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U of T students Alex Boross-Harmer (left) and Megan D’Souza at the new Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre
Alex Boross-Harmer and Megan D’Souza. Photo by Arnold Lan

Lift Weights to Lift Mood

U of T opens one of the first research facilities in the world to integrate the study of physical activity and mental health

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education has launched the Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre – one of the first research facilities in the world to integrate the study of physical activity and mental health.

Opened in February, this multidisciplinary centre will address the enormous burden of mental health issues. In any given year, one in five Canadian adults will experience a mental illness or addiction, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

“Research shows that mental health is a serious issue on campus and in the community,” says Prof. Catherine Sabiston, one of the centre’s researchers. “We’re committed to reducing mental health challenges by promoting physical activity and reducing sedentary behaviour, and providing long-term solutions.”

While physical activity is one of the most effective ways to improve mental health, those dealing with mental health issues are commonly the least physically active.

“The benefits of long-term physical activity are undeniable,” says Prof. Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, also a researcher at the centre. “But the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines might not be realistic for some people, especially if they have mobility issues. Our programs will meet the needs of diverse populations, including cancer survivors and people with spinal cord injuries.”

To further meet these needs, the team will study how to incorporate sustainable long-term exercise into peoples’ lives outside the lab.

“We want to develop programs that will not only work in the lab, but also translate to the real world,” says Sabiston. “For example, we’re partnering with the University of Toronto’s Health and Wellness Centre to help students exercise, set goals, self-monitor and manage stress. We want them to enjoy exercise and make it part of their lives.”

The centre contains seven suites where Sabiston, Arbour-Nicitopoulos and Prof. Guy Faulkner will study how exercise can improve patients’ quality of life. It features accessible cardiovascular and strength training, psychological assessment, and data collection and analysis. One of the suites includes space to develop web- and app-based technology for mental health and exercise training.

In the past, the team faced space limitations when collaborating with others, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. This facility – located in U of T’s Athletic Centre – will now let them closely interact with local and international partners and create comprehensive programs. The centre was made possible by the financial support of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund.

“Now that we have this state-of-the-art centre, we can do our own cutting-edge research and also contribute to larger multi-site projects,” says Faulkner. “Sweat is the best antidepressant, and the Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre will allow us to discover and share knowledge about how best to get more people, more active, more often.”

Watch: Prof. Catherine Sabiston talk about exercise and mental health benefits on National Cancer Survivors Day

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