Campus Recreation Supports Mental Health

Matrix Fitness

Over the past 30 years, student mental health issues have increased, and fitness and physical activity levels continue to fall. Campus recreation is positioned to address these trends because regular exercise improves mental health.   

The Scope of the Problem

Relatively high percentages of students report that mental health issues hinder their academic success. A major 2019 student survey revealed that academic difficulties in higher education are attributed to anxiety (28%), depression (20%), stress (34%) and sleep deficits (22%). Also, 8.4% had ADHD. In fact, 29% of respondents felt very lonely within the past two weeks, and 37.7% of students reported they were overweight or obese. Only 46% of students reported they met exercise recommendations.

Exercise Reduces Symptom Severity

Maintaining attention is crucial for academic performance, as reflected by lower average test scores in those with ADHD. Regular exercise reduces ADHD symptoms. In fact, even a single bout of exercise helps students with ADHD manage impulses and enhances their motivation for mental work, leading to improvements on attention-demanding tasks.

In addition to attention, exercise training significantly reduces symptoms of anxiety, stress-related disorders and depression. About a third of those with depression do not respond to pharmacological treatments, so exercise may be a crucial habit for those prone to mood disorders.

Studies suggest with more physical activity, we feel less lonely due to improved feelings of self-competence. Finally, another factor for academic performance is sleep, and regular exercise improves sleep quality or duration, and is a clinically significant approach to managing insomnia.

A Call to Action

Promoting campus recreation requires a multi-faceted strategy, including advertisements through websites, social media and the campus newspaper. Given that regular exercise primes the brain for efficient learning, tutorial halls and libraries are also ideal places for campus recreation advertisements.

Promotional materials should also be available at mental health facilities on-campus. Therapists, counselors and psychiatrists should have materials that highlight exercise options so the information reaches those who need it most. In addition, professors should have access to these materials because they meet with students who would benefit from a more active lifestyle.

Campus recreation staff should know exercise options that are appropriate for newcomers, and group exercise classes should vary in duration and intensity. Campus rec facilities are ideal tools for students to learn the value of self-care as they strive for their full potential.

Dr. Karlie Intlekofer is the global wellness researcher at Matrix Fitness. For more information, email

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