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Work it out: Can exercise help prevent suicide?

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: September 10, 2021 5:00 a.m.

University of Regina doctoral student Kelsey Vig says it’s important to note that much of the information that exists about physical activity and suicidal ideation is still considered correlation versus causation.
University of Regina doctoral student Kelsey Vig says it’s important to note that much of the information that exists about physical activity and suicidal ideation is still considered correlation versus causation. Photo: Trevor Hopkin

Type exercise and mental health into your search engine and countless hits will show how getting our hearts (and arms and legs) pumping can also improve our mental well-being.

Along with improving symptoms related to depression and anxiety, there is also a lot of information stating that exercise can also help decrease thoughts about suicide.

Yet, on a day that marks World Suicide Prevention Day, University of Regina doctoral student Kelsey Vig says it’s important to note that much of the information that exists about the connection between physical activity and suicidal ideation is still considered correlation versus causation.

“While there’s quite a bit of evidence that there’s a correlation between people who exercise suffering from less suicidal ideation (which means someone thinks about dying or suicide, but may have no immediate intent to actually act on those thoughts), experimental research is required to see why that relationship exists,” says Vig.  

Vig is a psychology student working with supervisor Dr. Gordon Asmundson, a University of Regina psychology professor, registered doctoral psychologist, a Royal Society of Canada Fellow, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders and Clinical Psychology Review.

Vig explains that what is significant about her study is that her research aims to provide the necessary evidence by using a randomized controlled trial.

“A randomized controlled trial that specifically looks at using exercise to reduce suicidal ideation has not yet been done,” says Vig.

This study will have participants start at the same baseline – which is that they have suicidal ideation and don’t regularly exercise. They will then be randomly assigned to an experimental or a controlled condition. This will allow Vig to conclude that any differences that occur are happening because of what happened in the experiment and not because of some other reason.

“The goal is to be able to say – with proof – that exercise reduces suicidal ideation,” says Vig. “I will also be looking for psychological explanations for the relationship. For example, maybe people who are exercising sleep better. Perhaps exercise increases self-esteem or self-efficacy, which then reduces suicidal ideation.”

But, in order to get these much-needed results, Vig requires participants.

“I am looking for adults between the ages of 18 and 65, with mild to moderate suicidal ideation, who are currently physically inactive – which means they exercise less than 75 minutes per week – to take part in this 6-week exercise program,” says Vig. 

Participants will first be asked to complete a 10-minute online eligibility screener, then a 30-minute eligibility screening video or phone call. 

“Once they are in the program, they work out three times per week, doing exercise sessions designed to be accessible to people who were not previously exercising regularly.”   

Admittedly, Vig says that finding and keeping participants in the program can be tough. 

“Having people sign up for the study and commit to the scheduled exercise sessions that are in our U of R lab – half of which will be with a certified personal trainer – will hopefully motivate participants to stick with the program. We will also follow up with those who don’t show up and encourage them to come in. We’re confident that this extra bit of accountability will increase people’s feelings of hopefulness, knowing that this new thing might really help them, encouraging people to stick with it.” 

To see if you are eligible to participate in this study, please click here.  

If you have questions about this study, please contact anxiety.lab@uregina.ca  

If you are planning to harm yourself, please call the Crisis Suicide Helpline at 306-525-5333, dial 911, or contact a friend or family member who can help.