This blog was originally shared on May 5, 2017 as part of #RoadtoCACUSS 2017 – a bike ride from Toronto to Ottawa embarked on by professionals from several institutions in support of youth mental health.

#RoadtoCACUSS 2017 is a wellness journey that will culminate in Student Affairs Professionals from across the country cycling from Toronto to Ottawa to attend the annual Canadian Association of College and University Student Services conference. The bike trip begins on June 4, 2017 but the journey will start long before that as participants train, prepare, and gear up for the adventure.

In 1998, I graduated from high school and went off to university, and when I did, I left a part of my identity behind. Throughout my youth, I was physically active. Never the strongest, fastest, or most coordinated, I still found connection and grounding through sports (particularly team sports).

In my first year of university, whether it was self-doubt about my ability to compete or concern about being able to manage the higher workload—I quit. I looked for other ways to maintain that connection, often relying on alcohol to supply the necessary social bridge that sports had played. I put on weight, became depressed about my physical appearance, and struggled with social anxiety and my ability to cope with relationships.

Fast forward 3 years and by a fluke of timing I found myself in my high school hometown for the summer before starting my role as a Residence Don. I began playing soccer with old friends, rediscovered my love of fitness, and came to Don training in a better place; still not whole, but feeling closer to it than I had in a long time.  

Three years ago, I suffered the first of two torn hip flexors during a game of soccer.  The cause was over developed quad muscles from cycling and a poor stretching routine. This in combination with a rain slicked field led to a tear of my right hip flexor. I’ve had sports related injuries in the past (in general, I’ve been fortunate), but this was the first one that required significant time to heal.

What I can recall of that period is not so much the physical pain, but the months of slow progress back to a state where I felt confident in my body again and the toll that took on my mental wellness. Each time I went to perform a simple task (getting out of a vehicle, descending the front steps, reaching down to pick up one of my sons), I was agonizingly reminded of my fragility and incapability of being whole. I became agitated and grumpy. There were days where I struggled to come to work because every slight change in direction or plan meant admitting that I wasn’t well. I grasped at any sign of progress and often felt hopeless as that progress slipped away with each setback. I followed the exercises of my physiotherapist, but as time went on I had a harder time bringing myself down to the mat to stretch and do the necessary strength work because it seemed so simple but was so very hard.

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that for my body this would not be a quick fix and, perhaps more importantly, that I needed to sort out the total impact of my physical health on my identity and life. With much deliberation and discussion with my partner, I took time away from sport and spent the winter nursing my injured hip. I experienced ridiculous FOMO—but I knew it was the right thing to do. I plodded through the greyness of winter focussed on getting and being better. It was hard.

By spring I had recovered enough to play again. I arrived at the field early, ran laps, stretched out, and enjoyed the company of my teammates as we began to prepare for our first game. I had missed this! Two minutes into the first half a ball was played in my direction; it bounced awkwardly, I stretched… and felt a pop in my left hip. I knew instantly what had happened.

I was helped off the field by my teammates. I lay on the sidelines trying to find a way to be comfortable, knowing but denying what this would mean. The next day I made an appointment with my physiotherapist and began another long journey of healing. The prognosis this time was a partial tear and a shorter recovery, but I could feel the grey surfacing despite the warm and sunny weather.

I pushed myself to think differently this time. Operating from a place of positive thinking vs. deficit thinking helped me focus on recovery and look beyond injury despite the physical pain. I attended games to stay connected with teammates. I called on old friends. I spent more quality time with my family. I took my time and listened to what my body and mind were telling me. In six weeks, I returned to the field feeling strong, confident, and, most importantly, happy.

We know that physical health and mental health are connected. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Mental and physical health is fundamentally linked.” Recent studies have shown a direct connection between exercise and mental health and well-being. In post-secondary education, we focus a great deal on preparing students for the academic rigor and transition to a new community, however, we have all too often left out this vital connection. As the World Health Organization defines it, health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

What can we do to encourage students to observe the connection between their physical and mental well-being? How can we better promote the supports and services we have on campus or in the community that move physical wellness and activity out of niche communities and neighbourhoods so that more students find themselves there? How can we better support students who may be impacted by chronic or long term challenges in their physical health? How can we strike a balance between preparing students for the higher rigour involved in post-secondary education and encouraging them to take care of themselves? In Student Affairs, who are our allies in creating environments that encourage and support physical wellness in either physical or programmatic design? If we reflect on these questions and many others, we can start a conversation about supporting, encouraging, and empowering not only students, but colleagues and peers to think and act on positive approaches to their holistic health.

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