Program Prescribes Free Personal Training to Students Coping with Stress, Anxiety, Depression
By Ed Brennen
Ralph Saint Louis was feeling stressed. On top of the coursework that comes with being a senior majoring in biology and minoring in education, he was juggling his responsibilities as an undergraduate research associate and resident advisor.
“It all started piling up,” says Saint Louis, who noticed he was gaining weight and feeling less motivated as his stress level increased.
Then he learned about the university’s Exercise is Medicine program.
A collaboration between Campus Recreation, the Wellness Center and the Exercise Physiology Department, the program teaches students how exercise can improve their overall well-being by providing them with 16 personal training sessions – free of charge. Participants, who are usually referred to the program by Counseling Services, are paired with certified student trainers for personally tailored one-hour workouts at either the Campus Recreation Center or the Riverview Fitness Center.
“I thought, ‘This is what I need in my life right now,’” says Saint Louis, who joined the program in December and began working out with personal trainer Andrea Thompson, a graduate student in public health. After eight weeks of structured cardio work and weight training, Saint Louis felt better both physically and mentally.
“My stress is down, and I have more quality of life in general,” the Medford native says. “I’m getting to sleep at a more regular time, and I definitely pay more attention to my diet.”
Most importantly, Saint Louis has continued the workout regimen on his own, making time to exercise several days each week at the CRC.
“That’s what we want to see,” says Asst. Director of Fitness & Wellness Diana Davis, who started the EIM program on campus four years ago. “We don’t want lifelong personal training clients. We want to give them the tools and confidence to be in the fitness center on their own.”
Davis learned about EIM, a global health initiative managed by the American College of Sports Medicine, while attending a national conference with Peter Murray, director of campus recreation. Murray wanted to try EIM at UMass Lowell and asked Davis to take the lead.
The program started modestly in 2014-15 with 11 students. It took off over the next two years, with participation maxing out at 36 students.
Director of Counseling Services Deborah Edelman-Blank, who joined the university last summer, had heard about programs like EIM over the course of her 15-year career. But of the half-dozen schools where she’s worked, UML is the first that offers the program to students.
“I feel so lucky to have this resource. We’ve seen a ton of success with it,” says Edelman-Blank, who notes that research shows exercise can be as effective as medication for treating mild and moderate depression, anxiety and stress, as well as for improving concentration, memory, mood, energy and sleep.
“And you don’t need a ton of super-strenuous exercise to get those benefits,” she adds. “You really only need about 30 minutes three times a week. Anything they do there is going to help make a significant impact.”
Stressed-out students aren’t the only ones who benefit from EIM; the program provides valuable, practical experience for the personal trainers as well.
“It definitely feels great to help people reach their goals,” says Sean Kinahan, a senior public health major from Northbridge who has provided personal training to about 10 EIM clients over the past three-plus years. “It’s a fulfilling job. I get to teach them things that hopefully they can sustain for the rest of their lives.”
Kinahan is among 16 student trainers working with the EIM program this semester. Most are juniors and seniors in the exercise physiology program, including two who are using it as their capstone senior clinical practicums and earning four credits for their work. Other trainers are in the Master of Public Health or Doctor of Physical Therapy programs.
Annalisa Mazza, a senior biology major and honors student from East Longmeadow, was one of the program’s first trainers. For her honors project, she conducted a confidential pre- and post-program survey of more than a dozen EIM participants. Her study confirmed the program’s claims of improving students’ physical and mental health.
“Obviously, the university wants students to be as happy and healthy as possible,” says Mazza, who plans to pursue a master’s in sports management and recreation at Springfield College. “We have a lot of students who work extremely hard on their academics. It’s nice to know that there’s a program where, if they’re not feeling their best, they can start to improve. I would love to see it continue to grow and transform.”
Personal trainers are paid from the Campus Recreation budget and from funds generated by personal training sessions offered to faculty and staff. Davis also received a $1,000 Chancellor’s 2020 Community Impact Grant in 2016.
When students are referred to the EIM program from Counseling Services, Davis meets with them one-on-one to discuss their goals before pairing them with a trainer. While the personal trainers are not made aware of their clients’ confidential mental health information, they do receive training from the Wellness Center staff on how to counteract issues like negative self-talk.
“One of the great things about personal training is, you put your phone away for an hour, and you can talk between sets and get to know someone,” says Davis, who notes that trainers follow the client’s lead on how much they want to converse. “It’s like getting a haircut – some people like to talk a lot.”
As an RA at Bourgeois Hall, Saint Louis keeps the EIM program in mind when talking to students who may be struggling.
“I direct them to the Wellness Center and let them know they have resources for them,” says Saint Louis, who is in the Bachelor’s-to-Master’s program and will continue his biology studies in the fall. “It’s your self-care, your health and your wellness that matters.”
Now that EIM is established on campus, Davis is thinking of new ways to grow and evolve the program. One idea is to offer a six-week group exercise program for students who may not want one-on-one training.
“Exercise isn’t the magic pill for everybody, but people would pay a lot of money for a supplement that gives them the benefits of exercise, meditation and mindful breathing,” Davis says. “And it’s already right here.”