The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may not have invented the culture of all work and no play, but many students at the prestigious research university have no doubt long subscribed to it.
Importance of play
A few years ago, campus recreation officials at MIT recognized that students either were unaware of the abundance of recreational opportunities available at the school or did not take the time — or have the money — to access them.
This is the second in a series of articles about integrated health and wellbeing on college and university campuses.
"We realized we had to start attacking those barriers," says Tim Mertz, director of MIT Recreation, which is managed by a third-party organization called HealthFitness Corp. "So we asked, 'Who can we partner with on campus to make that happen?' "
Enter ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS, a three-year pilot program for MIT undergrads funded with $30,000 by the vice president and the dean for student life's office. The program aims to enhance the student experience through fitness, exercise, wellness and recreational opportunities. It complements the original ENGINEERyourHEALTH program, which provides students, faculty, staff and alumni with free opportunities to help them better balance work, academics and wellbeing.
Here's how ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS works:
• Students visiting Student Support Services on campus for any reason may be referred to MIT Recreation if both the student and the dean for student life believe that exercise, fitness, wellbeing and recreation activities might enhance the student's experience and better his or her situation.
• Referred students receive free access to as many as three 60-minute nutrition coaching sessions, three 60-minute massage therapy sessions, three 60-minute personal training sessions or three months of unlimited group exercise.
• Participating students have the opportunity to continue those activities after completing an optional evaluation. Continued participation, Mertz says, helps administrators improve the program.
Based on 2018 exit surveys, 93 percent of participants said they discovered a strong holistic connection between mental and physical wellbeing (and its impact on academic success), and 86 percent admitted they would not have used the services they did if they hadn't been referred to them. All participants also reported a greater ability to manage stress and cited an improvement in quality of life.
That's the power of recreation, according to Mertz. "Historically, Recreation was never viewed as being part of Student Support Services on campus," he says. "Recreation is now part of the campus care network, and we're establishing ourselves as a viable student services provider."
Collaboration across university departments that previously operated independently of each other is an international trend NIRSA wholeheartedly encourages. In September, leaders of eight higher education associations jointly released an updated version of the "Health and Wellbeing in Higher Education: A Commitment to Student Success" statement, which calls on campus leaders to transcend "reactive, siloed programmatic approaches to health and establish foundational, proactive wellbeing initiatives for the campus community."
Campus recreation departments are a driving force in such initiatives, effectively demonstrating creative ways to provide more fitness and wellbeing opportunities to greater segments of the student population. No wonder the joint statement — principally authored by NIRSA and NASPA — has been endorsed by organizations as diverse as the American College Health Association, College Student Educators International, the Association of College & University Housing Offices-International, the Association of College Unions International, the National Association for Campus Activities, and the Association for Orientation Transition, and Retention in Higher Education.
"This concept is so prevalent right now, and other colleges and universities are doing similar work," Mertz says.
At the University of Northern Iowa, the Employee Wellbeing program strives to offer faculty and staff holistic programs and initiatives that support a healthy lifestyle and working environment. The program is overseen by UNI Human Resource Services — a department in the university's Administration and Financial Services Division — and is an example of how cross-collaboration programs also can work for faculty and staff.
As part of the Employee Wellbeing program, all employees receive free flu vaccinations and biometric health screenings, and they participate in an annual Employee Benefits & Wellbeing Fair, as well as health and wellbeing challenges and other educational opportunities. They also can opt to pay an annual fee to use onsite fitness facilities.
Wellbeing has been part of the UNI campus fabric for at least the past two decades. "In 1998, people here had the wherewithal to name their new facility the Wellness/Recreation Center," says Christopher Denison, UNI's director of Recreation Services. "To put 'wellbeing' in the name of a facility was almost unheard of in the '90s, and it shows UNI has been at the forefront of the wellness movement."
Before that facility opened, Campus Recreation was housed in the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services (HPELS), which was located in four different buildings. Now, all HPELS faculty are located in the Wellness/Recreation Center, and Campus Recreation has been moved out of the academic unit and into the Student Affairs Division.
"The single most important thing that happened for us was the opening of the Wellness/Recreation Center in 1998, with the change in available programming options for students and faculty," Denison says. "The success of the employee wellbeing programming directly relates to the tight relationships we have on campus. UNI prides itself on positive relationships across campus."
So does MIT, where on-campus mental health counselors have requested the ability to refer students to the ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS program, thereby creating more flexibility to increase the number of program participants. The goal, Mertz says, is to scale the program across the MIT community to include graduate students and others.
"The only way you can truly capture wellbeing is through cross-campus collaboration," he concludes. "Our toolbox for wellness is now so much bigger and stronger, because we're all working toward a common goal."
This article originally appeared in the November | December 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Campus rec departments drive collaborative wellbeing programs." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.