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Start Your Journey to Enhanced Physical and Mental Health


Professor Michelle French


Featured in Elemental Issue 2: Depression (Fall 2018)

Soon after I started a post-doc in Toronto in 1996, my supervisor, Professor Jane McGlade invited members of the lab to join her for a lunchtime run. A few of us accepted her invitation and headed out for our first run. My journal entry for that day reads “Queen’s Park, 4X around, jog + walk, mostly walk, very tough, total time 38 min”. Our lab runs continued weekly and gradually we improved. Soon Jane and I were meeting on Sundays for longer runs: we trained for and completed 5k and 10K races and a just over a year and a half later, finished our first marathon (42K). Jane and I have continued to meet for runs weekly for the past 21 years, participating now and again in races, and more recently training for triathlons. But more important than these finishes is the friendship and physical and mental benefits that I have gained through exercise. These benefits keep me moving and inspire me to encourage others to do the same. Here, I summarize the benefits of exercise, describe how I am encouraging my students to run, and provide tips on how you too can start or sustain an exercise program.

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The Benefits

Individuals who engage in vigorous physical activity have fewer heart attacks and strokes, are less likely to develop metabolic syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes and have a lower risk of developing osteoporosis and certain cancers. Physical activity also enhances brain function including improving learning, memory and mood, and protects against age-related cognitive decline. Engaging in physical activity with others brings social benefits: your exercise buddies or fellow teammates provide friendship, encouragement and support, and importantly keep you motivated. Achieving exercise goals, such as completing a 5K race, builds self-esteem and confidence that can be harnessed for other aspects of life.

Remarkably in spite of these and other benefits, only 20% of Canadians as a whole and 38% of undergraduate students in Ontario1 report meeting the recommended levels for physical activity (Box 1). As a professor, the lack of exercise among students worries me, especially since approximately 60% of these same Ontario undergraduates report recently feeling “very lonely”, “that things were hopeless” and/or “overwhelming anxiety” [1]. Given my own discussions with students about the challenges they face, and my positive experience with physical activity, I now encourage my students to exercise to help them lead happier lives. Essentially my dream has been to recreate the experience I had with my lab mates in 1996, so that my students will develop their own friendships and life- long exercise habits.

Getting Students Moving

With this goal in mind, I worked with MoveU to offer a running/walking program for students in my large introductory human physiology course (PSL301H). (MoveU is a campaign run in partnership with Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), Hart House, Health and Wellness that aims “to inspire and educate students about the benefits of being active”.) PSL301H students were encouraged to join a Learn-to-Run program offered by Hart House and/or participate in twice weekly PSL301H/MoveU Community Runs/Walks at the Athletic Centre track. Students who participated in eight or more sessions received an annotation on their Co-Curricular Record and free entry to the MEC 5K race held in April.

I was thrilled when 48 students showed up to run with me and MoveU volunteers at the first Community Run and with the success of the entire program, which is now in its second year. We have averaged approximately 25 students per week for Community Runs, and 160 individuals have participated at least once. Last year, 33 PSL301H students signed up for the Learn-to- Run program, and the 5K MEC race has had over 30 program participants each year. In written reflections, PSL301H students report: “exercising really does help me deal with my stress” and the program “afforded the opportunity to connect more with people I knew . . . [and] to extend the network of people that I study with, making exams feel less isolating”. At least four of last year’s participants became MoveU volunteers this year and others have gone on to complete longer races.

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I would like to see more students exercising and more courses/organizations on campus partnering with MoveU to introduce physical activity to students. With this in mind here are my top ten tips to help you start or sustain a running or exercise program:

  1. Find an exercise buddy at a similar fitness level and commit to meeting at the same time every week,

  2. Exercise buddies can be lab or office mates, friends, family, teammates, pets or even someone you meet at a drop-in exercise class,

  3. Start small: aim for 30 min one day a week, next add a couple of extra days, and then add time to one of the sessions,

  4. If you are new to running/exercising, start with run/walk or moderately hard/easy intervals, gradually increasing the run/moderately hard interval time,

  5. On days when you feel tired, commit to 10 min – often you will be able to do more,

  6. Record your progress in a journal (e.g. distance, time, weather, route and exercise buddy),

  7. To keep you motivated set a goal (e.g. complete a 5K race) making sure it is realistic,

  8. Remember it takes about a month for something to become a habit,

  9. Join the Learn-to-Run Program at Hart House or similar programs offered in the community (e.g. MEC, Running Room),

  10. Partner with MoveU to introduce physical activity to your student organization. They offer a variety of programs to suit your needs (see:

The other day, Jane and I went out for a run. My journal entry reads: “Run with Jane, Rosedale, 10K, total time: 65 min”. I hope that our story motivates you to take your first step to better physical and mental health or to stay committed to your current exercise regime. Best wishes on your journey.


Box 1: Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults (aged 18-64)

  • To achieve health benefits accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

  • It is also beneficial to add muscle and bone strengthening activities using major muscle groups, at least 2 days per week.

  • More physical activity provides greater health benefits.


[1] ACHA-National College Health Assessment II reports for undergraduates and Ontario Reference Group