Supporting the health and wellbeing of students at Harvard University is a top priority for Kim Lacasse, general manager, Harvard Recreation. She acknowledges that students have prepared their entire lives to attend Harvard and is proud that she can play a crucial role. “It’s extremely rewarding to serve students in a positive way and be a part of their overall student experience.”
As General Manager for the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) and Hemenway Gymnasium, managed by HealthFitness, Lacasse partners with a staff of 124 employees, including 14 full-time employees and 110 part-time employees. The staff operate in two Harvard campus buildings that comprise 110,000 square feet.
Lacasse and her team offer 100 weekly group fitness classes to a student population of 19,700, including 6,700 undergraduate and 13,000 graduate and professional studies students, along with recreation programming for Harvard faculty, staff and alumni.
Offerings at the two buildings include recreation, fitness and aquatics as well as strength training and cardio equipment, squash courts, a basketball floor, and group fitness classes covering Barre, cycle, row, Zumba, yoga, mat Pilates, total body conditioning, and more. The gym receives more than 48,000 monthly visits.
Making room for fitness and recreation on a full plate
Not only is it a major academic accomplishment to be admitted to Harvard, it is becoming more competitive for applicants. In fact, less than 5 percent of Harvard applicants received offers of admission to the Class of 2022, with just 1,962 of 42,749 candidates securing spots in the class.
“Once a student is admitted, academics remain their top priority,” she says. “The biggest barrier to student participation in fitness and recreation is time. The students have so much on their plate there is little room for health and wellness—and they can’t put fitness on their resume. As a result, it’s challenging for students to find time for fitness and recreation.”
But Lacasse remains undeterred. “We have creative ways to help students find time for fitness and recreation—whether it’s inside their houses (dorms), at the recreation centers, or throughout the community.”
Planting the seeds of engagement
Incoming Harvard freshman are required to live together in houses (dorms) situated around Harvard Yard. In the middle of the year, freshman are sorted into one of 11 houses and are required to live in that house from their sophomore to senior years.
The house provides everything students need, including a dining hall, library—even a gym. Students only need to leave their house to attend classes. “Students may not visit the MAC or the Hemenway Gymnasium if they have nice gym in their house,” Lacasses says. “If students don’t come to us, we bring fitness and recreation to them.”
Instead of resident assistants (RAs), each house has several tutors, including a wellness tutor. Lacasse and her team make it a priority to visit each house and connect with wellness tutors to provide programming during their weekly study breaks. Activities include tie dye nights, painting, and potting and plant night—one of the most popular activities.
“For plant night we purchase succulents, potting soil, colorful rocks, moss, and fish bowls—everything students need to get their hands dirty and be creative. And it’s absolutely free to the students,” she adds. “The potted plant is something tangible students can put in their rooms. A succulent is easy to take care of—even if they forget to water it!”
The Harvard Recreation team also provides group exercise classes in the lobby, including Zumba, yoga, and boot camp. “This helps create awareness about recreation and lets the students know we are there to support them,” she says.
A crunch, savory incentive
After connecting with students in their houses, Lacasse encourages them to visit the MAC and the Hemenway Gymnasium.
“When hosting events in our buildings we do everything on a much larger scale,” she says. Activities include paint night, group fitness and movie nights in the swimming pool. Lacasse and her team also look forward to hosting a “Make Your Own Trail Mix” event where students can drop in during the day and make up a batch of healthy trail mix and take it back to their house.
Lacasse says her main goal is always to increase participation—and the more her team can bring students into the buildings the better. She has learned that fitness programming may not be enough to get students out of their houses. “We can’t always lure students out of their houses through a high-impact boot camp, but we can entice them with a plant night—and then they see the gym and what we have to offer.”
Boosting wellness with off-campus activities
Lacasse and her team understand the importance of moving students off campus to participate in fitness and recreation. “As we grow as a team we want to offer more programs, so we have moved some programming outside the campus—including an ice skating party, rock climbing, and participating in an Escape Room where students compete in mental and physical challenges.”
Providing finals week support
Each semester Harvard students participate in a “Reading Period” where they have one entire week off of classes before finals week. Prior to the Reading Period, classes, clubs and intramural participation conclude and the week is entirely dedicated to reading and studying for finals.
Lacasse acknowledges that taking a week off to study is quite a bit of unstructured time for students, so she and her team provide wellness study breaks, group exercise, massage chairs—anything to give students a moment away from their books. “Our goal is to help students recognize that it is not healthy to cram for an entire week,” she says. “We encourage them to put their health and wellness first and take small breaks from studying.”
An academic mindset both inside and outside the classroom.
Another way Lacasse and her team engage students is to engage their minds. “Harvard students are interested in the science behind fitness and personal training,” she says. “As a personal trainer, I appreciate their questions because it keeps me on my toes and holds me accountable for knowing the latest science.”
Lacasse posts the most recent Harvard scientific studies about fitness and wellness on the Harvard Recreation website
. She says it helps that there are more studies showing the benefits of health and wellness for everyone—including college students. “I tell students that the healthier they are the more they will be able to soak in information and be able to share it with others,” she says. “Their education will be stronger as a result.”
Ending her day teaching
After graduating with a degree in Applied Exercise Science, concentrating in Spa & Wellness Management from Springfield College, located in western Massachusetts, Lacasse was hired at Harvard Recreation as a fitness specialist in 2014. After nine months, she was promoted to fitness manager and general manager in August 2018.
Lacasse makes it a priority to teach a group fitness class at the end of each workday. “I love ending my day teaching so I can feel like I am part of the gym and connected to the Harvard campus community,” she says. “Although I didn’t go to school here, I feel like I am part of this community.”
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