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University of Vermont Enshrines Healthy Living in Bricks and Mortar

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Pledges by college students to eschew drugs and alcohol are old hat. Now they’re meditating, working out, practicing yoga, eating healthfully, and at least one school, the University of Vermont, it has become a bona fide lifestyle.

In UVM’s Wellness Environment, known as WE, students live in a new, big substance-free dorm, take a required class in what affects the health of their brains and bodies, and are given incentives to stay healthy like access to a free gym membership, nutrition and fitness coaches and an app that tracks their activities.

“We created an environment where we believe if we offer young people healthy foods, healthy choices, they’ll make them. We reward those things, and we don’t encourage the negative things, so the rule in the environment is no alcohol, no drugs, and the students follow it,” said Dr. Jim Hudziak, the chief of child psychiatry at the UVM’s Larner College of Medicine, who founded the Wellness Environment or WE program.

It goes beyond the wellness and substance-free residential halls found at some colleges.

“It looks at them (students) as an individual, which is really important obviously for health and wellness, but then it’s also making changes to their community,” said David Arnold, of the Washington-based NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. “So combining those two things together as well as working broader with faculty is actually a very, very impressive implementation of that process.”

At the start of a recent class, “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies,” the auditorium full of students stood with eyes closed for a few minutes of meditation. Then Hudziak, who tosses a brain-shaped football to students in the auditorium before class, discussed neuroscience topics including how traumatic or stressful experiences in childhood can affect physical and mental health.

And there’s no tolerance for alcohol or drugs in the dorm. If you’re caught with either in the environment, you’re thrown out, Hudziak said.

“I’m a genetic neuroscientist and child psychiatrist who wanted to end what I thought and saw was very damaging cultures in university settings, and I thought using neuroscience and behavior change science rather than sort of lecturing and setting standards of behavior would work,” he said.

That makes for a quieter dorm, said freshman Cole Spaulding, of Waterbury, as he worked out in the dorm’s fitness center on a recent evening.

“You’re sitting at home in your dorm, and it’s not like people are yelling. You know the bathrooms are always clean. It’s a nice place to just live,” he said.

WE students pay the same rate for campus housing as other students.

After a recent evening meditation class in the dorm, Hannah Bryant, of Brewster, Massachusetts, said her choice to join WE already has paid off.

She bases her life around living a healthy lifestyle and liked the chance to be surrounded by healthy opportunities like yoga, meditation and good food.

“Just like already within the first three weeks of school has already made a huge difference. And it’s things like this, the 30 minutes, that can really change your week around,” she said.

Through the app, students earn coins for healthy choices that can be used to buy WE paraphernalia — socks, sweat shirts, hats. They’re also encouraged to mentor kids in the community as one of the four pillars on which the program is based: fitness, mindfulness, nutrition and relationships.

Freshman Joy Vincenzo of Portland, Connecticut, said she chose the WE program because in high school she would get stressed about school work.

The UVM program has helped in her first few weeks of college. She does yoga and, when she has breaks between classes, she might go to the gym for 20 minutes.

“This argument of WE is, if we teach and practice these health-promoting activities, when things get tough, you’ll rely on a whole new set of skills,” Hudziak said.

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