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Students walk on Michigan State University's campus for the annual Exercise Is Medicine on Campus Health Homecoming Walk with the Spartan mascot in front

Michigan State University has participated in the Exercise Is Medicine program for eight years, earning gold-level ranking for its health and fitness programming for students on campus, including ACTIVE Spartans, a peer mentoring program around physical activity.

Michigan State University

Encouraging students to be active can be challenging for higher education professionals. Michigan State University utilizes the talents of its upper-level students to mentor and support their peers’ physical activity goals—resulting in a healthier campus culture.

The ACTIVE Spartans program matches participants with a peer Physical Activity Mentor (PAM) who meets with them regularly to identify and achieve fitness goals over a set period of time. The program hinges on a referral from other campus health professionals, connecting available resources and promoting holistic well-being for the student.

The background: Since 2014, MSU has participated in the Exercise Is Medicine program with the American College of Sports Medicine, which encourages institutions to establish a referral system between health-care providers and certified fitness professionals, create education initiatives, encourage movement in campus culture, and promote the health benefits of physical activities.

Survey: Students Link Wellness to Success

A spring 2023 survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found students’ physical health is impacting their academic success, particularly among students with disabilities or mental health conditions.

Almost three in four students with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses reported their physical health and wellness impacts their ability to focus, learn and do well in class at least somewhat, and over half of students with a mental health condition were impacted at least some.

MSU supports the first pillar through ACTIVE Spartans, referring learners from campus health-care providers to the Health Promotion Department, which houses the program.

Who’s involved: PAMs are kinesiology students who work as interns for a term, normally as juniors or seniors, under the direction of a certified personal trainer on staff at MSU. Their mentees are those referred by any health-care professional on campus, whether that’s social workers, nutritionists, counselors or a primary care provider.

The reason for referral can vary, “whether that’s to improve mental health symptoms, a chronic disease, but also for social connection,” says Kristin Traskie, fitness and wellness program coordinator.

Student involvement also varies by semester. Pre-pandemic, the program had between one and five PAMs and between five and 30 participants, but participation has flexed since remote instruction in 2020.

How it works: Mentoring can happen in person or virtually. The university offered ACTIVE Spartan mentoring remotely during stay-at-home orders, and many students preferred the format because they could work out in their own rooms, Traskie says. Now, however, it’s offered primarily in person.

The mentee completes a brief intake at the start of the program, beginning with registration forms and then getting paired with a mentor. During the first session, the PAM leads the mentee through a series of physical activity assessments—including a one-mile walk test, sit-up and push-up tests, and heart rate and blood pressure measurements.

Then, the duo establishes a physical activity goal. “Students, a lot of times, think they have to go run miles upon miles to be physically active,” Traskie says. “And we really work hard both in the initiative and this program to debunk those myths.”

One student’s goal could be to take a walk on campus, another could be to use the campus fitness center or another could want a fitness plan (reviewed by certified trainers on staff).

“The goal of the mentors working with the mentees, of course, is to improve physical fitness measures over time,” Traskie says. “But really, the No. 1 goal is just to make students feel more confident in their ability to move on their own or in social situations.”

Most participants meet with their mentors three times over three weeks, but frequency and number of meetings can vary depending on student schedules.

A kinesiology student helps a peer use dumbbells in an ACTIVE Spartan session.

During sessions, PAMs can support students’ fitness goals by walking them through the campus fitness center or creating an exercise plan with the help of a staff member.

Michigan State University 

The impact: Upon completion of the program, mentees are equipped with both the tools and confidence to lead their own fitness journey and engage in other campus offerings, like group classes. MSU staff collect data from participants in a pre- and postsurvey to assess physical activity levels and measure change, which they compare to National College Health Assessments result from the institution, as well.

For the mentors, having hands-on work experience is invaluable, Traskie says. “They’re hungry to get working, and they really like working with their peers. It’s really a different population than what they get to do … outside of the institution.”

PAMs also build people skills (communication, conflict resolution, flexibility, etc.) and receive career guidance from staff around résumé development and interviewing skills. Additionally, the mentors leave with confidence and expertise to sit for the personal trainer certification exam.

“We’ve had 100 percent of our interns that have taken that exam following their internship pass,” Traskie says. “So not only are they walking away then as an undergrad with a degree, or maybe if they’re a junior, prior to graduating, now they have that certification that offers them a career path or career flexibility.”

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