UF RecSports turns to social media to encourage students to exercise


Katie Hart, center, joins others in a spinning class at the Student Recreation & Fitness Center on campus in Gainesville on Monday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, July 15, 2013 at 4:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 15, 2013 at 4:40 p.m.

We know exercise is good for our bodies — but our brains?

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Katie Hart, center, joins others in a spinning class at the Student Recreation & Fitness Center on campus in Gainesville on Monday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun

Research over the past decade has endorsed physical activity for firing up the neurons in our brain to help us think and perform better, and help treat mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Now an initiative at the University of Florida Department of Recreational Sports aims to imprint the comprehensive benefits of exercise on students (especially incoming freshmen) by tapping into students’ most common ground: social media.

The “Live in Motion” challenge invites students to post photos and messages on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook on exercise-based themes that change daily during the month of July.

Day one, for example, was “A New Goal,” which was followed by “Trying Something New.” Others include “Water,” “Break a Sweat” and “Rain or Shine.”

Rec Sports’ assistant director of marketing and communications, Andy Howard, plucked the themes from the book “Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” Written by Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, the book begins with a quote from Plato on how education and physical activity are the means to one’s success in life. It then builds scientific arguments on why that’s true. For example, Ratey cites studies showing that fit kids score significantly higher on standardized tests than their unfit peers. An initiative at a Naperville, Ill., school called “Zero Hour PE” had kids exercising before class, which ended up being key to their scholastic success.

UF experts are hoping its students will be similarly inspired by exercise.

“(Exercise) wears out anxiety and depression, two of the biggest problems on campus today,” said UF Rec Sports Director David Bowles, who assigned his entire staff to read “Spark.” “So it really connects with what we’re doing in college today.”

Bowles also gave the book to staff in student affairs and human resources and to counselors at the wellness center, and they all met to discuss how the concepts could help UF students.

Howard’s initiative grew out of those talks. The idea for the photo challenge came to him, he said, because it taps into students’ social media savvy and overall connectedness. “I think some people might think social media might be the opposite of exercise — a distraction from it, like the quintessential video game. In this case, it’s to empower people to think about how they are going to engage.”

Howard added that the visual focus allows for “more showing, less telling” and encourages people to have fun and be creative with what they’re doing.

About 40 people in any one day post pictures or messages, and Howard said he anticipates that the average participant has an average of 100 contacts they are reaching. He spends a lot of time responding to tweets and photos, encouraging people and checking in on them.

As Howard anticipated, the initiative has gone viral. The Boston Gator Club has joined, and UF students and alumni around the country are participating.

Madison Martin, a UF graduate student in nuclear engineering who is doing an internship at the Lawrence Liverpool National Lab in California, regularly tweets about how she’s engaging with the daily themes. She also follows other participants on Instagram.

“I’m a visual learner, so if I see something in an image like a stretch position or a plank position, it’s kind of like a self-challenge to work up to it,” she said, adding that the initiative provides a sense of camaraderie from afar.

Martin regularly exercises as a graduate student at UF, and she said that hasn’t changed this summer. “I’m at an internship, but this is an academic style internship. I’m still doing research,” Martin said. “So my healthy lifestyle out here is just as important as when I’m UF taking classes.”

Martin added, “Without my cycle classes and yoga, I wouldn’t be able to survive grad school. I need that stress release and fun.”

Especially with classes, “I love to feed off of other peoples’ energy,” she said.

That’s a common motivation for students, said UF Rec Sports instructor Dave Goss, who teaches spinning and core classes on campus.

“A lot of times people are going to these classes primarily for the group experience. The exercise is a result of being there with other people,” Goss said. “I think social media connects along those same lines.”

Goss added that while some people are self-motivated to exercise, many wouldn’t do it without a push or some encouragement from their peers, which social media can provide.

And for incoming freshmen, “social media is something they’ve grown up with,” Goss said. “It’s something very normal for them to be able to participate (in Live in Motion). I think this helps them make that transition to college, too.”

The Live in Motion initiative lasts through the month of July, and it will be done again in September. To join, look for the #LiveInMotion hashtag on Instagram and Twitter, under the account name @UFRecSports.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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