The Physical Activity for Student Success (PASS) Program helps bridge the gap between mental and physical wellness. The goal of the program, according to MacEwan University Sport and Wellness’ informational brochure, is to use physical activity as a coping strategy for students struggling with mental illness.
The program was initiated last year by Lisa Pittet, Sport and Wellness’ director, after she attended a conference on how physical activity and mental health work collaboratively. Pittet wanted to do what other universities had previously done and create a program at MacEwan that combined both forms of health.
“She had applied for a grant through Alberta Blue Cross initially, was how our pilot worked, and it was to create this program that would act as an aid to students experiencing different mental health issues, and use physical activity as a means to support them,” says Jenni Varughese, Sport and Wellness’ fitness programmer and main contact for the PASS Program.
There are three levels to the program, each addressing different forms of mental illness. The first level is called the Fit Buddy program, and is for any student who comes to the Sport and Wellness centre and expresses loneliness, an inability to meet people, and frustration with things like energy levels, insomnia, concentration, or diet and weight. The Fit Buddy program pairs students up to help mentor each other during general physical activity regimens. This helps students become more comfortable in a gym setting and also holds them accountable to working out, as they have someone relying on them.
“You’re sitting in class reading books. Your brain gets a workout — don’t forget about the body. The body needs a workout, too, just to kind of balance these energies out.”
— Craig Gnauck
The second level of the PASS Program requires the referral of a MacEwan counsellor. It is for students who are not clinically diagnosed but still present symptoms of anxiety and depression, or who have conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic stress, that could lead to physical risk. These students receive a total of 6.5 one-on-one personal training sessions that are customized to each student’s needs and goals.
The third level also requires a counsellor referral and is for students who are clinically diagnosed with a mental illness. These students receive a total of 12.5 individualized personal training sessions. All students who complete the second or third level of the program receive a discount on any registered Sport and Wellness program at MacEwan.
Having access to a personal trainer not only holds students accountable to their exercise regime, but it also keeps students safe and comfortable. Many aspects of the gym can be intimidating, whether it be the atmosphere around people throwing weights on the ground, or the equipment looking scary and strange. Having professionals walk students through the proper way to use the equipment teaches them that they can successfully perform exercises without risking injury, and helps to improve their overall confidence in a gym setting.
“I was always afraid of getting hurt at the gym, or being judged by others,” says a student who accessed the third level of the PASS Program but wishes to remain anonymous. “Having a trainer show me how to use the equipment and how to listen to my body really helped me become more confident in trying new things. I now feel like I have a greater understanding of how my regimen should look for me.”
“In general, we definitely encourage a lot of students to make use of the fitness area over there,” says Craig Gnauck, chair for Wellness and Psychological Services. “But then again, there are some people who, given their mental health status, would be very disinclined to do that. So to have a sort of ‘semi-structured’ structured program for them to step into has been wonderful. It’s been a wonderful bridge.”
Sport and Wellness measures the success of each level through student participation and verbal approval of the services offered through the program. Students are asked a number of questions before and after their time with the PASS Program, with one question being how confident they feel performing physical tasks.
“We saw a 28.5 per cent increase from pre- to post-(evaluation), so that was a significant finding — which is our main goal, because a lot of students choose not to engage in physical activity a lot of times due to lack of confidence and knowledge,” says Varughese.
However, gaining confidence in a physical sense isn’t the only aspect of the PASS Program. The main component of the holistic program is increasing physical activity levels in order to help with students’ mental health.
“Our perspective on it is we want to be proactive. So if students start to develop really healthy habits to try and mitigate the perception of stress, or how that stress affects them, it allows for you to continue those healthy outlets and skills when you are experiencing a really stressful time,” Varughese says.
The program helps students learn how to exist in their bodies comfortably, and how to understand the healthy and unhealthy signals their bodies might be sending them. Paying attention to their bodies helps students get used to the feeling of relaxation or peace, to know what anxiety feels like physically, and to figure out how to combat it, says Gnauck.
“This is a really important, complementary piece of the experience of being a student. You’re sitting in class reading books. Your brain gets a workout — don’t forget about the body. The body needs a workout, too, just to kind of balance these energies out,” Gnauck says.
Participating in physical activity can also have grounding effects for students. Dedicating time to exercise and thinking about their entire body and its health allows students a space to stabilize themselves, says Gnauck. Exercise has been found to profoundly improve mental health in addition to increasing physical health.
“(PASS) helped ground me in a time when I felt like I was truly lost. Being able to have one hour a week to work on my goals allowed me to feel that I had control over my life, and not my mental health controlling me,” says the anonymous student.
Varughese says that a flood of positive remarks from students and counsellors alike has followed the program’s first year of operation. Due to the overwhelmingly positive feedback, MacEwan has agreed to add the program to the Sport and Wellness budget, which means it is here to stay. PASS has also opened up more second- and third-level spots than were available in 2017.
Focusing on whole-body health rather than separating the mind and body has shown to be effective in promoting good mental health. The PASS Program is a leap forward for MacEwan’s mental health initiatives.
“This program helped me find peace and balance in my life. My mental health has improved more than I had ever thought possible,” says the anonymous student.