As Auburn University student Leslie Troyer finished her fall 2011 semester, she Tweeted, "Bowling class = done. Jogging and swimming next semester #senior #athlete." A fourth-year sociology major, Troyer decided to take bowling because she was already registered for her required courses but still needed to accumulate more credit hours to graduate. Plus, bowling turned out to be fun, Troyer says. She's taking two more exercise classes next semester to fill those extra credits.
"It's nice that I got all of my academic classes in order," Troyer says. "That way I can enjoy my senior year and not be too stressed my last two semesters."
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Many college students feel stressed, says Hussein Rajput, the director of counseling at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., who thinks much of students' anxiety is derived from the enormous transitions that often occur at this time.
"Moving away from home, making new friends, choosing a major, redefining relationships with parents and other family members, starting and ending romantic relationships, and preparing for a career after college," he says, "That amounts to a lot of change in a fairly short period of time."
And for students who are nearing the end of their college careers, Rajput says that many students overcommit to activities because they feel pressure to build impressive résumés. Those extra activities can often lead to more stress.
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Students' instructors feel stressed, too. John Matthews's schedule is packed with activities such as teaching, coaching the University of Mississippi fencing club, and acting as the graduate program coordinator of the Ole Miss School of Pharmacy. He also teaches beginner and intermediate fencing classes for credit and says the exercise break is "an enormously good stress reliever."
And the confidence of his fencing students greatly improves as their skills advance throughout the semester, Matthews says.
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Students can also boost self esteem through exercise classes because they likely will look more physically fit, says Hamline's Rajput. He also points out that by taking a class, there's "built-in accountability" so there's a greater chance that the student will actually exercise, as opposed to an unregulated workout routine.
"When you know you're getting graded, that you've paid tuition dollars for the class, and that the instructor and other students will be expecting you to show up, you're a lot more likely to maintain that commitment," he says.
Dan Anderson, director of the leisure skills program at Clemson University, says nearly half of the undergraduate population participates in leisure classes—which range from tennis to photography—each year. Every semester, these students are surveyed, and Anderson says they often report that making friends with students they may have otherwise not met is important to them.
"A lot of students have mentioned that they feel more engaged with the greater-university student population," he says. "Their example is, 'I'm an engineering student. I'm with engineering students all day, every day. I come to my dance class, and I'm with English majors [and] math majors … It's the one time when I get to engage with students who are different than me."
Anderson says he fields a lot of questions about the leisure skills program, such as, "How will this get me a job?" His answer: "Well, it may not. It makes you an interesting person. It makes you more than just your job."
But it's still important for students to stay on pace with their academic majors and corresponding classes, says Nicole DeLoatch, academic adviser in the sociology department of the University of Maryland. She encourages students to tailor their electives to their main academic focus or to earn credit hours through internships rather than recreational classes
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DeLoatch says if students take advantage of all their career- and academic-oriented opportunities first, like Troyer did at Auburn, then they can consider a recreational class.
"If they've studied abroad, they've had an internship, they completed their major requirements, and they've also completed some elective requirements that help them strategically fulfill their future career or educational goal, then ... we encourage them to take courses to 'lighten the load,' so to speak," DeLoatch says.
And according to Clemson's Anderson and Rajput at Hamline, those recreational classes can even help with academic classes. Anderson had trouble in his statistics class as an undergraduate at Western Illinois University, so he purposefully took a meditation class right before the course, which, he says, helped him relax and clear his mind.
Exercise also improves concentration and mood, Rajput says, which he feels often helps students focus when studying. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Rajput took a racquetball class and experienced these benefits firsthand.
"One of the sad things about becoming an adult is that we sometimes get so preoccupied with serious pursuits that we forget how to play," he says. "But activities like sports, which allow you to lose yourself in the moment, can be incredibly restorative."
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