Though it is not promoted as a mental health facility, the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC) does have an innovative treatment opportunity for mentally ill students: its now-famous recreation centre.
Research is increasingly demonstrating the link between physical exercise and mental health . More specifically, researchers are finding that exercise benefits the brain as thoroughly as it does every other organ. And in 2014, the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (TPASC) opened, promoting an environment where both the body and mind could be exercised.
Reports show that just over 80% of UTSC students accessed the TPASC, potentially strengthening their physical and mental health in 2014 . While this number does not account for the amount of students who actually exercised at the TPASC, the extreme interest in the centre is a reflection of above average exercise rates and high rates of self-care.
These rates are particularly crucial for individuals struggling with mental health issues, who require inclusive and accessible resources to remain healthy, well-rounded students. This notion also reflects an interesting campus concept: students will be very likely to take part in mental and physical self-care when appealing opportunities are easily available.
North America’s National Intramural-Recreation Association has discovered similar findings in the importance of these facilities: in 2014, the Association found that 68% of North American post-secondary students claimed that the recreation facilities their campus offered affected their decision to attend certain post-secondary campuses. Then, 74% reported that these facilities affected their decision to remain at a specific campus .
So, what exactly is it that makes the TPASC so successful at attracting and aiding students to increase their mental health? And, more importantly, how can other facilities that cater to mental health emulate its effects?
In short, the answer to TPASC’s success is its accessibility. With two Olympic-sized swimming pools, an indoor track, rock climbing walls, studio spaces, a state-of-the-art gym, and more, TPASC is a veritable wonderland of an athletics centre. The sheer number of programs and facilities available to students means that there is a higher chance that students will find a program that fits their unique style.
The facility also ensures students’ ease by accommodating any and all levels of expertise and anxiety with its numerous exercise programs. As such, the facility offers a unique opportunity as an empirically successful model for an effective and inspiring mental health facility.
“The Pan Am Centre is a huge opportunity,” says Scott McRoberts, Director of Athletics and Recreation at UTSC. “The best thing about it is that it’s a new centre, which means that it adds tons of different elements. If you don’t like to throw a ball, then maybe you’ll do well on a wall and you should try out the rock climbing walls.”
McRoberts’ statement is even backed by scientific research. Different types of exercise act as a protective barrier against certain mental health symptoms, and so, different impact and intensity levels are required for each individual student. In 2006, the American National Centre for Biotechnology found that aerobic exercises, including running, swimming, biking, and walking were proven most effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression . The same centre also found that low impact exercises are preferable for those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and schizophrenia; this could include yoga, walking, or using modified moves and activities while exercising .
Psychology Today, a magazine that aims to better disseminate scientific research to the public, also found that swimming tops other exercises for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms . Another study published in Biological Psychology found that for those who cannot exercise, or who require very low impact activities, meditation is effective to gain similar cerebral benefits to exercise .
All of the aforementioned activities are offered at TPASC, along with a variety of ways to get physically active—making it ideal for accommodating those hoping to strengthen their mental health, lessen symptoms of mental illness, and increase overall well-being.
“The Pan Am Centre is a safe space with no judgement,” says McRoberts. “We can accommodate every skill level and experience level. There are programs where trainers teach you how to use all the equipment or do the moves. It is really for everyone.”
Perhaps due to its promotional hashtag, #APlace4U, the 312,000 square foot centre has not been intimidating to the majority of UTSC students. As McRoberts states, the centre has an inclusive atmosphere that only adds to its value as a successful mental health facility.
Furthermore, exercise offers not only physical, but social benefits to post-secondary students. In the 2010 study ‘In their Own Words: Understanding the Undergraduate Experience at the University of Toronto’, the researchers found that the primary reason students participate in co-curricular activities is to expand their social circles, not to exercise 
As a student of the University of Toronto St. George Campus (UTSG)—particularly from “Students of the University of Toronto,”—stated: “I often feel distant from the community. More could be done to encourage community activities, not just within individual colleges, but throughout the entire student body.” For students with mental illness, isolation is often one of the most common and devastating habits. Opportunities to become part of a community increase a student’s odds of breaking from this habitual isolation.
In accordance with this student’s opinion, the aforementioned ‘In their Own Words’ study found that only 22.4% of UTSG’s seniors and 16.1% of first years reported exercising at school for at least five hours per week (as compared to the 80% who accessed the TPASC at UTSC) . While UTSG does have its own well-established recreation facility, it does not seem to have created the same appeal as the TPASC.
But what does this mean for UTSC’s mental health opportunities? As more and more post-secondary campuses across Canada work to reform and prioritize student health, the opportunities TPASC brings means that UTSC is primed to become a leader in this ‘healthy campus movement.’
“UTSC is ready to become a leader in campus health initiatives, big time,” says McRoberts. “We have so many programs and opportunities, including the Pan Am Centre. Our goal is to become the healthiest campus in Canada. Right now, we are figuring out how to calculate that.”
Though he is an enthused advocate of exercise, McRoberts understands the seemingly unsurpassable mental and physical barriers that individuals with mental illness face. He only encourages that students do what they can in order to best succeed academically, physically, and mentally.
“The hardest thing you can do is to be physically active when you have a mental illness,” says McRoberts. “But at the same time, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.”
This article originally ran in Issue I, Volume I: Post-Secondary Mental Health: http://mindsmattermagazine.com/issue-v1/
By: Alexa Battler
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick
Image by: Tomeo Ho
 Deslandes, A. C. (2014). Exercise and mental health: What did we learn in the last 20 years? Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5(66), 1-3. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00066
 McRoberts, Scott. Personal interview. 28 July 2015.
 Forrester, S. (2014). The Benefits of Campus Recreation. Corvallis, OR: NIRSA.
 Blake, H. (2012). Physical activity and exercise in the treatment of depression. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 3(106), 1-4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00106
 Diller, L. (2008). The Swimming Cure for ADHD? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-last-normal-child/200808/the-swimming-cure-adhd
 Deslandes, A., Moraes, H., Ferreira, C., Veiga, H., Silveira, H., Mouta, R., … Laks, J. (2009). Exercise and Mental Health: Many Reasons to Move. Neuropsychobiology 59, 191-198. doi: 10.1159/000223730
 University of Toronto Vice President and Provost’s Office. (2007). Measuring Up on the Undergraduate Experience. Retrieved from http://www.provost.utoronto.ca/Assets/Provost+Digital+Assets/Provost/Provost+Digital+Assets/Provost/publication/nsse.pdf?method=1