NAIT launches fitness program for physical and mental health

Personal fitness trainer eases students who suffer from anxiety into the gym

Althea Alabat’s doctor recommended exercise to help manage anxiety symptoms but she was intimidated in the gym. The 22-year-old would work out but would often stay on the treadmill because she was afraid to try new machines.

“I was scared of looking weird in front of people,” says the third-year Marketing student. As a result, the full benefit of the facility, and the positive impact it might have on her state of mind, was lost on her.

An exercise program created last fall at NAIT seeks to change that, and help students like Alabat manage mild to moderate anxiety – including symptoms such as nervousness, a racing heartbeat and negative self talk.

According to the 2016 National College Health Assessment survey, more than 90 per cent of Alberta’s post-secondary students reported feeling overwhelmed, another symptom of anxiety. Physical activity can help, says clinical psychologist Dr. Tanya Spencer, lead for student counselling at NAIT.

“Mental and physical health cannot be divorced. They’re one and the same,” says Spencer, who collaborated on the project with Campus Recreation Services. “This is an opportunity not just to show them how to exercise properly but do so with some social support.”

“Mental and physical health cannot be divorced. They’re one and the same.”

Over five weeks, lead trainer Gail Rogers (Personal Fitness Trainer ’06) worked in a private setting with Alabat and other students in groups of five to boost confidence and improve fitness levels with cardio and strength workouts.

“People [with anxiety] have the tendency to walk into a gym and think ‘I need to leave,’” says Rogers. “[But] it’s so vital to their physical and mental health.”

After a few weeks, Rogers took them into the larger weight centre as a group to learn how equipment works, as well as proper gym etiquette, like sharing machines.

At the beginning, “there’s a definite ‘oh my gosh, can we go back to the private room?’ [moment],” she says. But it didn’t take long for students to feel more comfortable – and retrain their minds as much as their bodies. A key to treating anxiety, says Spencer, is to teach the brain that what it senses as dangerous actually isn’t.

Other factors are relaxation and distraction, which exercise promotes. Rogers saw that unfold in the group sessions. “You could see them become more relaxed,” she says. “They shared about their lives, experiences and worries.”

Thanks to funding from Linda (Aboughoche) Haymour (Court Reporting ’76), the program will continue at NAIT for three years. The impact, however, has the potential to last much longer. “It was a really good experience,” says Alabat, who encourages other students experiencing anxiety to look into the program. “I gained confidence and strength.”

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