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The Pursuit of Wellness

Wellness has undoubtedly surpassed buzzword status. For many academic institutions and workplaces, wellness initiatives are becoming as commonplace as dining halls or break rooms. Rising levels of student stress and a growing appreciation for the value of emotional and physical balance have resulted in an unprecedented level of attention given to wellness amenities–and often with fruitful results.

This article was originally published in the ACUHO-I Talking Stick November+December 2018 issue, found here.

Whether in a residence hall or office building, there is an important barrier to wellness initiatives that must be acknowledged: the issue of self-selection bias. That is, those who are already on top of their physical and emotional well-being are more likely to opt into programs that support their lifestyle choices. A recent study, the 2016/2017 Illinois Workplace Wellness Study, revealed that employers who provided wellness programs andamenities saw little to no increase in employee well-being. This research highlights self-selection bias in action, showing that “during the year prior to the [wellness] intervention, program participants had  lower medical expenditures and healthier behaviors than non-participants.” In other words, wellness programs are helping some; they’re just not reaching everyone. And if we assume that self-selection bias holds true across demographics, how can colleges and universities help their students–especially those who might resist participation in the programs offered–build lifelong wellness habits

One solution is to create centralized facilities dedicated to wellness. Many colleges and universities are accomplishing this by replacing outdated recreation facilities or student unions with new centers that incorporate everything from physical fitness areas to cafeterias and counseling offices. The University of Colorado in Aurora integrated the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center into the medical campus and outfitted it with a fitness center, clinical and medical research labs, and dining areas, staffed by professional dietitians, nutritionists, and counselors. Results from the research labs provide immediate feedback, which then informs and improves the school’s wellness program offerings. Moreover, incorporating mental health support into the medical school communicates to students that mental health is physical health.

At Penn State in Altoona, the Steven A. Adler Athletic Complex, constructed in the 1970s, was renovated and expanded to include a new gymnasium area and larger fitness center, among other renovations. In order to provide visual connectivity and an increased level of transparency to activities within, it was retrofitted with a two-story glass entryway and ample floor-to-ceiling windows, inviting students to engage in fitness and wellness. A new academic addition to the building further enhanced the integration of campus programs, introducing a spirit of wellness to an expanded campus constituency.

In the interest of engaging their community in more wellness activities, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania created a dedicated wellness taskforce–the Ad Hoc Committee on Wellbeing, Belonging, and Social Life–which identified several primary areas for their focus: student social life, wellness and self-care, facultystudent dialogue, and communication. Gathering information from individual student interviews, focus groups, Greek organizations, student groups, and professors, among many others, the study developed specific recommendations for these areas. The study–broken into three strata defined as promising practices, prototypes, and future ideas–prioritizes the positive outcomes, highlighting what students responded to well and recommending next steps based on the underlying emotions associated with these activities. For example, under “promising practices” for student social life, students had identified their excitement for the Winter Formal and Themed Pub Nights. In response to this positive association, coupled with students’ concerns about the limited social scene outside of Greek life, the committee highlighted the creation of expanded spaces that, according to a letter from the president, “can cultivate a student experience that is healthy, inclusive, and equitable.”

For many academic institutions and workplaces, wellness initiatives are becoming as commonplace as dining halls or break rooms.

In addition to providing explicitly wellness-oriented spaces, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, created informal gathering spaces that could become a conduit for more subconscious wellness networks. The House Pilot Centers were created as venues for a new form of social engagement and represented spaces that could be defined by how students wanted them to be. The open floorplan buildings provide comfortable furniture, snack bars, and outdoor fire pits, while the interior spaces are flexible, free-form areas that can be used by individuals or groups for studying, socializing, or resting. Students now use the buildings for yoga, visiting lectures and events, lounging with friends, or as informal study areas.

The wellness study conducted at Swarthmore revealed that students wish to have continuous and ongoing conversations with faculty about balance and wellness. One way to encourage more transparent conversations is to decrease students’ apprehension about seeking out these interactions. Utilizing transparent materials such as glass for interior walls can act as the first step. “Wellness is about finding, appreciating, and celebrating the term happiness in a variety of different dimensions of well-being,” says Andy Lemons, director of recreation and wellness at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. “We cannot isolate our traditional physical experiences at the expense of social, emotional, vocational, environmental, spiritual, financial, and intellectual wellness. In fact, we should be the champions for wellness and wellbeing on our respective campuses, as we are uniquely positioned in the student experience to serve as leaders in this effort.”

In a 2016 National Geographic article, author Florence Williams takes a look at how nature positively – and dramatically – impacts human well-being.

 A study conducted by Dutch researchers showed that those who lived within a half mile of green space were less likely to suffer from a myriad of complications such as heart disease, diabetes, and even depression.

A similar study conducted in Toronto concluded that residents who lived on streets lined with trees showed similar positive health side-effects equivalent to a $20,000 gain in income. With these studies in mind, it behooves designers to consider the natural environment as much as specifically programmed wellness spaces.

For administrators and architects alike, keeping up with wellness best practices can sometimes feel more like a best guess than an informed choice. The WELL Building Standard, which is steadily gaining traction, hopes to establish a baseline that gives decision-makers the confidence they need to make the right call, specifically in the design of physical surroundings. In the same vein as LEED certifications, WELL is the “leading tool for advancing health and well-being in buildings,” according to its website. WELL measures several aspects of buildings that can impact human health: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The Q2 2018 Standard – the seventh iteration in three years – allows for flexibility in project type such as new or existing buildings, new or existing interiors, and core and shell. Items on the certification checklist include standard wellness practices, such as smoking bans in buildings and moisture management, but the WELL Building initiative also considers less obvious ways to improve wellness, such as capturing particles from the shoes of people entering the building and eliminating antimicrobial activity on surfaces. The idea is that everything has an impact on one’s physical engagement with their surroundings. As LEED did for sustainability, the nascent WELL program is beginning to increase both its visibility and the number of WELLcertified buildings. As a testament to its value, 16 buildings in the state of Massachusetts alone have achieved WELL certification since the genesis of the program in 2015; one part of this achievement is that imbuing a building with wellness attributes removes the risk of self-selection and provides these benefits to all users.

The wellness study conducted at Swarthmore revealed that students wish to have continuous and ongoing conversations with faculty about balance and wellness.

As institutions implement and expand their wellness initiatives, they would do well to think beyond programming. Considering important elements of the built environment and assessing campus demographics can contribute to the knowledge needed to solve the problem of self-selection. Whether it is stateof- the-art medical and counseling suites, free-form social settings, or tree-lined promenades, addressing everyone’s wellness needs requires a holistic assessment of everyone – especially those who are not vocal in demanding wellness amenities. “Cross campus partnerships have been integral to our wellness programming and student engagement,” says Monica Verity, director of recreation at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “Our Wellness Outreach Collaborative connects many departments across campus to provide financial and administrative resources that have enabled us to expand our programming and participation each year.” Designing for wellness is not about marking boxes on a checklist while a building is being constructed or renovated; it is about maintaining and intensifying that feeling so that it spreads from the res hall room, to the dining hall, across campus, and into classrooms.

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