Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

I have always been a very active person, which I believe has contributed greatly to my mental well-being over the years. When I was younger, I did ballet, basketball, soccer, cheer, tennis, and track. In high school, I played beach, high school, and club volleyball at the national level for years. On top of this, my father was a yoga and Equinox instructor, so I would accompany him to the gym, go on hikes, and practice yoga with him. 

Upon entering college, however, I found working out more of a conscious effort. I no longer had mandatory team practices or designated group conditioning — it was up to me to juggle daily exercise with completing my school work, making new friends, and going out. At this time, I was assigned to write a research paper on a topic of my interest for my biology class. The information I learned from this process reconfirmed my suspicions that exercise and mental health are strongly connected, and it motivated me to prioritize working out as a way to alleviate stress and stay happy. 

In my research, I found that exercise can increase a specific neurotransmitter to reduce feelings of pain and anxiety, thus shedding light on a new holistic approach to fighting depression. While most people believe exercise boosts endorphins, creating that post-workout “high,” new research reveals that endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain, and instead, the neurotransmitter anandamide (AEA) in the endocannabinoid system is responsible for these cited effects. 

This research is significant because major depression is a financial burden affecting 13.1 percent of individuals aged 13-25, according to data presented by the National Institute of Mental health in 2017. Additionally, 68 percent of people ages 12 and up reported that they take antidepressants to treat depression as well as anxiety, which is costly — the global drug depression market is estimated to be worth $16 billion by 2020. 

Therefore, exercise can be used as both a preventative measure and also a potential remedy for depression, especially for college students struggling with their mental health in this transitional period. Contrary to popular belief, working out definitely does not have to be daunting or high-intensity, and it can be a social activity to do with friends! Here are five ways you can work out on or near campus to improve your mental well-being. 

Varsity, club, and intramural sports

Of course, you do not have to be a varsity or even a club athlete to participate in organized sports on campus. Intramural (I.M.) sports are opportunities to socialize and stay healthy while engaging in some friendly competition. This past year, I played I.M. volleyball and broomball (ice hockey but with sneakers). It was a great way to get my heart rate up and compete on a team, and I looked forward to it every week. 

The gym

This may seem obvious, but it is an easy, convenient, and free facility that most, if not all, campuses provide. If you’ve never been, make it a goal to go this year, and take advantage of this resource while you have it. And if you get gym anxiety, check out this article to start overcoming it!

Workout classes

My school offered a variety of free workout classes every day in the athletic facility, so it is worth checking out if your school has these! I went to yoga, zumba, boot camp, pilates, and cardio kickboxing. Additionally, if you have the resources, many campuses have workout studios in the surrounding town, especially since college students are a good target audience. Research what is near you, and make it a fun activity with friends. 

Run or bike outdoors

This is a fun, free activity you can do during the year depending on your climate. Get a group of friends together or go by yourself to clear your thoughts. Also, finding new paths to explore keeps each run or bike ride exciting and new.

Events off-campus or in the city 

If you live close to a city, chances are high that there are some good free events nearby. This can include free yoga events, running races, community bike rides or jogs, and charity walks. If you are in a more rural or natural region, find a hiking trail or a river or lake to kayak in.  

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis


  • Lily Levine

    Thrive on Campus Editor-at-Large from University of Chicago

    Lily Levine is a sophomore majoring in Global Studies and Human Rights at the University of Chicago. On campus, she is a Staff Writer for Bite Magazine, Moda fashion blog, and the College Editorial Team. In her free time, Lily enjoys cooking healthy meals, exercising, listening to podcasts, and writing about all things wellness.