Physical health improves students mental health

Kye Johnson
A&F Staff Writer
ljohnso9@unca.edu

Staff at UNC Asheville said improving physical health can be a powerful tool to battle mental health issues. Kenda Mullert, UNCA’s health promotion coordinator, said she encourages students to find one simple way to be healthy and be consistent about it every single day.

“If we can adopt a positive lifestyle, we can easily become more positive in our mental health, and that positive lifestyle physically could look so different for every person,” Mullert said.

Jessie Lanning, a fitness trainer, spends her time advocating a healthy lifestyle for members of Urban Athletic Training Center in Canton.

“I’ve been consistently working out for five years. You are always going to have trouble with it, no matter if you’re just starting or if it’s five years down the line,” Lanning said. “What you end up learning is that you don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to kill yourself to get results. You can just wake up and say, ‘I’m going to be better.’”

Research at Andrews University showed significant increase in body mass among college students. Based on self-reported height and weight, being overweight or obese affects approximately 35 percent of U.S. college students.

Mullert said student health coaches provide assistance in managing stress and anxiety along with finding easy ways to incorporate exercise into students’ busy schedules.

“The student health coach is able to hear the student and help them come up with a plan to improve their health that works best for them,” Mullert said.

The health promotions coordinator says plans made for students involve semester specific solutions customized for each client that utilize resources on campus to find creative solutions that fit the students time and budget. She said the Health and Counseling Center offers students a starting point to improve all areas of their life.

Lanning said she began working out in 2013 when her older sister invited her to the local gym.

“She asked me if I wanted to go do it with her, and I can remember what I was doing, I was sitting on the couch eating chips, and I was like, ‘Yeah, duh,’” Lanning said.

Lanning said her sister received a free two-week trial in the mail to bring a guest. Gyms frequently run specials for new members to get started without making a commitment.

“She would come home and talk about how cool it was. You do tire flips, climb the rope and all this cool stuff,” Lanning said.

Mullert said our bodies and our brains exist together in their functions, and our physical satisfaction connects to our mental health.

“Every time you finish the workout it reassures,” Lanning said. “Just knowing that how I’m feeling right now has nothing to do with how much more I can do, and that just translates into every aspect of your life and you start looking for more ways to be a better person. You learn that the exercise isn’t punishment.”

Lanning, an avid gym-goer, said one does not have to go to the gym regularly to reap the rewards.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, not necessarily in a gym.

“There was a lady I knew at the church I was going to who would just run. Whenever all of her thoughts were overflowing in her mind and she just needed time to get away, she would just go run and pray and she got great results from that,” Lanning said.

Lanning increases her heart rate by doing wall balls as part of her warm up routine at Urban Athletic Training Center. Photo by Kye Johnson.

Madeline Cohen, counselor and owner of Healing Well, a psychotherapeutic center in Asheville, sees the benefits of positive physical health as an aid to mental health issues in college students.

“You want to treat your body with the utmost respect. You want your body to be as healthy as it can, not because it looks good, but because it feels good, and it means you have greater chance of longevity and sticking around to do good in the world,” Cohen said.

The licensed counselor said a successful journey for students toward physical and mental health involves incorporating an integrative approach to wellness, mind, body and spirit.

“I really like therapy, mental health counseling and then also providing physical outlets like yoga or acupuncture. The fastest route I have found to healing has been a combination of mental health counseling with energy medicine,” Cohen said.

The UNCA’s Campus Recreation website has a schedule of group fitness and wellness classes and information on other ways students can pursue physical activity on and off campus.

Mullert said student health coaches focus on behavior goals of students. The Built Like a Bulldog Program, or meeting one-on-one with UNCA’s registered dietitians can help achieve fitness and nutrition goals..  

Psychologists at the College of London said it takes an average of 66 days to make something a habit.

“It could look like drinking a glass of water before every meal before they drink other options, or maybe they walk to their classes every day instead of taking the shuttle or driving. Just finding small little ways to be consistently healthy as opposed to having the idea that you have to workout for an hour long or you have to cook an elaborate healthy meal,” Mullert said.

Mullert said physical activity does a lot for the body. It increases blood flow and delivers nutrients to the brain for it to function better. She said when students put forth physical effort they get rewarded with the positive feelings of success and completion. These feelings can be translated into self efficacy and confidence in mental health.  

“Being physically active, our brain releases serotonin and dopamine to feel success and feel happiness that can trickle down into our mental health by feeling good for the rest of the day. We make good decisions. We’re excited about how we feel,” Mullert said. “I think sometimes we forget how good it feels to feel good.”

To schedule an appointment with a student health coach you can email pepahhealthcoach@unca.edu. Resources for emotional and physical support can be found on UNCA’s health and counseling webpage.

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