(WOMENSENEWS)–Basketball and other team sports have always been a huge part of Tyler Lloyd’s life. So she was a bit hesitant in 2013 to transfer to Atlanta’s Spelman College. She knew Spelman had made the dramatic decision to trade its small, intercollegiate athletic program for a much broader commitment to the health and fitness of all 2,100 of its female students.
"I had to really get myself familiar with the ‘Wellness Revolution,’ because I’m so used to being active all the time," said Lloyd.
While there are no more sports teams at Spelman, Lloyd, a junior psychology major at this prestigious Historically Black College for women, now swims regularly and has gotten hooked on boxing. "I started getting more involved. I was like, ‘Oh, this works! I like this! I have options!’"
The pivot to campus-wide wellness in 2011, which includes healthier food choices in the cafeteria and on campus, more fitness facilities and classes, 30-minute napping stations across campus and a focus on physical, mental and emotional health, was the vision of Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum. She decided to shift the cost of the intercollegiate programs for about 80 women, close to $1 million per year, to benefit all of the students instead.
The idea emerged as Tatum and Brenda Dalton, director of Student Health Services, observed that many incoming students were just not at the peak of health.
"Part of it came from conversations she and I had about what we were serving our students in the dining hall; and that it looked like students were coming in a bit more overweight than we have had in previous years," said Dalton, adding that she’s not aware of other colleges in the country that have dropped their intercollegiate athletic programs for wider campus wellness.
Looking at pre-entrance health information, Dalton had noticed a precipitous rise in blood pressure levels and in the number of chronic conditions.
"We’ve been greeting incoming freshmen students who were pre-hypertensive, overweight, obese and may have other chronic conditions like type II diabetes, asthma and allergies," said Dalton, now in her 20th year at Spelman.
The student body reflected disturbing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta. Forty-four percent of black women over age 20 have high blood pressure. About four out of five African American women are overweight or obese. And African American women are the most vulnerable in this country’s epidemic of type II diabetes: They are more than twice as likely as white women to develop this disease.
The commitment to a healthier lifestyle for students, faculty and staff included radical action: No more soda machines and no more Krispy Kreme doughnuts. A $17 million dollar fitness center will also open later this year, with an Olympic sized pool, weight training equipment, spin biking, yoga, boxing and fitness classes. Access to the center will be covered by student fees.
Administrators hope the mantra "Eat better, Move more, Sleep well" will be as lasting for these women as their college degree.
Sophomore Taylor Parnell, an international student majoring in psychology, has played basketball, volleyball and soccer since sixth grade. Until the new fitness center opens, with more options, she boxes at least twice a week.
"I love it. It’s just a full body workout, it works everything and it just makes you feel so good. It takes out my stress, and anger and anxiety," said Parnell.
Social media campaigns and savvy marketing have helped persuade busy undergrads to decompress and sweat a little. Fitness classes include "Sweaty Sexy Samba," "Boom Shock N’ Lock" and "Buns and Guns."
Student groups have taken the lead in some efforts, with the administration adding incentives like water bottles and sleep masks. Three-quarters of Spelman students live on campus, so the cafeteria has hosted "Cook-Off" competitions to promote more fruits and vegetables and fewer pizza and burgers.
"Peer pressure is huge," said Dalton. "With our exercise programs, we let student organizations come in and host them. We may hire the fitness instructor, but we let a student organization publicize it, pump it up, get the folks out. That works so much better than me sending out emails."
In the early going, Dalton said there were a few missteps tied to what "healthy" looks like. "We put images up there that were anti-normative and offensive to our students, so we pulled those," she said, citing examples of images that although intended for good evoked negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings about one’s body and fat shaming.
Dalton stressed that the goal is not to be skinny, but instead, "It is all about getting healthy, being healthy, in whatever body you have. I don’t care about the outside, it’s the inside I am most concerned about," she said.
Lloyd, the junior psychology major, says a buddy system has been effective in getting more students on campus to be healthy. She invited one somewhat reluctant friend to work out with her by sharing her own experience.
"There was a time when I was self conscious about myself and I wasn’t always in good shape, so I had to make some changes in my life without shaming myself or listening to what other people had to say. She’s my friend, I know her comfort zones, what limits I can push her to and when I kind of need to lay back. She has been making really good progress," said Lloyd.
Some of Parnell’s friends, though, are not yet as motivated.
"When I workout and exercise, I feel better, I just feel like a different person. I don’t think that they understand how much of a life change it is just to feel good about yourself. They are always complaining about their weight and it’s just like, why don’t you make an effort?" said Parnell.
For the long haul, said Dalton, "What they need is to understand how to incorporate fitness, the art of movement into their daily lives, as well as how to extend and make better their state of health and have it even improve, regardless of what health outcomes they may have inherited from parents or grandparents."
Another goal is to share this enthusiasm back home. "If we can change one person, that one person can take that back to family members, to friends, so that this becomes a way of life for them, too," said Dalton.
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