Towards a Healthy Campus

In his novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins points out that we take off work when we’re sick, then we get better and go back to work. ‘Have you ever thought of calling in well?’ and go out and enjoy that restored health, he says, the implication being that work can only make us sick again.

I would be the first to encourage colleagues to take time away—to relax, travel, pursue hobbies, spend time with loved ones, attend to household chores, and so on—especially as the summer and the traditional vacation time approaches.

But we work out of ambition and appetite as well as necessity, so it’s useful to think about how we can make those hours healthy and rewarding.  

At the University of Toronto Scarborough, like other universities across Canada, we’ve launched a ‘healthy campus’ initiative, to ensure that everything we do, from the courses we teach or take, the research we pursue, the co-curricular activities we conduct and the facilities and grounds we design,  build and use are health-enhancing. We’ve defined ‘health’ holistically, to include mental, physical and spiritual health; we see accessibility, equity, safety and sustainability as essential components of a healthy campus; and we’ve talked about realizing it in food services, housing, cultural opportunities, the built and natural environment and spaces for contemplation.

We’ve encouraged every member of the staff, faculty and student body to think about what health means to them and how it could be enhanced in their corner of the campus. We’ll be launching a website to share initiatives, enthusiasms and concerns in a few weeks.

In my experience, a vital component of a healthy campus is the opportunity for getting up, moving and stretching during what otherwise could be a sedentary day. For those who are not otherwise physically active, ‘sitting is the new smoking.’ In addition to the opportunities provided by sport and wellness programs, there are many ways we can integrate exercise into our work routines, by taking the stairs and conducting walking meetings (they are ideal for one on ones or team-building as a group, especially at U of T Scarborough where we can enjoy the beautiful Highland Creek Ravine and even walk to the beautiful beaches along Lake Ontario), about to be made more accessible through a re-landscaped Valley Trail. Physical activity can be an important part of professional continuing education. At the recent TechKnowFile conference at U of T Scarborough, 255 of the 493 U of T staff who registered signed up for one or more of the lunch hour ‘healthy campus’ activities that included badminton, basketball, Frisbee, rock climbing, table tennis and ‘walking yoga,’ and enjoyed it so much that they want to come back next year.

Another option is commuting in part or entirely on foot or bicycle. The recent Tour de Scarborough, an initiative of U of T Scarborough’s Canada 150, combined safe accessible routes to the campus with area history.

An important experiment is underway at U of T Scarborough, in which students in large two- or three-hour classes are encouraged by a volunteer to get up during the breaks and perform a routine of exercises.

It’s similar to the Movement Breaks offered by MoveU on the St. George campus. While the sample to date has not been sufficiently large to show benefits with statistical significance, both faculty and students report that they have been mentally refreshed by the experience. In the fall, a new undergraduate course, Healthy Active Living and Learning will give students an opportunity to engage in the science behind physical activity, health and learning while familiarizing themselves with the up-to-date techniques and equipment of the Toronto Pan American Sport Centre.

Work and healthy living does not have to be a zero-sum game. With a healthy campus strategy, there are many ways to pursue the one without compromising the other.