Staying active while staying home
Experts say exercise is crucial to mental health, and there are easy ways for post-secondary students to work out at home
By: Lior Kozai
Most colleges and universities in Ontario are holding all classes online during fall semester, which means that post-secondary students won’t have easy access to school gyms or reason to walk around campuses.
Much of Ontario moved to Stage 3 of reopening in late July, which allowed gyms to reopen. However, many students normally use school gyms, and some may feel uncomfortable going to public gyms, for risk of their own or their family members’ health.
As classes resumed online this month, many students are spending their days doing coursework from home.
That makes it crucial for students to stay active, says Jess Takimoto, a third-year commerce student at Queen’s University who started teaching online fitness classes during the pandemic.
“Exercise is not a want, it is a need,” Takimoto said. “You need to get two and a half hours of exercise, minimum, per week, for your health. That is non-negotiable.”
Health benefits from exercise
Takimoto says students must prioritize exercise partly because it has an outsized effect on their mental health. Dione Mason, a fitness instructor and personal training specialist who’s been working in fitness for over two decades, also points out how physical and mental health are interconnected.
“It’s not just about what you do with your body to exercise, but it’s also about maintaining mental health,” Mason said.
Mason hosted a webinar in April for Ryerson University students, outlining ways for them to stay active during the pandemic. She says it’s important for students to establish a regular routine in order to keep a healthy state of mind. In addition to exercise, that could include meditation and reading — aside from required readings for school — but it should all lead back to the student’s self-care.
Alicia Koebel, an exercise physiologist who works as the fitness and lifestyles co-ordinator at York University, makes the distinction between fitness and “the act of exercising for health reasons,” saying that the latter is what helps improve people’s mental health.
“We’re trying to focus more on, ‘OK, how does exercise help you, essentially, stay sane during all of this?’” Koebel said. “Exercise kind of wakes your brain up, it gives you that mental break that you need.”
Research shows that people’s mental health improves with increased physical activity. A 2019 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences found a significant correlation between mental health and physical activity in adolescents. Other studies have found similar results in recent years, includingresearch on school-aged children as well as older adults.
The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry cites potential mental health benefits of regular exercise including improved sleep, stress relief, improved mood and increased energy — in addition to physical benefits like weight loss and better endurance.
Michael Boni, a certified athletic therapist, kinesiologist and physiotherapist, wrote on York University's website that “each person’s need is individualized,” but it’s important for everyone to do three things: A cardiovascular activity, an exercise that helps increase or maintain muscle strength and an exercise that improves mobility.
Easy access to at-home options
A benefit to classes being available online during the pandemic is that students can access them from anywhere. For students who live in different places across the Greater Toronto Area or Ontario, the online classes provide opportunities that they may not have had in person, Takimoto says.
Some schools across Ontario are providing free online exercise classes for students. York University, for example, is offering yoga, Zumba and Muay Thai (a form of martial arts) classes that can be accessed for free with student credentials.
Throughout the summer and continuing for the fall — weather permitting — York has also offered in-person classes to students who live in residence. Koebel says that students have benefited from the workouts.
“For some [students], it’s the only thing that gets them out of their chair,” she said.
Art McDonald, the fitness and lifestyle manager at York, added that some students told him it was “amazing” to get out of the residence for the outdoor classes. Otherwise, they would have been stuck in their rooms all day, particularly before Ontario moved into Stages 2 and 3 of reopening.
School-run programs aren’t the only available exercise options for students.
Takimoto, who started out as a fitness instructor at her university in 2018, was on exchange in Singapore when the pandemic began. She was forced to come home early and self-isolate for two weeks. During that time, Takimoto started teaching daily online classes through free livestreams on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.
She soon created a portal on her website to allow people to access her livestreams, or to view full workouts later if they couldn’t be there for live classes. Takimoto charges $8 per week for students, who make up almost her entire clientele.
Takimoto says that other students can relate to a young person like her, rather than many of the classes at public gyms that are targeted for an older demographic. “It’s literally like hanging out with friends every day,” she said.
Mason, who was teaching about 15 group fitness classes per week before the pandemic, has been posting free weekly workouts on her various social media platforms.
While she doesn’t tailor her workouts specifically for students, Mason’s videos are simple and accessible, much like the ones from York and from Takimoto. Mason says that while most people may not have heavy weights or machines at home, there are simple alternatives that can be done without any expensive equipment.
“Work with what you got, don’t worry about what you don’t have,” she said.
Anyone can go for a run outside, do bodyweight exercises or use basic household objects for resistance, Mason says. Most online fitness classes don’t require any equipment, either.
Boni, who also works as an assistant professor at York’s School of Kinesiology and Health Science, emphasizes the idea of maintaining a routine for home fitness. He wrote that even for students who wouldn’t normally go to the gym, it’s good to do something as simple as a daily walk.
How can students enjoy exercise?
Takimoto says that in order for people to develop an exercise routine, an important step is to find exercises that they enjoy doing. That way, they will be more motivated to work out consistently.
“Just because it’s something that you need to do, that doesn’t mean it has to be something you dread doing,” Takimoto said. “If you hate [exercising] and it feels like a chore, you’re going to look for every excuse not to [do it].”
How does exercise become more enjoyable?
“I always tell people, if it’s something you haven’t tried before, you should try it,” Koebel said. “It might feel awkward that first time, but if you like it, you kind of just put your spirit into it a little bit more.”
Koebel says that sometimes students will dislike a class with one instructor but enjoy the same class with a different instructor’s style. If they can’t wait for a class to be over, they should try a different one next time.
“It’s just trial and error all the time,” Koebel said.
Takimoto says the key to enjoying exercise is to focus on the positive health effects, rather than constantly striving for a conventionally ‘perfect’ body.
“It’s really not about the way you look, it’s about the way you feel,” she said. “I don’t care how much muscle you have, or how many pounds you’ve lost or any of that.
“It’s just about showing up and making time for you to do something that makes you feel really good on the inside.”