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SFU physicians prescribe exercise to overcome student depression and anxiety

November 27, 2015
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By Justin Wong

Simon Fraser University physicians are taking an innovative approach to treating students who suffer from moderate to severe depression or anxiety by prescribing Active Health—a physical exercise program.

Through a review of scientific research and with the help of clinicians and personal trainers, SFU Health and Counselling Services director Martin Mroz and SFU Recreation director Marc Pope have developed the Active Health program as an alternative to medications that often have adverse side effects.

“There is evidence that shows that a prescription of exercise is as good or better than medication or therapy,” says Mroz. “So while this can be used in conjunction with therapy or medication, for some people it may be a replacement.”.

He adds, “Physical activity that is supervised by a personal trainer is not only safe, but also helps improve self-esteem, energy, strength and other positive factors.”

The program recommends exercise two to three times per week for approximately 12 weeks. Most of the exercises involve introductory cardio, respiratory and weight training. The patients’ progress is tracked over time through check-ins with their personal trainer, mental health nurse and physician.

A new program cycle begins at the start of every semester, with up to 10 students participating. Since the program’s inception in the fall 2014 semester the program has helped approximately 50 students achieve improved mental health.

“Our program is designed to be very hands on,” says Mroz. “Our clients have access to great resources and are helped every step of the way. They are provided with education on proper health, nutrition, hydration and exercise and encouraged to participate.”

In addition, all certified personal trainers in the program have access to a mental health nurse and training in “Support over Suicide” and “Supporting Students in Distress” to help understand how depression and anxiety can impact their clients’ day-to-day activities.

Fillip Cuculea, a personal trainer in the program, says that most of his clients who enter the program are beginners with little knowledge of how regular exercise can positively impact their wellbeing. The biggest change he sees in his clients is more self-confidence and energy.

 “My goal for my clients by the end of the program is to get them able to work out without my assistance so that they can continue their success on their own,” says Culculea.

Marzia Ambrosini, a third-year SFU political science student and one of Cuculea’s clients who has completed the program, credits the Active Health program with helping her manage her symptoms of depressive downswings, generalized anxiety disorder, and body dysmorphia, a body image disorder.

This time last year when Ambrosini transferred from Douglas College to SFU, she found the overwhelming experience exacerbated the down swings. SFU physicians prescribed the Active Health program to go along with the medication she was already taking.

Prior to participating in the program she says her experience with depression would prevent her from getting up most days.

“I had a trainer who understood what I was going through and was willing to help pull me from the edge when I was feeling ashamed, because dysmorphia makes it very hard to look at myself in mirrors, especially when exercising.” says Ambrosini.

With help from the Active Health program she says exercise has helped her feel more connected with her body.

“I am much better at predicting when these downswings will happen, and with exercise, I feel balance within myself. It does not stop them, but by having a balanced lifestyle, I can tell when my body, and consequently my mind, becomes out of balance.”

She is proud that she can now get through the gym door on her own.

”Now, I am confident in myself that I have a place there. I think to myself, ‘I belong here, and I need to be here because this is what helps me and no one can tell me otherwise, including myself.’”