(Editors' Note: This story was part of Club Industry's report, "Wellness Integration in 2019," which is free and downloadable here.)
Social is the new fitness craze at Oklahoma State University (OSU), Stillwater, Oklahoma.
To counter a world where “fun” is hours spent passively staring at a tiny screen, experiencing relationships through the lens of a digital editor and developing friendships through the filter of a keyboard, wellness programs at OSU are instead encouraging social fitness.
“At OSU, we refuse to pigeonhole wellness in the traditional physical fitness/nutrition model,” said OSU Chief Wellness Officer Todd Misener, who is a certified health education specialist. “We teach and encourage students, faculty and staff to eat right and exercise — and to do it together.”
Social Fitness Starts the Day
As the sun rises each day, between 150 and 200 OSU facilities management employees greet each other and the work day in a stretching program called Work Readiness. The program started nearly two years ago when a handful of lawn and grounds workers gathered to stretch, exercise and prepare for the physical demands of their work. Stretching helped them feel better — but the camaraderie became even more vital to a good workday, and soon more and more employees from across campus joined in to greet the morning. The positive impact to body, mind and soul fuels their movement.
Isolation Is a Health Problem
Isolation is now considered a health problem. Study after study links the negative effects of isolation and loneliness with such physical health issues as higher blood pressure, increased inflammation, heart disease, cancer and even learning and memory problems. What is the treatment? Working, playing and studying together.
“We have the data from our own student body to back up the assertion that social interaction is a healthy path,” Misener said. “In the fall of 2017, the Division of Student Affairs studied first-time freshmen to compare their involvement in student affairs activities with grades, mental health and college retention using mental resilience scoring and actual activities as tracked by their student ID cards. The results: involved and engaged students achieved significantly higher GPAs, scored lower on depression markers and first-year freshman retention rates increased by an average of 1.1 percent for every Student Affairs activity they participated in.
“The survey showed the advantages of student social engagement and gave us some tools to identify at-risk, uninvolved students,” he continued. “OSU introduced a collaborative outreach effort to help connect students. In the spring 2018, we funded 24 faculty/staff to become mental health first aid instructors. Their job is to recognize mental health problems early and help students and employees connect to care earlier. A pilot resilience-building intervention was integrated into several freshman year experience courses, and many faculty members are being trained to incorporate resilience and well-being skills into their student interactions. We are watching for the isolated student.”
OSU National Wellness Leader
Oklahoma State was the first major university in the nation to create the position of chief wellness officer. The CWO oversees all the university wellness programs on OSU’s main Stillwater campus and advises wellness initiatives across OSU’s other campuses.
“We are striving to be America’s Healthiest Campus with the unique commitment to serve students and staff under the same wellness umbrella with programs synced to their varied age and health needs,” Misener said. “We have long been committed to leading the nation in physical and mental wellness to continually earn our healthiest campus moniker.”
In 1990, in the wake of the Jim Fixx jogging and Jane Fonda aerobics fitness craze – former President Jimmy Carter came to Stillwater to dedicate America’s first university wellness center – the OSU Seretean Wellness Center. The center combined the traditional campus recreation gymnasiums and pools with comprehensive wellness awareness and educational initiatives.
- In 1991, OSU offered every freshman a free health risk assessment;
- In the early 2000s the Choice Orange program highlighted campus healthy eating choices for students, faculty and staff;
- OSU has the top Big 12 intramural athletic participation rates;
- OSU was the nation’s first smoke-free campus in 2008;.
- 2011 brought several firsts, including the Healthy Certified Departments program to help staff departments excel through healthy competition;
- 2011 provided full-time employees access to recreation and fitness centers at no cost to the employee;
- OSU’s BALANCE program focused on obese and diabetic employees in 2011 to fight heart disease and metabolic disorders;
- OSU’s REBOOT Center opened in 2012 as a mental wellness initiative to provide a quiet, calming environment to equip students wrestling with the stress of college life.
- 2013 Pete’s Pet Posse. The nation’s most comprehensive university-based pet therapy program is another mental wellness program leaving a big “paw” print on the university.
Pete’s Pet Posse, named after OSU’s iconic mascot Pistol Pete, now supports more than 60 dog/owner-handler teams operating 24-7 across three OSU campuses. OSU First Lady Ann Hargis co-founded the pet therapy program and is regularly seen working on campus with her therapy dog Scruff.
“Our dedication to better health starts at the very top,” Misener said. “President Burns Hargis and First Lady Ann Hargis are both active in the campus wellness programs. President Hargis is a regular at the Colvin Recreation Center, working out alongside students and faculty. The First Cowgirl, as this campus refers to her, teaches yoga and has been the driving force behind our very successful pet therapy program with her therapy dog, Scruff.”
Ann Hargis shared the story of Scruff: “Scruff was a rescue dog who was found shot and abused in a Stillwater neighborhood. Students rescued him, and we fell in love with him. The OSU College of Veterinary Health Sciences specialists who were caring for him believed he had the disposition for a therapy dog. Burns and I fell in love with him, adopted him as our own and now he is giving back. The other end of a therapy dog’s leash is an incredible place to experience the OSU campus. I see smiles, tears, despair, hope, failure and triumph in the faces of those who come to feel the unconditional love of my therapy dog.”
Most schools engage therapy organizations during high-stress periods such as finals week, but Pete’s Pet Posse is a vital element to OSU’s commitment to the mental well-being of students, faculty, staff and event visitors, all day, every day.
“Our therapy teams attend every orientation session for incoming freshmen and their parents,” Ann Hargis said. “I’ve seen many a teary parent holding on to a Pete’s Pet Posse dog while letting go of their child to university life.”
Stress is always a part of the student experience. In addition to “feel good” visits, the dogs are also called into emergency situations, working closely with counseling services to help students or groups in crisis. In 2015, when a car careened into the crowd at OSU’s Homecoming parade killing four people and injuring scores of others, Pete’s Pet Posse teams fanned out across the campus to offer their unique brand of empathy.
“Intuitively, they seem to know who needs them the most when they step into the room,” Hargis said. “I just follow Scruff’s lead, and inevitably we are quickly in the arms of someone who needs his unconditional love.”
OSU’s focus on health is paying off. The well-being of OSU’s staff has kept health insurance rates largely unchanged for the past five years. Campus smoking rates have dropped significantly. The “after” results of several programs include lower body weights, better metabolic health markers and increased strength. The commitment from the top down is working as OSU continues to strive and thrive as America’s Healthiest Campus.