You’re 18 years old, headed off to college, and you want to maintain the exercise regimen you followed as a high school athlete. Or perhaps you’ve decided that your first year away from home is the perfect time to break some poor eating habits developed in Mom and Dad’s kitchen. Or maybe you’re just dreading the Freshman 15 that other kids pack on in campus dining halls.
Well, there’s a dorm for that.
A few colleges in the mid-Atlantic region offer fitness- and wellness-themed residences, places that take schools’ increasing interest in their students’ health and welfare to another, 24-hour level. They are more philosophies than boot camps, but the kids who live in them love them, and school officials believe they are working.
At Maryland’s Frostburg State University, for example, it’s the bWell dorm, where 70 freshmen with an interest in wellness and fitness pursue that lifestyle. They attend the kinds of health-oriented programs that many schools now offer new students, but they also do P90X and Insanity workouts together, learn how to cook healthful meals, take a substance-free pledge and try to prevent one another from going on those midnight fast-food runs.
“There’s really no requirement to come in here other than deciding that I want to be a healthier person,” said Chandler Stroup, a grad student and resident director at the dorm. “But the best part,” he added, “is that we’re all on our own individual plan; we all are looking for our own goal. I’m looking to be healthier physically. Someone right next door is interested in getting better at healthier eating.”
Last year, Stroup’s goal was simply not to gain weight during the many hours he sat in front of a computer. He lost 5 pounds. This year he’s intent on keeping up a running schedule of five to eight miles, three or four times a week.
“For me, it’s been helpful for knowing that I can maintain a busy schedule and exercise,” he said.
At Goucher College, a small liberal arts school in Baltimore, it’s the Sondheim residence. There, 64 students, freshmen and upperclassmen, troop off to yoga classes together, take dance lessons, learn how to cook healthful meals and sign a contract that requires them to abstain from alcohol, drugs and tobacco, said Billy Daly, a 19-year-old sophomore who is starting his second year in the residence. There are occasional family-style dinners and a true interest in creating an environment where there’s no pressure to drink.
“I think the best thing were the people in the dorm,” he said. “They really do create that environment where you feel comfortable. It really is like a family.”
And at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., 30 freshmen in one dorm and 20 upperclassmen and women in two small houses are taught how to pursue more healthful habits. “Instead of eating ramen and unhealthy fast food,” said Christian Barber, associate director of residence life, “they would learn ways to cook on a budget and healthy food options.”
Themed dorms on college campuses are nothing new. You can take your pick almost anywhere — Spanish immersion, vegetarian, quiet, music, environmental issues. Nor is programming aimed at encouraging healthful choices novel anymore. At the University of Maryland, incoming students can take a summer course called Fight the 15: Introduction to Fitness and an Active Lifestyle. At American University in Washington, the newest dorm has a fitness center on the first floor, a conscious choice the university made when the building was planned, spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said.
But in 2008, April Baer, Frostburg’s new director of student wellness, decided the school should be doing more. “I wanted to provide a service to students that we had not yet instituted,” she said. They are “only in classes three to five hours a day. ... I wanted the themes we were providing to resonate even in their homes.”
A 2009 pilot program went well, and in the fall of 2010 the bWell residence was born, with a program that emphasizes stress mastery, nutrition and fitness, she said.
There has been no formal follow-up research, she said, but anecdotal evidence shows that residents are more engaged in campus life than many of the other 5,400 students, and many become campus leaders. The number of alcohol-related incidents at the dorm has been near zero since its inception, and there have been no repeat offenders, Baer said.
“We typically attract students who are seeking a special experience ... and we engage them,” Baer said.
“We show them that fitness is more than just walking on a treadmill.”