Sports, community, & mental health

Taking the time to be active and find community is essential to wellbeing

Students discuss their experiences getting involved in sports and recreational clubs on campus.
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“While it’s challenging to look after your mental health, with all the appointments and all the time it takes to take care of yourself while studying, […] committing to any activities outside of academia will only benefit you in the long run,” Ampai Thammachack, M.Sc. ’22, said in an interview with The Journal.

While many students struggle to balance the academic demands of school with taking care of their health and having a social life, sports and recreational clubs on campus can provide an active social outlet that may have academic benefits.

The Journal sat down with two Queen’s students to discuss the role that sports and recreational clubs have played in their mental health.

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“I was part of the African Caribbean Dance Team for three years and the Queen’s Dance Club,” Thammachack said.

Thammachack said pursuing other goals while at school is important to mitigate stress.

“When you have all your eggs in one basket, and your whole identity is based off of success in one area, [by joining other activities on campus] you’re able to gain community and become successful and grow in another area,” she said. “It helps you weigh things out more evenly in your head.”

Recreation doesn’t only provide students with a distraction from their academics—it can actually improve brain function. Exercise increases blood-flow and oxygen to the brain.

Recent studies have found that exercising is associated with increased grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These areas are implicated in learning and memory, which help students perform well academically.

Doctors suggest that to reap the cognitive benefits of exercise, people should aim to do 20 minutes of strenuous exercise three times per week.

“Being physically active helped my mental health so much because I can go sweat it out, have a good workout, laugh with my friends, and see my friends,” Thammachack said.

“That had such a positive impact on my mental health.”

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While physical activity is often emphasized for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, many neglect the role of social connections.

Close social ties are associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, better emotion regulation, higher self-esteem, improvements to the immune system, and reductions in the amount of stress hormones in our bodies.

“[Dance clubs] were the best way to stay happy, include my passions, and stay relatively fit […] and then join a community that made me feel more at home,” Thammachack said.

Sports and recreational clubs can provide a sense of belonging, purpose and happiness.

“Some of my best memories have come from funny moments with all my buddies just playing sports,” Alan Dimitriev, CompSci ’23, said in an interview with The Journal.

“When I got to Queen’s in my first year I played a lot of intramurals. I made like three real friends in my faculty when I was in undergrad, and those were the people I hung out with in class, but a lot of other people I met were through sports.”

Sports can bring together students with common interests and values.

“In sports, there’s immediately a common factor,” Dimitriev said.

“We’re on the same team together. Even if I’ve never met you, and I just learned your name, immediately I know we have something in common.”

While it can be difficult to find common ground when meeting people in class, sports are a fun, low-stress environment for people to strike up a conversation.

“It’s a lot easier to start a conversation if you’re sweating on the same court together than [in class where you] look left and right like, ‘you like computer science too?’,” Dimitriev said.

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Since many students rely on campus sports and recreation for community and mental health, they struggled when these activities were taken away during the pandemic.

“I didn’t realize how I was using sports as a crutch until COVID took them away,” Dimitriev said.

Many studies show regular participation in physical activity can increase self-esteem and provide a buffer against anxiety and depression.

Although exercise isn’t a cure for mental health issues, engaging in a moderate amount of physical activity can prevent individuals from developing mental health conditions, and improves the quality of life for those with diagnoses.

Exercise has been shown to relieve anxiety and act as an antidepressant with fewer side effects than medication. Further, exercise doesn’t carry the same stigma as going to counselling, making it a helpful initial support for those reluctant to seek treatment.

The mechanisms behind exercise’s antidepressant effects are still under investigation, but many studies suggest they might have something to do with neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to form new connections and weaken others.

This phenomenon provides hope that people can have some ability to break free from the distressing symptoms of a mental health condition.

What we will remember after our university experience is all the things we did outside of school

Exercise has been shown to promote neuroplasticity by stimulating brain cell growth and the formation of new connections. Some researchers believe that by capitalizing on this, it may be possible to alleviate some symptoms of depression and offer hope for long-term remission.

While many people are aware of the benefits of exercise, breaking into the exercise culture on campus can feel daunting.

“All sports have an exercise culture that seems very intimidating until you establish yourself in it,” Dimitriev said.

He added that, initially, approaching exercise culture can be “horrific”.

“Going to the ARC for the first time, you swipe through, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and then there’s just racks and racks and racks and people everywhere,” Dimitriev said.

Since he’s started going to the gym more regularly, Dimitriev has realized that other people don’t judge him as much as he feared.

“No one’s paying attention to you,” he said. “When you have nervousness or anxiety around sports, you think everyone is looking at you, everyone’s going to judge you, everyone’s going to think like ‘oh this guy he’s not lifting any weight! What is he doing?’”

“Eventually you’ll find your niche or your comfort routine […] you’ll build a rhythm […] and you’ll walk into the gym like you own the place.”

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Dimitriev and Thammachack acknowledge the anxiety associated with getting involved in sports and recreational clubs.

For those looking to participate in intramural sports, Dimitriev said signing up as a free-agent can help you find a team.

“I’ve found that IM leagues free agent stuff works decently well,” Dimitriev said. “We’ve had guys join our team who no one knew because they just shot us a message like, ‘hey can we join?’”

Thammachack added that students don’t have to be experts in their activity of choice to get involved—they can simply choose something that sounds interesting and experiment with it.

“One of the biggest barriers to getting involved with these groups sometimes is not knowing if you’re good enough, not knowing if you’ll enjoy it, not knowing what the outcome is going to be,” Thammachack said.

“Try everything within reason at least once and if you don’t like it, if it doesn’t work for you, then try other things. The beauty of Queen’s is that there are so many options.”

While academics tend to be the primary goal of being at university, it’s important to take a break from school to take care of your health and make memories.

“What we will remember after our university experience is all the things we did outside of school,” Thammachack said.

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