SFU counsellors use exercise to treat depression and anxiety

The Health and Counselling Services will play an integral part in this pilot project

Since the summer of 2014, SFU’s Active Living Program has helped approximately 50 students in receiving treatment for their depression or anxiety with 12 consecutive weeks of regular exercise.

This innovative pilot project collaboratively initiated by Martin Mroz, SFU Health and Counselling Services Director, and Marc Pope, the Director of Recreation, with the goal of providing an alternative treatment for moderate to severe depression and anxiety.

Students placed in this program are partnered with certified SFU personal trainers and meet with them two to three times a week in the Fitness Centre for cardiovascular and weightlifting exercises specifically designed for these individuals. These personal trainers are all current or recent graduates from SFU who are required to attend an Active Health workshop run by SFU Health and Counselling Services to learn more about the program before beginning the exercise sessions with the students.

In addition to being paired with a personal trainer, the students placed in the Active Living Program have regular visits with a mental health nurse and a physician to provide support and monitor progress. Depression is monitored using the PHQ-9 and anxiety using the GAD7, questionnaires that assess mental health, several times through the terms.

The Active Living Program costs the university roughly $5–7 thousand per semester depending on the amount of students participating. Up to 10 students can be placed into the program per semester once referred to the program by an SFU physician. The program is referred to students in addition to their medication and therapy, but for some, it can work as a replacement.

“Exercise can help bring balance in one’s life, a sense of value and purpose, and a way to connect with others,” Mroz explained. “[It also adds] many benefits that help to improve mental wellbeing such as increasing energy, confidence, strength, and improving mood.”

Feedback from the participants of the program has been mainly positive, especially for 22-year-old Marzia Ambrosini. She told The Vancouver Sun, that she liked the program offered her exercise techniques that she continued to apply to her life once the program was over. She contrasted this to the typical personal training plan that is limited in time and focusses on weight-loss, both of which she found was rather toxic to her.

Said Ambrosini, “It’s the ideal combination for me. I feel I’m able to function like someone who doesn’t have depression — someone who isn’t carrying this load all the time.”

Mroz spoke to the science behind the Active Living program. “Several studies show evidence that regular exercise of moderate intensity, frequency and duration will lessen the symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

He added, “Our main objectives are to help students achieve good mental health so they can feel better, have tools that they can use throughout their life, and to make this a sustainable program that we can continue to offer.”