Col­leges hope phys ed leads to life­long healthy habits

Class re­quire­ment al­lows stu­dents to pri­or­i­tize ex­er­cise

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - LIFE SUNDAY - Karen Wein­traub Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Spel­man Col­lege in At­lanta re­quires stu­dents to com­plete 15 hours of phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion to grad­u­ate, in hopes it will en­cour­age women to es­tab­lish a life­long in­ter­est in stay­ing fit. At the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of

At the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, every stu­dent has to take four six-week phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion cour­ses such as swim­ming, archery or yoga. Across Cam­bridge, Mass., at Har­vard, there’s no phys ed re­quire­ment at all. And at At­lanta’s Spel­man Col­lege, sports teams were dis­banded four years ago, re­placed by a push for fit­ness at the his­tor­i­cally black women’s col­lege.

There’s no magic pill to im­prove school per­for­mance, but ex­er­cise comes close. It pro­motes deeper, more restora­tive sleep, im­proves con­cen­tra­tion, makes peo­ple feel stronger and re­leases en­dor­phins, which have been linked to bet­ter mood, ev­i­dence has shown.

“There is moun­tains of data on how im­por­tant phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity is on short-term health and longterm health,” says Daniel Lieber­man, chair of Har­vard’s hu­man evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy de­part­ment.

But Amer­i­can col­leges take a very in­con­sis­tent view on phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

In the 1930s, just about every col­lege stu­dent was re­quired to take phys ed. It was part of be­ing a well-rounded stu­dent.

To­day, an all-time low 40% of stu­dents at four-year col­leges have any re­quire­ment to ex­er­cise, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 study led by Bradley Car­di­nal, a pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at Ore­gon State Univer­sity.

At Har­vard, Lieber­man and sev­eral col­leagues are be­gin­ning a dis­cus­sion about res­ur­rect­ing a phys ed re­quire­ment.

The em­pha­sis to­day is on life­long well­ness: rec­og­niz­ing the ben­e­fits that ex­er­cise pro­vides and learn­ing skills that will serve stu­dents later in life. Re­search sug­gests that be­ing ac­tive in col­lege leads peo­ple to be more ac­tive when they’re older. For­get De­gas’ dancers: You can wear an im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing right on your pants while at the bal­let barre. Fit­ness stu­dio Pure Barre has teamed with ath­let­icwear brand Alala for these artsy leg­gings. $110, avail­able this month in se­lect Pure Barre stu­dios

Each of the phys ed classes at MIT, re­gard­less of whether it’s archery, scuba div­ing or ball­room danc­ing, is de­signed to both build com­pe­tence in a spe­cific ac­tiv­ity and pro­vide gen­eral fit­ness knowledge, says Car­rie Samp­son Moore, the school’s di­rec­tor of phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

At a place like MIT, where stu­dents tend to be high-achiev­ers, it’s hard to get them to squeeze ex­er­cise into their al­ready full sched­ules, Moore says. Hav­ing the re­quire­ment gives them per­mis­sion to pri­or­i­tize ex­er­cise.

“It’s the one last op­por­tu­nity stu­dents might have to es­tab­lish a pat­tern of health that will help not only them or their fam­ily, but ... down the road, they’re go­ing to be bet­ter role mod­els for their stu­dents and em­ploy­ees,” she says.

Lieber­man says that while stu­dents are in school, in­sti­tu­tions have lever­age to re­quire them to take classes in English, math — and maybe phys ed.

“The ques­tion is: What’s the ap­pro­pri­ate level at which we help peo­ple do what they want to do them­selves?” Lieber­man asks.

Lieber­man wants to make sure any re­quire­ment at Har­vard would avoid body sham­ing. He cited one univer­sity that re­quired stu­dents to main­tain a cer­tain body mass in­dex. We’re con­vinced the geo­met­ric lines on Nike Power Leg­endary leg­gings make mus­cles ap­pear more toned. The com­pres­sion pants are per­fect for cross-train­ing. $150, store.nike.com Want to look as though you’re run­ning as fast as Quick­sil­ver ... when you’re mov­ing at nor­mal speed? Av­o­cado’s Aurora Capri gives your jog the look of a light­ning boost. $54, shopav­o­cado.com The Wun­der Un­der pants from Lu­l­ule­mon feel as soft as the pat­tern looks. They’re great for ex­er­cis­ing ... but also for couch-re­clin­ing. $98, shop.lu­l­ule­mon.com

“How hor­ri­ble is that, to say you have to get be­low a cer­tain BMI to grad­u­ate?” he says. “That is just scary and out­ra­geous and un­ac­cept­able.”

Cur­rent ap­proaches to ex­er­cise em­pha­size its re­wards; the car­rot, Fablet­ics’ so-called Elec­tric Ze­bra midrise pants go on sale Oct. 1. By then, you should have found a rave to wear them to. $49.95, fablet­ics.com not the stick.

At Spel­man, the new fit­ness fa­cil­ity is the “eighth won­der of the world,” says Brenda Dalton, di­rec­tor of health ser­vices and well­ness. “It in­spires one to come work out.”

Spel­man re­quires stu­dents to do 15 hours of phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion to grad­u­ate, in hopes that such a min­i­mal re­quire­ment won’t be daunt­ing, but will en­cour­age

“It’s the one last op­por­tu­nity stu­dents might have to es­tab­lish a pat­tern of health.” M.I.T. di­rec­tor

women to learn enough to feel com­fort­able con­tin­u­ing their cho­sen ac­tiv­i­ties. The school of­fers stu­dents well­ness classes, in­clud­ing box­ing, strength train­ing and swim­ming, and is launch­ing in­tra­mu­ral teams this fall.

“It’s just a mat­ter of find­ing some­thing of in­ter­est to every­body,” Dalton says. “We want to be life-al­ter­ing and life-chang­ing.”

Could walk­ing to class and other informal ac­tiv­i­ties (think Fris­bees on the lawn) help stu­dents make up for missed gym classes? Car­di­nal, whose own school doesn’t have a phys ed re­quire­ment, doesn’t think so.

Only about 5% of Amer­i­can adults get the gov­ern­men­trec­om­mended lev­els of weekly ac­tiv­ity: 2 hours, 30 min­utes of mod­er­ate-in­ten­sity ac­tiv­ity, such as brisk walk­ing, or 1 hour, 15 min­utes of vig­or­ous ac­tiv­ity, such as jog­ging. Even be­ing gen­er­ous, Car­di­nal doesn’t be­lieve more than 20% of col­lege stu­dents get that much ex­er­cise.

Car­di­nal says it’s ironic that most of the re­search show­ing the ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise comes out of the same uni­ver­si­ties that don’t do enough to keep stu­dents ac­tive.

“We know this works. We know it’s good for peo­ple, but we’re not re­quir­ing it,” he says. “It just seems crazy to me.”

SPEL­MAN COL­LEGE of phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion

Car­rie Samp­son Moore,

MAS­SACHUSETTS IN­STI­TUTE OF TECH­NOL­OGY

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