Walk onto any college campus and you are likely to find a recreation center that features a wellness program offering an array of activities including group fitness classes. While some campuses primarily hire contract staff, others hire certified student staff to instruct classes within their programs. Either way, the intent of most, if not all, college fitness and wellness programs is to serve as a resource and outlet to the campus community, and to empower their instructors through professional development opportunities, such as training opportunities, job experience, and mentorship.

Many students who participate in campus fitness and wellness programs report that it helps them relieve stress and contributes to their academic success. In fact, an assessment conducted in 2017 at the University of California, Davis, found that students who participated in fitness and wellness activities through their campus recreation departments were 244% more likely to achieve academic success during their college career.

A growing awareness that exercise offers students more than physical benefits has sparked a trend across campuses in which students’ overall wellness has become a priority. This includes the emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and environmental wellbeing of students. As a result, many college fitness programs are adopting models that encourage all-around wellness via health coaching, as opposed to only physical training.

Many campuses adopt these models through a partnership with their on-campus student health centers. By collaborating, both departments contribute from their own areas of expertise and, as a result, are able to create programming that is consistent, holistic, and inclusive. From campus-wide campaigns to messaging to special events, this emphasis on wellness has created opportunities to encourage students to explore their own health and overall wellbeing.

Health coaches are leaning into this work

As a result, campuses are recognizing the significance of health coaching for students. Team members of both campus recreation and student health are attaining Health Coach certifications as this role within the college setting increases the need for expertise in this evolving field of wellbeing professionals. Dealing with the rigors of academics in addition to the challenges that come with transitioning to college, students’ wellness needs vary from individual to individual.

The reality is that most students are not going to have all their wellness needs met by attending a group exercise class or by making a one-off appointment with their physician—or even from health coaching sessions alone. Students are humans and humans are complex. If a student poses a question to a fitness instructor that is outside of his or her scope of practice, the instructor can refer the student to his or her partner health coach on campus who will be better equipped to offer guidance that addresses an individual student’s concerns.

Becoming ambassadors of wellness

Clearly, fitness instructors are no longer just fitness instructors. They are ambassadors of wellness. While this doesn’t change the basic tenets and goals of their job, it does add more meaning to it. Instead of solely leading people through physical activity, fitness instructors are coaching their classes through their exercises, explaining the “why” behind every chosen activity, and encouraging their students to take ownership of what the class offers in terms of wellness.

Recognizing the impact of their leadership, fitness instructors can speak to the resources and programs available on campus and, more than likely, students will listen. And, because they are making referrals (rather than trying to handle any given situation on their own), they are able to remain well within their scope of practice.

Individual campuses are unique, but wellbeing is universal

Today it is not solely about fitness on college campus rec centers. College students deserve a team of wellness providers proactively working to meet their needs. And when that team works together, a lot of good can be done for the campus community.

Creating this team does not have to be difficult. Here are some basic steps that can initiate the process:

  1. Form a wellness taskforce team by thinking about potential collaborations across different departments. Select a team of individuals from different departments who will champion change (e.g., Student Health Center, Counseling Services, Housing Programs, and Recreation). And remember that any ally can be on this team—you might be surprised by the departments on campus that may be interested in contributing to wellness.
  2. Brainstorm ideas and programs to try; campus clean-up activities, mid-class meditations, or nap campaigns are all great low-lift awareness exercises.
  3. Determine available and needed resources (e.g., ACE Health Coach or Group Fitness Instructor Certifications, funding needs, and staffing support).
  4. Launch a pilot program and measure the response from students to see how it can grow or be adjusted.

College campuses differ in many ways, but wellness is universal. College students are increasingly eager for leadership opportunities, and becoming a health and exercise professional, such as a group fitness instructor, while in college benefits both students and the campus. Being able to serve and influence their peers offers students opportunities for empowerment and growth, while contributing to the overall health and wellness of the student body.

ACE Certified Health Coaches

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 content samples page of the ACE Fitness website exclusively for partners.

Additionally, NIRSA Members can access discounts on ACE education by contacting ACE at national.accounts@ACEfitness.org.

Photo courtesy of ACE Fitness
  • For more information, contact NIRSA Director of Corporate Relations, Heidi Hurley.

Brian Luu is currently an Assistant Director in the Campus Recreation–Living Well Unit at University of California, Davis. Brian started in UC Davis’ Campus Recreation Department as a Group Exercise Instructor in 2009 while an undergrad, completing the department’s prep course that helps students become certified professionals through the American Council on Exercise.  With a background in student affairs, Brian currently oversees fitness programs and wellness initiatives on the UC Davis campus. You can reach him at btluu@ucdavis.edu.