Promoting Well-Being on Campus

The Rise of University Wellness Initiatives Requires a Look at New Facilities, Programs, and Culture Shifts
Published 11-20-2019
  • Wellness and Recreation Center

    NC State’s new Wellness and Recreation Center is scheduled for completion in fall 2020. The $45 million project connects multiple rec facilities together, and will provide 82,000 sf of administrative, fitness, and multipurpose space, and create a campus hub for health and well-being.

    Rendering Courtesy of HOK Architecture

  • teaching kitchen

    NC State’s new Wellness and Recreation Center will include a teaching kitchen (shown here), mind-body studios in a quiet part of the building, and multipurpose rooms that can be used for wellness classes both during the day and after hours.

    Rendering Courtesy of HOK Architecture

  • Active study space

    Active study space at NC State is one of the most popular places in the existing building, and there will be more of these spaces in the new building.

    Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University

Universities are embracing the idea that wellness and well-being efforts improve student success, and that student mental health impacts everyone. To that end, many institutions acknowledge wellness initiatives as preventative health measures rather than just an amenity. At North Carolina State University, for example, multiple stakeholder groups—including athletics, wellness, healthcare services, and mental health counseling—connect to help students build healthy habits and provide those in crisis with a more secure safety net. In 2018, NC State renamed University Recreation to Wellness and Recreation to better reflect the department’s focus on overall well-being for students and staff. With an annual operating budget of $6.3 million, the department has 32 professional staff and 650 student employees who provide fitness and wellness-related training and classes. A new Wellness and Recreation Center, scheduled to open in Fall 2020, will replace a 1960s building that has outlived its usefulness, despite a number of renovations over the years. The $45 million project addresses health, code, safety, and ADA deficiencies, and the resulting building will serve as a campus hub that provides more than 82,000 sf of fitness, administrative, and multipurpose space.

NC State is a large community, with 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 2,200 faculty, and 6,500 staff. The university’s focus on wellness includes supporting students’ mental well-being and helping students and staff make better choices for physical health.

“One of our main goals is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Eric Hawkes, NC State’s executive director of Wellness and Recreation. “How can we do that through master planning? We have bike racks and we want people to ride their bikes to campus, for instance, but so many times I hear folks across campus say, ‘I want to ride my bike but I just don’t have a place to shower.’ Why can’t we put a shower or a small locker room into new buildings?”

In addition to administrative offices, the new Wellness and Recreation Center will add 20,000 sf of fitness space, including performance studios and small group training rooms, a state-of-the-art climbing center, teaching kitchen, and multipurpose rooms that can be used for wellness purposes during the day and after hours by people from across the university. The facility will connect multiple buildings and, together with the Talley Student Union across the street, serve as a hub for student life.

Around 80 percent of NC State undergraduates use the current recreation facilities, which means there’s an opportunity to introduce students to other wellness offerings, such as stress reduction or meditation classes, whether through posted flyers or conversations with fitness center staff.

“When you walk into our building, we have signage everywhere,” says Hawkes. “The marketing piece of our operation is important. But you don’t see ‘Sign up for intramural basketball.’ You see, ‘Check out these counseling center groups related to anxiety and stress,’ and things like that.”

In addition, a comprehensive website details the university’s wellness offerings, and social media—such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter—helps the department spread the word about programs and opportunities. The department also collects data on who uses its facilities and who doesn’t, so it can better target underserved communities.

“I really hope that when students come into our facility, they recognize it’s more than a gym and that we’re part of a group of people who really want them to be successful and we are here to help whenever they need it,” says Hawkes. “Too often, students aren’t aware of all the university has to offer. With programs and services happening in our building, we can provide better access to all sorts of resources, from counseling center staff, financial aid folks, prevention services, and more.”

Providing Support for Emotional Well-Being

Though the majority of the school’s students are of traditional college age, NC State also has a large veteran population and some international students and adult learners. Over the past five years, the university has seen a 37 percent increase in demand for student counseling services—on par with collegiate mental health trends nationwide—and 38 percent of students must wait two weeks or longer for an intake appointment. Mental health counselors are embedded throughout the university, and some departments, such as military and veteran services and the LGBTQ center, have a full- or part-time counselor presence. But the need for services continues to grow, in part because of a decreased stigma regarding depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Sometimes students require less skilled interventions.

“Some students might not need counseling help,” says Hawkes. “They might just need somebody to talk to and some basic strategies on how to move forward. How can they become a little more resilient? What can we do to make this better next time?”

Hawkes says it’s important to take an upstream, preventative approach that looks at social, environmental, and economic origins of a problem and helps students before their needs become more intensive.

Prescribing Exercise as Medicine

Counselors, student health services, prevention services, and case managers can prescribe fitness and wellness as part of the university’s Exercise as Medicine® program—an initiative led by the American College of Sports Medicine, for which NC State has earned gold-level recognition. Students receive a referral to Hawkes’ department and see a full-time fitness staff member who assesses the student’s needs and devises a program to help. The costs are covered by the Wellness and Recreation Department, and activities might include fitness classes, group sports, or trail hikes, during which students can walk and talk with their fitness trainer. Trainers meet students where they are, and Hawkes notes that many students just need encouragement to walk and make healthier choices. Prescriptions usually last two to four weeks, after which students are encouraged to continue with either group classes (which are covered by student fees) or personal training (which they must pay for). They are also introduced to other campus offerings, such as intramural sports, outdoor adventures, and wellness classes.

Hawkes notes that the Exercise as Medicine® program costs money but is worth it. “It is an investment in the prevention side of the house. We can’t continue to just keep hiring counselors and therapists at $60,000 or $70,000 a year plus benefits. So, we’ve got to begin to shape the university culture.”

Incorporating Wellness in Academic Departments and Student Organizations

NC State’s Well Wolfpack Certified program encourages university departments to earn bronze-, silver-, and gold-level certifications by accruing points in the areas of activity promotion, nutrition, and emotional wellness. Additionally, faculty and staff can volunteer to become an employee wellness champion and help promote wellness initiatives in their departments. Organizations fill out a survey asking about wellness activities and mindset around diet, emotional health, and fitness—such as whether the department encourages walking meetings, sets aside time for stretch and fitness breaks, or offers standing desks and active sitting balls. Emotional wellness questions explore whether employees are encouraged to use sick and vacation time, and if department leadership promotes an attitude of work-life balance.

“It gives people some ideas about how to be more healthy and well in the workplace, and there’s a similar application for student organizations, fraternities, and sororities,” says Hawkes. “Again, it’s part of the multifaceted, multipronged approach to help change the culture, to get the campus to believe in supporting well-being for everybody.”

Getting Students Involved in Peer-Led Coaching

Last year, NC State’s Wellness and Recreation department added a new eight-week course that allows students in their sophomore year or above to earn an American Council on Exercise Health Coach certification. Students who pass the certification go on to become student workers within the department, where they see peers individually or lead groups on wellness topics, such as stress management, time management, sleep hygiene, nutrition, chronic disease management, and goal-setting. They’re also trained to recognize when someone needs help beyond what they can offer and will refer students to the counseling center or health services.

By Amy Souza

Institutions wanting to integrate wellness on campus can look for guidance from the Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges (2015). The charter resulted from an international conference that brought together educational and health organization researchers, administrators, students, and policy makers from 45 countries. It offers suggestions for health promotion, including ideas on how to:

  • embed health and well-being into campus policies
  • create supportive campus environments
  • integrate health and well-being in multiple disciplines
  • create or re-orient campus services.