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: The consequences of vaping

The increasingly-popular habit is linked to dangerous health complications

Opinion: The consequences of vaping

The repercussions of vaping can no longer be understated. As of this week, there have been a total of 21 confirmed vaping-related deaths in the United States alone, as well as 1,000 vaping-related lung injuries recorded thus far. Despite recent revelations pertaining to the risks of vaping, the popularity of e-cigarettes and other similar products has continued to rise. In recent years, vaping has become increasingly popular, particularly among young adults.

Undergrads at risk?

According to a recent survey conducted by Health Canada, almost one in four students from grades 7–12 have admitted to vaping at least once. Additionally, researchers at the University of Waterloo found that from 2017–2018, there was a 74 per cent increase in vaping among 16–19 year olds. 

Worryingly, a report released by the Centres for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) found that 80 per cent of patients admitted due to vaping-related illnesses are under the age of 35. The CDC, which analyzed 373 cases linked to vaping, found that 16 per cent of patients were under the age of 18, while two thirds of patients were between the ages of 18 and 24. 

The symptoms

Those affected were reported as being weak and short of breath, with many patients requiring additional assistance breathing. These individuals received supplemental oxygen, and, in more serious cases, were placed on ventilators. As of now, it remains to be seen whether there will be any serious or long-lasting effects.

Despite the recent influx of patients experiencing vaping-related health complications, surprisingly little is known about the long-term health effects of sustained vaping. In fact, no specific components of vaping, such as the ingredients or the devices, have been definitively linked to these recent health developments.

Due to the prevalence of THC usage among patients, researchers are actively studying the possible connections between the ingredient and illness. However, there is no evidence as of yet confirming THC’s role in these cases. With little else to go on, many health experts are advising the public against the use of e-cigarettes or other related goods, and furthermore to abstain from vaping altogether. 

The effect on athletics

Nicotine use among athletes is estimated to be between 25–50 per cent. Young athletes are being heavily affected by this newfound epidemic, making it harder for them to breathe, and decreasing their motivation to practice and play. Many have observed a link between vaping and respiratory illnesses. The effects that vaping has on athletic performance are also a common concern that users bring up when discussing their symptoms.

Another major concern that some athletes who vape highlighted is fear of being kicked off their team, or being demoted in some way if they are caught. There is little support in terms of cessation programs, and young people are often faced with punitive measures if they are caught. This makes it difficult to talk about the issue, and for athletes to get any help they may need. Among college students, vaping is also linked to depression, which would explain the decreased motivation that many athletes experience.

U of T fails to respond

Currently, U of T has combined any vaping-related policies with those already in place for traditional smoking. An example of this came  up in January, when the university banned smoking and vaping on campus. Although smoke-free workplace policies are proven to reduce tobacco consumption by up to 3.8 per cent, no such studies have been conducted in relation to vaping.

Officially, U of T has a total of three options to provide assistance for students who vape, options that are also intended for traditional smokers. These include meeting with a health care professional, accessing free nicotine replacement therapy, or being referred to Smokers Helpline.

U of T needs to do more. These services fail to recognize the disconnect between traditional smokers and contemporary vapers, and the plurality of differences between the two groups. Simply hoping that vapers will respond to services intended for traditional smokers is naïve, and quite frankly, unacceptable.

Moving forward, the university must take steps to further educate students on the risks of vaping, while additionally providing sufficient tailored resources for current vapers looking to quit. U of T needs to take preventative action now, lest the consequences be dire for its students.

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.

The environmental impact of diets

The intersection of the climate crisis and your eating habits

The environmental impact of diets

Whether due to a facetious New Year’s resolution, a new documentary that spooked you off meat, or a genuine concern for your health, many of us have tried a new diet. It’s normal to experiment with what we consume on a daily basis. However, in the midst of all these trends, the environmental impact of our choices is hardly discussed. Whether you’re a strict steak-lover or a die-hard kale enthusiast, for those who have the means, it’s time to consider the impact your food has before it hits the table.

The keto diet

The keto diet is among one of the most popular ‘trendy diets’ today. In essence, the keto diet is made up of 75 per cent fat, 20 per cent protein, and five per cent carbohydrates.

Since it involves a high level of protein proportionally, many followers choose to consume meat products as their method of choice. However, meat production can have a massive carbon footprint.

For example, the production of livestock such as cows, chickens, and pigs accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land usage, and creates 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere. Moreover, 43 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions are released for every one kilogram of beef produced. The keto diet is not doing any favours in correlation to environmental impacts.

Vegan and vegetarian diets

According to a 2018 Gallop poll, five per cent of Americans identify as vegetarian. Contrary to the common perception that cutting meat out of your diet correlates to a positive impact on the environment, a strict vegetarian or vegan diet may also have its own shortcomings, though it can still be a much better alternative to an omnivorous diet.

For example, vegetarians in the US commonly replace the meat in their diets with dairy products. Dairy products, an adjacent production to livestock, have a massive carbon footprint, since dairy cows release copious amounts of methane into the atmosphere, as well as other greenhouse gases, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Dairy production also uses high amounts of water in order to nourish cows, and process manure. Moreover, manure runoff can pollute water systems, which can lead to serious health problems for consumers.

Vegans, however, do not consume dairy; in fact, they avoid animal products altogether. In theory, this should remove any negative environmental impact. However, according to the US Library of Medicine, pesticides used in conventional agriculture, such as fruit and vegetable crops, leak into surface level water where it can also pollute soil, poison wildlife, and harm other nearby plant-life.

It’s absolutely admirable to take on a new diet in order to improve yourself —personal growth is important. However, the next time you follow the next trendy diet, consider how much our Earth loses, too. There is no one diet that can save the planet, but individual consumer choices do add up.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.