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Student Wellness is Vital for Success

Slippery Rock University Exercise Science Day
Slippery Rock University Exercise Science Day

Wellness is a large umbrella that encompasses everything from the physical, emotional/mental, social and even spiritual. If the pandemic has taught us any lessons, a major one is that there is a direct correlation between academic success and overall well-being. In recognition of this, many colleges and universities are becoming more intentional about supporting student wellness by offering services and programs to address these needs.

After all, college can be stressful, with many deadlines and expectations thrown at students, along with living away from home, perhaps for the first time.

“If students are struggling with anxiety or health issues, they sometimes cannot focus on their academics and be successful in the classroom because they have so many outside distractions,” said Colleen Ruefle, VP for Student Life and Dean of Students at La Roche University.

Many institutions choose to approach the concept of wellness holistically. “If you address the whole person—physical, mental and social wellness—and if you can have some type of interventions that bring awareness to those types of things, you’ll have a student who is more equipped to succeed academically as well,” said Dr. Joyan Urda, Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Slippery Rock University.

Dr. Ian Edwards, Assistant Vice President, Center for Student Wellbeing at Duquesne University, agreed. “Research shows there’s a connection between a person’s well-being and academic success. If a student is engaged in self-care in at least these three areas—elements of the physical, emotional and spiritual—they’re more academically successful, more likely to be retained at the university and after graduation, more likely to make a valuable contribution to the world.”

La Roche University
La Roche University

In addition to a counseling center and a campus ministry, La Roche offers a variety of programs for students, including physical education classes and organizations. “We have two wellness weeks a year where we focus on certain areas, such as yoga for beginners or journaling. We also take advantage of being close to North Park with outdoor recreational opportunities like kayaking, guided hikes or archery,” said Ruefle, adding that these activities usually take place during midterms, offering students a chance to decompress.

Other opportunities to get away from screens—which can facilitate anxiety—and to de-stress can be something as simple as bringing therapy dogs to campus, meditation programs, art classes and sending out daily positive messages to students.

Hosted by students majoring in exercise science, La Roche also held a health fair in November to raise awareness of wellness resources on campus.

Edwards said that Duquesne was a bit ahead of the curve as it began taking a global wellness approach in 2015, something the university sees as an important adjunct to education. “We’re looking to form and develop the whole student, which includes their academic success, but also their psychological, physical and spiritual well-being. Since Covid, it’s almost imperative for colleges and universities to emphasize student development from a holistic perspective. Obviously, it’s important for the students’ own well-being, but it also improves retention and graduation rates,” he said.

Students at Duquesne have access to a Center for Student Wellbeing, which provides wellness services. All students are also able to download a mental health app. The philosophy is that more students need self-care than therapy, and that is what the app provides. “They have access to a plethora of resources. Anything from dealing with or responding to depression or anxiety, or relationship struggles, stress management, sexuality or diversity issues, there are resources available on that app. It’s helpful because a lot of times students don’t need counseling; they need therapeutic resources that might help them cope on their own. That service is incredibly valuable, but the main feature that the app offers is a 24/7 chat support,” explained Edwards.

Duquesne also offers more than 100 student-run organizations that provide outlets and opportunities for social and spiritual wellness. Many offer special activities for finals week, such as therapy dogs, study breaks, fitness classes, late-night breakfast and ‘stress-less’ stations featuring arts and crafts, puzzles and a selfie setup.

Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock University

Slippery Rock University is a participant in the Exercise is Medicine initiative, which started in California with input from the American College of Sports Medicine, in order to promote exercise. The thought process behind this is that exercise frequency should be considered one of the vital signs that medical professionals check. “We work with the health center. Nurse practitioners ask students, ‘do you exercise?’ If they don’t, they are referred to us. We talk to students to help them build an exercise routine so that they’re comfortable and confident with exercise as part of their weekly routine,” said Urda. Individually-tailored exercise programs run two days a week for about six weeks.

As there is a strong correlation between physical and mental health, exercise impacts physical changes such as weight loss and improved cholesterol and blood pressure, “Working with an exercise professional can help you start to build behaviors and make those things sustainable,” she added.

“That is the thing about chronic disease—it’s investing in yourself today but also your future so you can be more proactive than reactive,” added Dr. Steve Verba, also an associate professor in Exercise Science at Slippery Rock. In addition to the recreation center, students at Slippery Rock are also encouraged to find exercise opportunities outdoors, such as hiking or biking on trails or skateboarding around campus.

The Exercise is Medicine program at Slippery Rock earned a Campus Gold level designation by the Exercise is Medicine on Campus (EIM-OC) Recognition Program.

Edwards also believes that physical activity is one of the most important aspects of wellness. “I say this because the research tends to support that. One of our mantras is ‘movement is therapeutic.’ The idea is to encourage students to move their bodies in some way, shape or form. It can be through group fitness, club sports, intramurals, or strength training,” he said. This physiologic response brought about by exercise acts as an antidepression agent.

“Your body is the best pharmacy you can have at your disposal,” he added, noting that students who engage in physical activity consistently report higher levels of well-being, better cognitive abilities and more interpersonal relationship satisfaction.

Whether students take advantage of these initiatives at their respective colleges is up to them, but the institutions take care to let students know about programs to help achieve wellness goals, recognizing that getting started is half the battle. Fortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health is dissipating as compared to the last decade or so, and many students feel comfortable discussing mental health as well as addressing any concerns they may have. “Students have grown up with psychotherapy being part of the culture; it is discussed via social media. Many have been in therapy before. They are more comfortable in seeking support for mental health,” said Edwards.

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