Today’s students face more challenges to their wellbeing than ever before. With rates of stress, anxiety, and depression increasing, the need for campus recreation departments to serve as more than just the gym on campus is clear to many leaders in higher education. College students are in a prime environment to develop healthy habits that they can carry into their adult lives.

The more students are able to focus on preventative self-care techniques such as eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep, the less likely they are to regularly require acute care such as student health services and counseling.

Using behavior-change techniques to help today’s students

Institutions and leading higher education organizations are increasingly investing in large-scale benefits to proactive, upstream approaches that will allow increasing numbers of students to flourish and thrive. You can see this in statements like Health and Wellbeing in Higher Education: A Commitment to Student Success.

Exercise and wellness professionals who become ACE Certified Health Coaches gain the behavior-change knowledge to help others in the process of moving toward healthier, more active lifestyles.

For example, the following are effective strategies that can be used to help students make sustainable behavior changes:

  • Determine where students are in their readiness to change and help them embrace this point in the process. Often students are not ready to commit to a formal program due to exams, projects, or other college commitments. Focus on what they can do now to begin to set themselves up for success in the future.
  • Make a plan and establish an accountability system. The student and the professional both need to be on the same page about what changes the student wants to make, what barriers are in the way, and how the student is going to begin establishing new habits.
  • Be flexible—forming and changing a habit is not an easy process and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. To keep students from getting frustrated and giving up, help them think through new ways to approach the end goal, which includes setting smaller, more manageable goals, and celebrating small milestones.

Virginia Tech’s approach to wellbeing

One of the ways Virginia Tech has transitioned toward being a center for all dimensions of wellbeing is by having ACE Certified staff available to students for wellness consultations. Utilizing behavior-change strategies, these professionals help students build the habits that support their pursuit to be happy and well.

A crucial component in this transition is gaining buy-in from the broader campus community, so that students perceive campus recreation departments as places that will support their overall wellbeing. Outreach events and conversations with campus partners are effective ways to begin this collaborative process.

Additionally, proponents of Hokie Wellness strive to make first contact with students who may be struggling. This is a key tenant in helping students recognize the numerous benefits physical activity can have on their overall wellbeing. Virginia Tech has a well-established relationship with the counseling and student health centers, which help to refer and promote the use of exercise for more than recreation.

This paradigm shift is further emphasized through special events such as “Women on Weights” sessions that provide female-identifying, beginning exercisers with private access to the gym and personal trainers to help them gain self-efficacy to perform exercises successfully.

Supporting healthy and happy students

Many students are dealing with a variety of obstacles that can lead them to struggle with their own wellbeing. With the appropriate training and resources, campus recreation professionals can play a vital role in promoting sustainable behavior change and helping create a community of healthy and happy students.

If you’re interested in facilitating an ACE Health Coach Certification prep course or having your students become ACE Certified on their own, you can learn more and access free curriculum samples by visiting the this page on the ACE website.

NIRSA Members can access special discounts on ACE education by contacting the ACE team at

  • For more information about NIRSA Sponsored Content, contact NIRSA Director of Corporate Relations, Heidi Hurley.

Shelly Rasnick, MPH, CHES is currently the Assistant Director for Wellness and Assessment at Virginia Tech Recreational Sports. She is an ACE Certified Health Coach and a 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher. You can email her at