A fifth of Canada's post-secondary students are anxious or depressed. One in five. Alarmingly, according to a 2016 report, 13 per cent of students said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year, up from 3.5 per cent in 2013.
Too little exercise and not enough sleep are making the problem worse. In the same report, just 22 per cent of students said they hit the gym for at least 20 minutes three times a week, and 28.4 per cent reported having difficulty sleeping.
Under intense pressure to succeed, it's understandable that students feel like they should prioritize studying over exercise and sleep. The problem is that without more of both, their odds of academic success are slim.
The underestimated importance of physical activity and sleep
Regularly getting heart-pumping physical activity each week is essential for maintaining good mental health. By releasing feel-good chemicals, warming the body and breaking negative thought patterns, exercise helps reduce anxiety, depression and negative mood while also boosting self-esteem and cognitive function. Minds, just like bodies, need movement.
We're failing to set students up for success.
And they also need rest. A lack of sleep diminishes the ability of students to manage their emotions, making feelings of anxiety and depression that much more overwhelming.
The sad irony is that getting more exercise and sleep could also improve smarts and grades. A large body of research has shown that physical activity can improve memory, attention span, concentration and creativity. A U.S. study has shown that exercise and recreation activities boost university students' test scores, credit completion and graduation odds.
A lack of sleep, on the other hand, hinders students' ability to learn. Sleep-deprived students think slower and have a harder time paying attention. Crucially, sleep is also when long-term memories are formed.
Better sleep, better grades and better mental health
But that doesn't mean it's easy. Hectic schedules, reams of reading, long lectures and addictive smartphones don't leave a lot of time for anything else.
That's why everyone — administrators, professors, parents and students — must recognize there's a problem in today's post-secondary environment. By placing so much emphasis on academic performance, at the expense of healthy habits that would actually support them, we're failing to set students up for success.
From the first day of school to our last day of work, we put so much pressure on ourselves to succeed that our mental health suffers.
If we managed to place a greater priority on physical activity and sleep, anxiety and depression could be reduced and grades improved. Aerobic exercise, like running, cycling, swimming and dancing is of particular importance because its beneficial effects on anxiety and depression are so well documented. Yoga, though less intense, is also a good activity because it helps relieve stress and improves mindfulness.
When it comes to sleep, students should be discouraged from regularly staying up until all hours of the night studying. It's not good for their moods or their grades.
But perhaps more than anything, we need to work toward creating a culture where it's OK to take a break and go for a walk outside once in a while. From the first day of school to our last day of work, we put so much pressure on ourselves to succeed that our mental health suffers. As a society, we are more anxious and depressed than ever.
Nowhere is that more obvious than on post-secondary campuses across Canada. Inactive and sleep-deprived students are ill-equipped to deal with the pressure society has heaped upon them. Though only part of the solution, promoting more heart-pumping activity and quality sleep could certainly help lighten the load.
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Written in collaboration with Steele Roddick.
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