Alumna, professor put mind, body through paces

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsKing’s University College researcher Wendy Ellis and London psychologist Lindsey Forbes, BA’01 (Psychology), MA’03 (Clinical Psychology), PhD’08 (Clinical Psychology), have been friends since they attended the same university classes at Western and remain workout buddies.

Therapists often recommend exercise as part of a wellness prescription for people struggling through mental-health challenges. But it’s rare exercise and counselling are integral parts of the same psychotherapy session.

That’s where MOODment comes into play.

The 10-session program targeting students is the business brainchild of London psychologist Lindsey Forbes, BA’01 (Psychology), MA’03 (Clinical Psychology), PhD’08 (Clinical Psychology), and King’s University College professor Wendy Ellis PhD’06 (Psychology).

“Physical exercise is really seen as a first line of treatment for moderate to mild depression,” Forbes said. “It’s clinically proven, like anti-depressants without the side effects.”

Forbes designed the program to begin each session with 30 minutes of mindful exercise – whether Zumba, yoga, kickboxing, cardio circuits or some other moderate-intensity workout. “I exercise with them, which is fairly novel in psychotherapy,” she said.

That session is followed by an hour of conventional group talk-therapy working on participants’ healthy mindset, motivation, habits and self-talk.

Before and after each session, participants rate their mood, stress level, alertness and sense of wellbeing. Invariably, participants find a positive difference after each session and from week to week, she said.

“There really isn’t anything like this,” Ellis said.

Since the pilot program, Forbes has conducted three other sessions with plans for a fourth in, this one at King’s, in January. (Interested participants can email Forbes at lindsey [at] drforbes [dot] ca.)

Forbes said the physical activity embedded in each session runs counter to the usual primary motivation for exercise – to lose weight, socialize, become physically fit – and that’s intentional.

These workouts take place in a classroom, without mirrors, and they’re deliberately intended to keep participants’ minds focused on their minds rather than just their bodies.

Students, many of whom had shunned traditional gyms or who signed up to fitness clubs out of guilt over body image or fitness levels, “described having a completely different reaction to exercise” during and after therapy, she said.

There are clear links between physical activity and mental health – even so, only 15 per cent of Canadian adults meet the recommended guidelines of moderate physical activity for 150 minutes each week.

Those numbers tend to drop for postsecondary students, Ellis said. That means the combination of physical inactivity and poor mental health can become a serious concern for university students.

That’s what makes this program even more valuable, Forbes said.

“We very much change the guilt and shame” motivation that can accompany exercising, she said, and instead tap into motivations related to wellbeing.

And, she said, it’s not just their perspective that this program works but is backed up with evidence-based research Ellis conducted during and after a pilot program on campus.

Results, prepared in a poster presentation of 2018, showed high levels of student satisfaction with the program and a significant effect on their mental-health symptoms, academic engagement, exercise motivations and activity and energy levels.

They also said they were more confident and had lower levels of academic-related anxiety and stress.

Even after six months, the pilot group reported their adherence to regular activity – 71 per cent met the recommended guidelines for activity, compared with just 14 per cent at the beginning.

Students are learning to incorporate regular physical activity into their days “knowing if I’m feeling stressed, if I’m feeling down and I ‘don’t have time,’ those are the times to exercise,” Forbes said.

Forbes and Ellis have been friends since they attended the same university classes at Western and remain workout buddies.