First-of-its-kind UAE study proves exercise improves self-esteem among students

Results from questionnaire carried out on students reveal a positive link between their physical exercise and self-esteem.

DUBAI // Happy hormones released during exercise have been found to improve the self-esteem and confidence of medical students in Ras Al Khaimah.

Exercise has long been established as having a positive effect on mental well-being, but this was the first time a study of this kind had been conducted among university-age students in the UAE.

An online questionnaire was completed by 198 students aged 18 to 22 at RAK Medical and Health Sciences University to assess their state of mind, and what impact sustained exercise had on their sense of self-worth and academic performance.

Results showed a significant, positive link between physical exercise and self-esteem – with a higher correlation in female students.

“The number one psychological benefit of regular exercise is improved self-esteem,” said Lina Doumani Khalil, a clinical dietitian who works with young people at the Camali Clinic in Dubai.

“During exercise, the body releases chemicals called endorphins, known to trigger a positive feeling in the body.

“The feeling known as a ‘runner’s high’ is often described as euphoric, and is usually accompanied by a positive and energising outlook on life as a whole.”

Regular exercise is used by psychologists as an important tool in combating depression in young people. The positive effect mentally is matched by physical improvements that lead to a better perception of body image.

Medical and health students in RAK were chosen to take part in the study as they were commonly seen as the demographic least likely to participate in sports, yet also the group that suffered severe stress that could affect on academic performance.

Of the 198 who took part, 67 per cent were female and 49 per cent were from the Middle East.

The most popular exercises the students took part in were walking, running and dancing.

Physical activity and sports participation claimed by the students was cross-checked with the university’s sports officers’ records.

Prior to the study, less than 40 per cent of them met the 150 minutes of weekly exercise recommended by the World Health Organisation for a healthy lifestyle.

Physical activity helped the students to develop the knowledge, attitudes, motor and behaviour skills and confidence needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle in future, researchers said.

Dr Fareeha Sadiq, a consultant psychiatrist in Dubai, said physical activity was an affordable and effective happiness trigger for the brain.

“It reduces stress levels and is proven to help you think more flexibly, and clearly,” she said.

“Exercise contributes positively to important brain processes including neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, helping brain cells communicate effectively with each other and aiding memory.

“Another benefit is that mood-boosting chemicals are produced when you ramp up your physical activity, and this can help raise self-esteem and improve symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression and anxiety for all ages.”

A 2013 Dubai Health Authority study looked into 17.5 per cent of 1,289 teenagers with depression, aged between 14 and 18 years in 16 private schools and four public schools.

A mental health and emotional well-being conference scheduled for April 16 at the Media Rotana hotel, Dubai, organised by a company called Ebdaah, will feature presentations from two of the UK’s leading child psychologists, and Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, a clinical psychologist at the Dubai Human Relations Institute.

Dr Jim Boylan, a specialist in adolescent psychiatry who will be speaking at the conference, said unhealthy lifestyles were not always just a result of teenage angst.

“There are stress management skills, including balanced nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits, which can help teens make the transition to adulthood safely and ready for the years ahead,” he said.