By: Abi Kirubarajan

With midterms looming and the temperature plummeting, it’s easy to forgo walks outside and other physical activity. However, the benefits of exercise are not limited to the body as physical activity also ameliorates mental health.

Unfortunately, stress is a major issue for today’s university student. From strenuous examinations to living away from home, university students do not have it easy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 30 percent of university students have symptoms of depression that affect day-to-day activity. In addition, a 2008 survey found that over 40 percent of college students are stressed often, with over 20 percent of students feeling stressed for the majority of their day.

However, according to a recent McMaster study, less than half of Canadians use exercise to cope with stress and anxiety.

Researchers from the Department of Family Medicine, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, as well as the Department of Kinesiology, used data from over 36,000 Canadian to find their results. Exercise, out of thirteen possible coping behaviors, was ranked to be the eighth most popular. Only 40 percent of Canadians stated that they exercise regularly to purge anxiety. More popular coping mechanisms included communicating with friends, problem-solving, denial and attributing failures to others. Exercise as a stress-reliever was found to be more common in young, female, single and non-smoking demographics. The study also found that people who exercised regularly were less like to abuse alcohol or drugs, in pursuit of coping mechanisms.

John Cairney, a lead investigator, said, “we know stress levels are high among Canadians, and that exercise is effective at managing stress and improving health and well-being, so the fact exercise is number eight and that less than half of the population use it is worrisome.”

Exercise is a known stress-reliever, as it floods the body with endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that inhibit pain and reduce stress. They trigger feelings of happiness, by also modulating appetite, releasing sex hormones and enhancing immune response. Moreover, regular workouts ease the physical symptoms of stress. For example, exercise relaxes tense muscles and tissue, alleviating pain from stress-related neck aches and back pains. Exercise also helps individuals sleep sounder, combatting the insomnia that can arise from anxiety. In addition, exercised muscles generate copious amounts of a protein known as PGC-1(alpha)1. This protein eliminates stress-related neurochemicals, such as kyneurenine, in the brain. When a Swedish study genetically modified animals to contain this protein, they found that the GMO animals were less likely to get depressed and anxious in unsettling environments.

Thus, it’s a shock that a majority of Canadians do not take advantage of exercise to combat stress. So next time you feel overwhelmed about exams or relationships, consider taking a walk. It will not only clear your head, but also trigger a plethora of physiological responses to help you feel better.

As Cairney said, “exercise as a coping strategy for stress can be a ‘win-win’ situation.”

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