how to make students fitter

Mens sana in corpore sano, or “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, is a well-known phrase originally used by the Roman poet Juvenal. I am convinced that the expression – and the sentiment behind it – is relevant in the context of higher education and that our students will benefit greatly if we adopt it as a personal goal.

For they are molding their minds via exacting academic standards and are constantly making important decisions that could impact their adult life. As such, physical activity is not only welcome but necessary for them – and, in my view, for anyone involved in intellectual pursuits.

Of course, many students already spend their time playing and enjoying sports or exercise, but many consider these activities optional. There are, of course, many reasons why this could be the case, the simplest being that students are very likely to have busy schedules that see them juggling college courses, part-time jobs and time for family and social commitments.

This got me thinking about how I could help students participate in healthy physical activities. I had an idea and implemented it several years ago: why not help students exercise through a challenge that rewards physical activity academically? My thought was that young adults are easily spurred on by challenges, and many care about their personal image and social acceptance. Also, an increase in their final grades is always welcome, so this idea had to be well accepted.

I am happy to report that it did. I named it The Rams Challenge, after our university’s mascot, and the program has been in place since 2014. Students are challenged to individually complete 1,000 km (621.3 miles) for one term. This distance can be covered by walking, running, biking, rollerblading, swimming, or any combination of these as part of playing a sport or commuting. For every 100 km traveled, they earn an additional credit point, up to a maximum of 10 additional points (out of 100 possible) in a quarter.

To participate in the challenge, students register and use a high-quality sports app, such as Strava or MapMyFitness, which allows them to track their physical activity in real time. The challenge is officially announced as part of the course curriculum and policies, and to further encourage student participation, I also participate in the challenge.

A simple calculation suggests that students must walk an average of 8.5 km per day if they want to obtain the full number of additional credits. It’s also a real challenge in another sense, requiring excellent time management to make room for this activity – around an hour a day – in their overloaded schedules.

And they seem to answer it. Since 2014, more than 1,000 students have registered for the challenge (an average of 60 students per academic term) and 70% of them have shown active participation. They often touted the benefits to their lives beyond the extra credit points. Some students had never tried systematic running, jogging or bicycling and found they enjoyed it; others lost weight, improved their overall fitness, and boosted their confidence in healthy ways. Others have simply formed a positive, healthy habit and even requested to register for the challenge in other words, even though they cannot claim the extra credit points.

Meanwhile, other faculty, lecturers, staff and alumni also enthusiastically participated, comparing their level of fitness to that of young university students and benefiting from healthy activity.

The challenge goes to the World Health Organization physical activity recommendations and supports previous discoveries regarding the relationship between exercise and learning. I must say that I have not conducted longitudinal research to systematically measure the benefits of this challenge, but I believe that, thanks to the positive results shared by the students, the challenge was successful, helping them achieve what the Romans believed in the old days : mens sana in corpore sano.

Roberto Villaseñor-Roldán is a full-time professor of industrial and systems engineering at the Institute of Technology in Monterrey, Mexico.

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