Healthy Choice

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Savvy administrators in state-of-the-art facilities are turning campus rec into a wellness exercise.

Oregon State University's Health/Fitness ConnectionOregon State University's Health/Fitness ConnectionOnce the University of North Dakota's $20 million Student Wellness Center opens next August, visitors will have access to the multiple basketball courts, suspended jogging track, and cardio-fitness and resistance-exercise areas typical of most modern campus recreation facilities. Some will hear the unmistakable backbeat of aerobics classes and the repeated clacking of weight stacks. Others will choose to hear nothing at all. A quiet lounge, complete with labyrinth-patterned carpeting and a corner fireplace, will be located down the hall to the left, just past the massage room, demo kitchen and yoga studio. Whether or not users of this 106,000-square-foot facility wish to tighten up their physiques during their visits, the lounge will be waiting as a place for people to unwind.

"It's a sanctuary," says Laurie Betting, a retired physical therapist who became UND's first wellness director three years ago. "Students were involved in the space-utilization planning. They are savvy, and they recognize the impact of stress on daily living and learning. And as their lives get busier, we need to provide opportunities for students to decompress and be reflective. That's part of learning, too."

Campus recreation professionals nationwide are beginning to demonstrate their own understanding of how healthful campus environments can positively impact an entire institution -- from the mood of students to the health-care costs of faculty and staff. Jim Turman, assistant vice provost for student affairs at the University of Minnesota and director of the school's department of recreational sports, has consulted with a health economist to help build political momentum for a proposed expansion of the 140,000-square-foot University Recreation Center, built in 1993. "Whether or not we're going to be successful will depend on determining the return on our investment in programs and facilities," Turman says. "One of the problems of competing with academic priorities is that recreational sports seems like play. In terms of strategically positioning the things that we want to do in the future, we need to show how they're going to affect the entire campus."

If Turman's vision takes form, the expansion would include a center dedicated to faculty/staff health and wellness. "We have 15,000 employees on this campus, and 2,400 of them are already members of our facility," Turman says. "It's not those 2,400 we're concerned about."

To make wellness a core value on his campus, Turman considers it critical that there be a pooling of the types of health-related resources so common on college campuses everywhere -- medical and nursing schools, mental health counseling centers, nutrition and dietetics programs, and physical education, sports medicine and kinesiology departments. In theory, exploiting such synergies should save the university money and lost employee worktime. If a university librarian's lower back pain is diagnosed early enough, an exercise program can be prescribed and carried out in the recreation center to help keep that employee functioning on the job. "Everything we do in recreational sports is about health and wellness," Turman says. "But delivery of wellness on most campuses is decentralized. The question becomes, how do you get people to work together?"

Oregon State University officials think they have found an answer to that question. A renovation of OSU's Dixon Recreation Center, completed last year, served to inspire the Healthy Campus Initiative, a holistic approach to the well-being of students, faculty and staff on the Corvallis campus. The 60,000-square-foot expansion made room for OSU's physical-therapy department, while other campus health providers -- a sports-medicine physician, a nutritionist and a massage therapist among them -- make frequent scheduled visits.

It's all part of a 5,000-square-foot area within the expansion called the Health/ Fitness Connection. Students approaching the Connection with specific needs ("I want to enter a marathon, but I have knee trouble") are steered to the appropriate professional. Conversely, the student-counseling center may prescribe a student regular visits to the recreation center to help combat depression. On rare occasions, recreation center staff, having been trained to recognize the warning signs of excessive exercise and eating disorders, will actually intervene with a student who, say, is working out three times a day, five days a week. "We've literally stepped in and walked a person over to the counseling center," says Tom Kirch, director of OSU recreational sports. "It really is a collaborative effort on our campus."

An integral part of OSU's healthy campus is the expansion itself, which shunned what Kirch calls the "correctional institution" look of the original 1976 Dixon Center in favor of sustainable design featuring abundant natural light and ventilation. "We are hearing from students that this is a very positive place to be," he says. "It feels good."

So does the very term "wellness," according to Betting. "We found that many students are more likely to come through our doors because of the positive connotations of 'wellness' than they would through the doors of a more traditional health-care provider, because those places are perceived as dealing only with sickness."

For now, on most campuses, that feel-good atmosphere is often limited to students, whose access to campus facilities is typically included in annual fees, and faculty and staff (and spouses) who pay nominal monthly membership fees. A few facilities open their doors to dues-paying members of the general public, but many campus recreation professionals are conscientiously avoiding direct competition with local health clubs. They may also take the same stance with regard to local health-care providers.

Meanwhile, John Green, president of MedFit Partners, an Evanston, Ill.-based provider of medical fitness programming, says colleges could potentially benefit greatly by spreading the wellness word within their communities. "I started to think about all of the major new construction that has occurred in campus recreation, and it just struck me that it would make sense if they could encompass more of a medical fitness model or a wellness model as part of their offerings," says Green, who founded the Medical Fitness Association in 1991. "I think it could add 2,000 to 3,000 dues-paying members. It could be a major revenue stream."

Betting anticipates availing UND's wellness resources to the public as needed -- for example, she might allow an event focusing on diabetes education and food preparation to be held in the demo kitchen, since it's the only kitchen of its kind in Grand Forks. But she's quick to add that the Student Wellness Center caters primarily to the population that funded it: UND students. "We will engage only in those opportunities that involve our students in the teaching and learning aspects of that outreach," she says.

UND students pursuing degrees in medical-related fields will get more regular hands-on experiences. UND employees willing to sign a waiver are offered free health screenings utilizing the center's five assessment rooms, designed in the medical fitness model with TVs and DVD players to facilitate health and wellness education. (To further mitigate the university's liability, students conduct the screenings under the tutelage of an onsite physician.)

For the concept of wellness to be widely accepted at the collegiate level, many recreation administrators, too, are in need of more rigorous education, according to Betting. "Many of them are starting to grasp and grapple with wellness. What is it? How do we deliver it? Boy, it's more than a buzzword," she says. "Now people are seeing that we need to tie outcomes to it -- not only learning outcomes for our students but health outcomes for our employees. I predict that you're going to see campus recreation centers take a front-and-center role in employee worksite wellness in the collegiate setting."

No one can cite empirical data proving that a wellness approach adopted by college recreation departments has resulted in healthier, happier students, lower absenteeism and worker's compensation claims among campus employees, and lower health-care premiums for universities. But the benchmarking has begun, and the early assumptions of campus recreation professionals are at least backed by anecdotal evidence.

"We've had people say to us, 'I was ready to drop out of school. I had issues. Then I went to the Health/Fitness Connection, and I'm still here,' " says OSU's Kirch. "And that is because of some of the services we've been able to provide."

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