For over 30 years, 10 October has been the home of World Mental Health Day. A window to campaign for global education on the subject, and advocate against social stigma associated with such discussion. Officially an international day, it gives mental health professionals the platform to deliver their work to greater awareness. An initiative supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), it allows them to highlight the various challenges and opportunities facing societal mental health to a more attentive and, hopefully, responsive public sphere each year.
However, any dialogue on the health of the mind, shouldn’t be confined to a single day. In Australia, for instance, it forms part of Mental Health Week, which has been held for almost 40 years. In the United Kingdom, the Department for Health and Social Care, inaugurated its first suicide prevention minister, when the country hosted the first summit on global health five years ago. In Norway, however, a supplementary survey released last month, following to the students’ health and wellbeing survey (SHoT) published last year. It has found that one third of students studying here may have a mental disorder, with anxiety and depression spotlighted as the most common. Mental disorders are more common among female students, while alcohol abuse or substance abuse, is more common among male students. 5.6 percent of female and 7.7 percent of male students meet the criteria for a current alcohol abuse disorder.
While more than 10,000 students participated, only 30 percent were men, compared to 70 percent who were women. As such, we’ve spoken to a group of male students, all studying different subjects from different countries. We asked them how a focus on physical activity has benefitted them mentally – in a country renowned for rigorous regular exercise – as well as SiA Helse and Spicheren. During the coronavirus pandemic, this Scottish reporter joined a gym in his home country, and committed to working out four times per week for at least six months, which greatly improved his mental health, before moving to England to continue his studies.
Kristian Jøranson, Centre Director at the Spicheren Fitness Center, says that physical exercise can aid mental health for different reasons, because “it can be a break in everyday life, which for different reasons can be stressful. A strong body can give you a strong mind, that gives you more energy to study or work.”
Regarding what mental health benefits can be gained from such activities, he suggests that a combination of good food, and physical exercise will develop a healthy lifestyle, but won’t guarantee a positive mentality. “We hear about many students that suffer from loneliness and by being physically active, you might meet other students in the same situation. Physical activity can therefore be a platform for new friendships, and a social arena.”
Asked how students should approach balancing their studies with the commitment that comes with joining a gym, competitive or recreational sports club, Jøranson stressed the importance of planning and discipline, which “combined will give good routines, which will be beneficial both physically and mentally.”
From SiA Helse, Inger Mari concurs, stating that the positive impact of physical activity on students’ mental health has been well researched “where both reduction in depressive and anxiety related symptoms, can be connected to physical activity.”
“I have also seen bettering in several students’ mental health, while participating in my measure in SIA health,” she continues, “which is personalized exercise for students with mental health challenges. These also have a social aspect, which can prevent loneliness, and contribute to create good relations between students.”
She also recommends that students “find a form of physical activity that they enjoy, so that physical activity is associated with something cheerful. When an activity is cheerful, it’s also easier to prioritise it while studying. An increase in confidence, wellbeing and the ‘faith in being able to handle challenges”, Mari says, was a material gain highlighted by many of the students we spoke to.
Heine Bjerkaas, a Political Science student from Norway, said that “exercise and diet, to make exercise useful, has completely changed my life for the better. A healthy diet, not necessary to lose weight, but in the sense of eating cleaner food, makes your day structured, increases your energy, and makes you ‘feel’ better than eating ‘poor’ quality food all round”.
“Also, crucially, it makes exercise useful and possible. Exercise with intent (no matter what intent it is) requires appropriate sleep, routine, dedication, and proper fuel. I am a man with no skills in either exercise or diet, but exercise forces me to adapt to enjoy the other aspects of a healthy life”.
“My main reason for working out is to reduce smoking and drinking, and to become a better swimmer, not just because of the labels on the box or the calories.”
Alban Lorber, a second-year master’s student of Management and Marketing from France, opines that “there are several mental benefits from physical exercise. The first allows me to think about something else. If I have a bad day, I’ll go to the gym, as I know my session will make me think about nothing. It’ll make my brain empty, so I don’t have think about my difficult day. “
“I also love the feeling once my session is done. I feel relaxed and just want to chill after, as I’m now in a very good mood. Then there is the self-confidence ,as the more you go to the gym, the more you will feel better in your own skin. And be more confident, I really feel it, especially when certain physical complexes disappear with the results that sport brings.”
“Moreover, it’s an all-in-one activity that reflects well on many other habits like nutrition, for example. When you are very focused on your sport, you continue this dedication by eating well. With good ingredients you feel fitter and have more energy. “
“Last but not least, that feeling of satisfaction when you can say to yourself: oh, wow I did that, I’m impressed with myself or that was a great session today, anything can happen now, I was happy about my session. Going to the gym is a discipline but when you see the results on your body, whether it comes from lifting more weights or not, the physical result has a huge effect mentally. You just feel happy.”
“I think that I’ve learned a lot of things from going to the gym. Firstly, don’t be impatient haha; sometimes you just want to lift 100kg, for example, but it’s not the right time. You’ll progress with time, and you’ll succeed with your goals. But it takes time.”
Samuel Goor, a third year Industrial Engineering and Management bachelor’s student, from the Netherlands, talked of the purpose that it gave him based solely on personal motivation. “I know from myself that I am happy when I am constantly busy with something that is completely mine. The gym is just one of these things. At the same time going to the gym is something social; everybody is busy with their personal goals in one place. Sharing experiences and goals with each other, gives a sense of community: a primal human need.”
“Next to the benefits I have mentioned above, there are some more negative points as well. You are so focused on improving your own body, that you become perfectionistic. You start to see little details no one else sees. You end up never being satisfied with the physique you have, and start to see your own body differently than other people do “(the medical condition called body dysmorphia).
“At the same time working out helps with mental health problems. It has been proven that working out releases dopamine. I have noticed this myself as well. Whenever I feel horrible, I work out; I use it as a source of energy. I can put all my bad feelings into the workout, which not only makes my workout sessions more effective, but it is also a way to vent these feelings.”
Asked why it was important to him to maintain his physical regimen, he said he works out because he wants “to be healthy and in good shape. The lifestyle around going to the gym is crucial for this. Ask anybody into fitness and they will tell you the same thing: It’s all in what you eat and drink. It’s not just what you train in the gym, it is the lifestyle as a whole, that makes you grow and be healthy.”
So, what have you learned about yourself from going?
“The most important thing I have learned (and it took me some time to accept this) is that everyone has different and unique bodies. The training schedule that works for one may not work for another, some people need to eat way more or way less, and most importantly, you will never look like someone else. You’re at the gym to work on your own body, not to copy someone else’s body. This realization makes all your jealousy disappear and makes you more motivated than ever. You really are doing it for yourself and your own health.’
Antonio Galli, a third-year Business and Law bachelor’s student from Italy, was, however “sceptical about going to the gym and start working out, because I truly felt that I had no time in my day to spend on such things, since I had already a challenging routine. Ironically, thanks to the gym, I was able to become much more organised and more productive day by day, a practice that allowed me to find a little bit of peace.”
“I find going to the gym fundamental for my mental health, because it helps me clear my mind, and deal with the stress of everyday life. When I train, I take time for myself and I don’t think about the pressure of this society that pushes us towards being overproductive, even in our spare time. “
“Since I started training, I didn’t only become “stress-free” (or considerably less stressful), I also gained much more confidence. I would also say that I definitely became more tenacious: I don’t step back from new challenges, and I feel so glad when I manage to progress in my working out.”
“Going to the gym has taught me that the combination of consistency and effort, leads to results. Progressing doesn’t have much to do with luck or genetics, it’s a personal challenge and if you keep pushing, you’ll eventually get better: a step at a time. In my experience, the achievements come while you’re not even paying attention to them.”
For more in depth conversation, our new podcast series on this motion will start on 10 October, with new episodes released weekly throughout the rest of the semester.