-esteem may result in depressive symptoms, which could further erode self-esteem. According to the co-authors, this creates a cyclical relationship between the two.

Poor self-perception of one’s physical body is one factor that can impact self-esteem, and thus create depressive symptoms. According to the review, exercise can break the cycle by boosting physical self-perception, and thus self-esteem.

Increase in muscle mass and fat loss are two possible mechanisms that could drive the effect, according to the review. However, according to The New York Times, fat acceptance advocates and academics promote feeling self-confident at any weight. Learning to feel comfortable with one’s body weight may be another pathway to increasing self-esteem, aside from exercise.

Interestingly, two studies in the review also suggest that even if body composition remains the same, exercise may still increase self-esteem.

Ashdown-Franks noted, “Just the act of performing exercise or activity or sport can make us feel better about our body, even if there are no actual changes in our body composition.”

How exercise can change your social life

“There’s evidence that people with depression report feeling less social support in their lives, or [fewer] people [who] they can go to for support, which also can [worsen] their symptoms,” Ashdown-Franks said to The Varsity.

The co-authors noted that physical engagement is associated with emotional support from friends and family, and further suggested that the social benefits of exercise could be pronounced in team sports.

Ashdown-Franks said that the evidence is limited regarding whether solitary sports — such as running and weightlifting — could also result in social support. However, she noted that interaction with others, such as fellow runners or coaches, could provide a sense of community.

Team sport activities are prevalent at U of T. For example, there are drop-in basketball sessions at UTSG, UTSC, and UTM. Drop-in tennis, volleyball, and yoga are alternative options on campus.

Social impacts underpinned by biological mechanisms

Long-term exercise also induces biological changes, which could play a role in the antidepressant effects of exercise as well.

According to the co-authors, these biological mechanisms include changes to structures in the brain. The findings of animal studies report that the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, an area of the brain relevant to depression, can be stunted by the condition.

Exercise may be a long-term way to improve the growth of neurons, with studies finding that exercise can specifically increase the volume of the hippocampus. Further factors that boost neural growth include increased blood flow to the brain.

Inflammation in the body is another possible cause of depression. Evidence shows that exercise can lower the levels of pro-inflammatory markers associated with depression, as exercise may be responsible for the release of anti-inflammatory biochemicals.

Future steps of research

“I think there’s a lot more research that needs to be done,” said Ashdown-Franks, regarding research on the relationship between exercise and depression.

Understudied research areas, according to Ashdown-Franks, include determining the optimal exercise routine for combating depression. Other limitations of studies on overcoming depression include their reliance on self-reports, which have limited power, and on animal studies, which may not be applicable to humans.

Despite a lack of clarity of the research, Ashdown-Franks emphasized that it’s clear that some exercise is better than none at all. She said, “For someone who’s struggling with depression or symptoms of depression, they might think going to the gym [can be] a monumental task. But… [taking] a few minutes every day just to go for a walk [can make you] feel better.”

Opinion: U of T’s gyms aren’t accessible to all

An analysis of the accessibility services at the St. George campus facilities

Opinion: U of T’s gyms aren’t accessible to all

U of T’s St. George campus offers lots of athletics facilities to help you work up a sweat. The Hart House gym, Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, and Athletic Centre (AC) collectively offer anything a gym rat could dream of for getting active. However, one question must be asked: are these gyms accessible for all?

First, let’s look into Hart House, U of T’s multidisciplinary space. On its website, Hart House states that it “is proud of [its] continued effort to facilitate the inclusion of campus and community members of all abilities into [its] facilities and services.” Implemented measures in the building include elevator access to all floors, some accessible washrooms, lower counters, accessible doorways, and some barrier-free building entrances.

However, Hart House seems to be lacking some gym-specific accessibility amenities. The change rooms are not easy to get to, as they require a trip down some stairs. The facility layout on the whole is also difficult to maneuver, featuring many staircases, narrow hallways, and confusing layouts. Furthermore, the top floor, which boasts a track that encircles some cardio and weight machines, is crowded with equipment. Luckily, there is usually a lot of staff around who are ready to help, but nevertheless the disjointed layout leaves much to be desired.

The Goldring Centre is next on our list. This gym notably  features an elevator, automatic doors, and accessible entrance gates when you scan your T-Card, in addition to the regular turnstiles. Accessible change rooms are on the second floor, and there are also alternate change rooms available to cater directly to those with specific needs: there are accessible, all-gender, and family change rooms, all with shower and washroom amenities. Goldring is also well-staffed, meaning there will always be someone nearby to help if something is out of reach, or if you need help with a machine. The facilities are also very well-kept and state-of-the-art, however, the main gym consists of three stories, which means it may be difficult for some to use the entire space.

The final option is the AC. Although the AC may be accessible in its program inclusivity, offering a staggering number of facilities for a wide range of athletics, its actual infrastructure is incompatible for someone who is not completely mobile. The AC boasts of its “seven gymnasia, three pools… strength and conditioning centre, indoor track, dance studio, cardio machines, tennis and squash courts, and steam rooms,” but its counterintuitive layout and multiple barriers for entry restrict some who may want to use these spaces.

The change rooms and restrooms, for example, although accessible, are hard to get to, being located in  the basement and requiring visitors to go down a flight of stairs.

There are also tricky turnstiles that members need to walk through, and even once you’re in the main facility, getting around can be quite confusing for even the best of us. One Google reviewer aptly called it “a big maze,” referring to the design and size of the building, which makes navigation especially difficult, and can lead to a lot of wasted time walking in circles.

It seems like every gym is lacking in some way or another when it comes to accessibility, so while it’s important to choose the facility that best suits your needs, it’s clearly time for U of T to raise its  bar for accessibility standards at all of its gyms.

Efficient workout routines for students

With the school year in full swing, here are some ways to fit an effective workout into a busy schedule

Efficient workout routines for students

According to Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, adults 18–64 years of age should spend 150 minutes every week doing moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Yet over the course of the academic year, students often neglect working out in order to focus on their schoolwork. Here are three 30-minute workout routines that fit into most students’ busy school schedules.

At the gym

People generally think that in order to go to the gym they must set aside around an hour and a half to work out. In fact, this is not true because weight machines and cardio equipment can make it easier to get an effective workout within tight time constraints.

Cardio is known for being an effective way to burn fat and strengthen your heart. When low on time, people tend to skip the cardio to focus on lifting weights, but even doing as little as 10 minutes of cardio will not only help you burn a few extra calories, but also warm up your muscles for lifting weights, which will reduce the risk of an injury.

The form of cardio that you do is also key. It is ideal to pick an activity that gets your whole body moving.

Examples in the gym include using treadmills, ellipticals, or rowing machines. The gym provides the tools to have a short but effective workout that is good for your health both physically and mentally, as well as a change in scenery after a long day of lectures and studying.

At home

However, not everyone can make it to the gym. Whether due to lack of access or cold weather; at-home workouts can be just as effective, and also save you the commute time to and from the gym.

At-home workouts can take the same format as those in the gym. Start with 10 minutes of any full-body exercise that gets your heart pumping. Non-equipment cardio activity includes burpees, jumping jacks, and jogging on the spot. Then spend 20 minutes doing bodyweight exercises. These can include squats, lunges, and crunches, which will strengthen your muscles without overexerting them and without requiring equipment.


For those students who don’t want to be stuck indoors at a gym but still want a change of scenery, there are still workout routines that can be done outdoors when the weather permits. Start with cardio, like riding your bicycle or going for a walk or jog. Then find a set of stairs and climb up and down. This will not only raise your heart rate, but strengthen your leg muscles. You could even take a pit-stop at an open area and practice some bodyweight exercises like lunges or squats.

Everybody is different and everyone enjoys different activities, but the key is to get your body moving and stay hydrated. On the surface, it may look like 30 minutes could be better spent doing readings or assignments, but exercising regularly sharpens focus and increases productivity, which benefits mental and physical health.

Hart House drop-in: Striking a yoga pose

Yoga is a mix of strength training, relaxation, and balance

Hart House drop-in: Striking a yoga pose

Walking to campus at 8:00 in the morning is hardly the image of an ideal Monday, yet entering the exercise room at Hart House felt like a fresh start to a productive day. Despite being held so early in the day, Morning Yoga Flow was full of welcoming energy from over 20 people of all ages and fitness levels. The yoga teacher, Celton McGrath, was calm and encouraging, setting the scene with relaxing music as he instructed everybody through the morning routine.

Hart House drop-in classes are a great way for U of T students to explore different aspects of fitness for free. They run on all days of the week, with classes ranging from sport conditioning, to flexibility and balance, and aerobics. This week, I tried Morning Yoga Flow, a vinyasa-based class open to all levels of fitness.

Yoga has many misconceptions, including the idea that it’s all about stretching. McGrath was quick to demonstrate that yoga is a mix of everything, such as strength training, relaxation, and balance. Through variations of planking and squatting, downward dog, and moments of unsteady warrior poses, I was surprised to find my core being engaged and I was constantly excited for the next move.

During the 50 minutes of yoga, modified and altered poses were offered to accommodate beginners, such as myself, and challenge those who were more experienced. This was helpful, and I felt comfortable enough to take the opportunity to test my balance and flexibility and make the most out of this shared experience. Needless to say, the supportive environment put me in a positive frame of mind for the rest of the day.

For those who are new to yoga, or even fitness, McGrath said that yoga is a good place to start in terms of physical activity. He noted that the experience allows you to gain insight into yourself and your body, as well as provide you with the confidence to try other physical activities. He also mentioned exploring different routines in each of his yoga classes.

During a period of the day usually associated with groggy musings, this class allowed me to take some time to myself, mentally relax, and be physically well. It is easy to find yourself caught up in the stress of academics, but a quick drop by this morning class can make your day that much brighter.

Health and fitness survival guide

Fitting it all in as we head back to a busy school schedule

Health and fitness survival guide

As the new school year approaches, the challenge of juggling fitness, personal life, and academics loom large.

This article will provide you with a guide in hopes of balancing all three. If you want to change up your own routine for other things, such as different fitness classes, there are plenty that are offered at the university.

For example, if you have always been itching to try that dance class or take up yoga, head on over to any of the three gyms on campus, where free fitness classes are offered daily.

From learning how to dance the salsa to high-intensity interval training, there’s something for everyone.

From the start, the most important piece of advice is to go at your own pace. Don’t fall into the trap of peer pressure or attempt to work out at levels that you’re not accustomed to. Consider your own action plan holistically. A strategy that I’d recommend is to journal the goals you want to accomplish.

The biggest problem is trying to compare yourself to others. You might feel like you are wired to do so, but it’s absolutely critical to disregard this mindset. One of the most effective ways to combat this feeling is by limiting the amount of social media usage. Your life is unique from everyone else’s.

Sometimes, you won’t feel like working out, but you should stick to it, because it’s the right thing to do. As the old adage goes, showing up is half the battle. Times like these, when you initially don’t feel like going to the gym, the resulting physical activity could end up helping you relax and rethink things.

Pushing through the negative mindsets that may occur is critical in terms of making progress, for whatever your own goals may be. Cultivate your discipline and motivation.

The motivations behind improving your own fitness and working out may change, but the discipline is the bedrock of successful fitness journey, from personal experience.

I learned through my own journey to let go of my ego. I used to think that I could do this all by myself, with no help at all. Why would anyone else know about my own situation?

This turned into a toxic mindset that impeded my own progress for a while. When I asked for help, by asking other gym goers what I believed to be the most basic questions for a beginner, I learned more from others, since I came from a place of humility, with a genuine desire to learn. This attitude we can all achieve, not just for our fitness journeys, but for our lives in general.

To complement the journey, there are plenty of affordable places around campus that can offer a healthy bite to eat.

I would recommend any place that lists the number of calories that each item or meal contains, so you know exactly how much you are putting into your body.  Essence for Life Organics can fill your needs if you would like to go down the organic route.

While it isn’t on campus, Kensington Market has lots of eateries and shops that can easily fit someone on a student’s budget. These include fruit markets, where healthy options are abundant.

Challenging your body challenges your mind. Unlike your career, you can assume absolute control over your domain. While it may seem daunting, just outlining a simple plan will go a long way in making it a successful year.