A group of students sit in a circle, their eyes closed, and their legs crossed. Upon the instructor’s words, they breathe in, and then out in harmony.
Deep breathing exercises are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when one imagines a “physical education” class. More likely, one would recall a vertical rope climb, the PACER test, or the perils of high school dodgeball. At MIT, however, physical education aims to be holistic and supportive of students’ mental and physical well-being.
During the 2017-18 academic year, the MIT Physical Education and Wellness Program in the Division of Student Life added two new courses. Piloted through the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, a program where members of the MIT community apply for grants that support wellness and mental health on campus, students are now able to enroll in Meditation/Fitness and Healthy Relationships/Fitness for PE points.
Led this year by Sarah K. Johnson, Michele McCauley, Jennifer Pustz, and Jennifer Earls, the Meditation/Fitness course focuses on relaxation, deep focus techniques, and finding time for self-care in students’ busy schedules. “I want students to feel that meditation is accessible for any lifestyle and schedule — including theirs,” Johnson says. “Just one minute of belly-breathing per day can a make a difference, with the potential to snowball into a new healthy habit for mind and body.”
MIT student Sean Noriega '18 took the meditation course, which filled to capacity in all four sections. When asked how the class has improved his time at MIT, Noriega said, “My biggest takeaway is that so many techniques to improve my mood and productivity can be done at home.” The course also teaches and practices basic fitness principles.
Healthy Relationships/Fitness was led by Vienna Rothberg, peer education and prevention specialist in MIT’s Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) office, and physical education instructors Julie Ann Whitson and Sarah Johnson.
“This might be the best chance for most folks to access accurate information about healthy relationships and sexual health in a structured format,” Rothberg says. “Evidence suggests that when people have access to accurate and medically-based sexuality and relationship information, they make healthier choices about their bodies and their relationships.” After the course, students shared that they appreciated having a place for in-depth, personal conversations, which can be challenging to have outside of the classroom. Like the Meditation/Fitness course, this course covered basic fitness principles.
These classes will continue into the upcoming academic year. The MIT Physical Education and Wellness Program will continue to build upon and update the curriculum based on student feedback. “Wellness is an area of growth for our program,” says Carrie Sampson Moore, director of MIT Physical Education and Wellness, who led the effort to create the new courses. “Students reported that these classes helped them manage stress.”