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Colleges focus on fitness

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“How many more do we have?” trainer Angel Mann shouted to a dozen students at Howard University. The correct answer was “Eight,” which the group panted back in unison while pumping their knees in the air. Twice a week, Mann takes over the common room at Tubman Quad, a freshman dorm, to lead an hour of aerobics, strength training, core work and dance.

It’s probably not the class most high school seniors envision when thinking about their collegiate careers. But it’s a vital resource for members of the Howard community, including 18-year-old freshman Neena Speer. “If I’m on my own, I don’t work out as hard,” says Speer, who credits regular attendance with helping her drop from a size 18 to 14 over the past few months.

In a society that’s heavier than ever, students remain as busy as ever, so it’s up to colleges to figure out how to make physical activity an integral part of campus life. A few decades ago, most recreation programs consisted of intramural sports teams, a pool and a weight room. But from a survey of area schools, it’s clear they’ve graduated to gleaming fitness facilities, group exercise schedules and even climbing walls.

There’s a 55-foot-tall one standing outside the University of Maryland’s Eppley Recreation Center. “It’s another option that’s valuable and a different experience,” says Mike Phaneuf, assistant director of the challenge course program. Students looking for outdoor education can take trips across the region to go kayaking and hiking, or they can ride to the student-staffed bike shop, which will fix their wheels (and teach them how to do it themselves) for free.

Or they can always go inside the 230,000-square-foot facility packed with every traditional kind of cardio and weight machine, multiple pools, racquetball and squash courts and a table tennis room.

At George Mason University, there has also been a push to expand offerings in recent years. That now includes a marial arts program with classes in Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defense system, and Brazilian jiujitsu, as well as Walking Wednesday, a group stroll around campus that meets at the clock tower at noon.

“We have a number of people we have to serve,” says Ethan Carter, the school’s director of fitness. “This is a buffet that’s good for everyone.”

‘This is a recruiting tool’

Offering facilities and services costs money, but for the most part, students use them for free (not counting tuition, of course). The exceptions are specialized group exercise classes and personal training, which usually come with a nominal fee. “If you pay for something, you’ll do it,” says Kelly Oddy, assistant director for recreational sports and fitness at American University, which charges $65 per semester for a group exercise class pass.

And when they do it, they see results, school fitness directors say. The goal isn’t to force the entire student body to become jocks, but to get the benefits of healthier living. “They feel good,” Carter says. “They bring a better attitude to the classroom.”

Student satisfaction numbers have soared at Johns Hopkins University since the O’Connor Recreation Center opened in 2002, vastly increasing activity outlets for students.

“This is a recruiting tool,” says William Harrington, senior associate director of the department of athletics and recreation. Right then, a tour group marches in to marvel at the cardio room with floor-to-ceiling windows, the indoor track and, of course, the climbing wall. (“I’d totally do that,” says 17-year-old Patrick Mullins, a New Yorker who was visiting schools with his dad.)

How much he’d be working out or where never occurred to 18-year-old Abdul Alimi, a U-Md. freshman, when he was applying to schools. But he’s hooked on playing pickup basketball and lifting between classes at the recreation center between classes. “I’m here almost every day. It’s a relaxing environment,” he says. “It’s helping me stay here.”

‘I don’t have time’

No matter what schools offer, they’re competing against students’ hectic schedules. Haley Crock, a 20-year-old sophomore at U-Md., said the spectacular natatorium was one of the reasons she came to College Park. But laps are rarely in the cards. “I’m a mechanical engineer, so I don’t have time,” says Crock, even though her dorm is “right there.”

That’s why schools have also begun to take fitness to students. In addition to those free classes at Tubman Quad, Howard puts some pieces of exercise equipment in dorms. Hopkins does the the same thing. “As open as we are, from 6 a.m. to midnight, students want more convenience,” says Anne Irwin Tillinghast, assistant director of fitness.

Even though Catholic University’s student fitness center is smack in the middle of student housing — “They can roll out of bed and take 50 steps,” says director Marie Kennedy — she still visits dorms to teach students to exercise wherever they are. “I try to encourage them to take study breaks by doing walking lunges down the hallway and doing arm curls with a chemistry book,” she says.

While all of these new facilities and programs may be inspiring students to work up a sweat, sometimes what’s really needed is an old-school approach to exercise. When Catholic President John Garvey arrived on campus this fall, he noticed one thing conspicuously missing: a basketball hoop. “I thought, ‘What’s up with this?’ So I walked around campus and said I want a hoop right there,” he says.

Catholic is planning to add volleyball courts this spring. After all, even if they’re growing up, kids still like to play.

Q&A: Eating right, exercising and keeping up healthy habits on campus

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