On the move

What does physical activity have to do with a university?

Image of Bruce Kidd from over John Scherk's shoulder

Researchers have confirmed the myriad benefits of being physically active—and UTSC has always been a great place for recreation, whether it’s being part of an intramural sport or simply taking a walk in the valley. The new facilities for the 2015 Pan Am & Parapan American Games have only improved the campus for elite and amateur athletes alike. Principal Bruce Kidd and Professor John Scherk, an advocate of healthy living and an advisor the the Health Studies program, sat down at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (TPASC) to consider the key role physical activity plays in a university environment.

Bruce Kidd: The expression of physical activity is a very important part of our culture, whether it’s exercise, dance, play, or sport. As academics, we seek to understand, inform, and intervene in our complex world. If we don’t have some understanding of the cultural aspect of physical activity and sport, we’re overlooking an important element of our reality.
For reasons of health, productivity, survival, and intellectual investigation, there should be planning for sport and physical activity in the academy.

John Scherk: Research shows physical activity enhances the academic performance and ability of students and faculty, not to mention that there are strong correlations between physical activity and health.
Last fall there was an announcement in the Instructional Centre at exam time that the common area was going to used for computer games as a means of stress release for students. I grimaced a bit because a much better, more holistic way of stress relief is physical activity of all kinds, even if it’s a vigorous walk or swimming regularly.

BK: There’s tons of research to back that up. You know, whenever I’m really, really stressed I go for a long bike ride or a long walk. The literature is full of examples of how exercise is linked to productivity, stress reduction, and improved mental health. In fact, we have colleagues who have made this their field of research, and it’s a growing area of scholarship internationally.

JS: In terms of teaching and research, our Health Studies program is forging a unique path for U of T. It integrates areas that various parts of this huge university are dealing with, but we’re pulling it together. One theme that is quite current now is physical activity and aging. We are developing a small group involved with aging and its many aspects.

BK: It’s very current. We know there is an aging effect and that you can slow it down through thoughtful physical activity, not binge working out.

JS: Among academics, it’s quite common to have a discussion, whether it’s about research or something administrative, while taking a walk. You get out for half an hour or an hour with colleagues and discuss an issue. We’re very lucky here at Scarborough to have the valley. We’ve both had walks with colleagues and administrative staff. Everybody feels well just for the movement. And everybody says, “What a shame we don’t make more use of the valley.”

BK: I have walking meetings. Even in the winter. If it’s a catch-up meeting, I have a route that I take them on and it’s enormously productive. The valley is as you describe it: extraordinary. I went for a walk with a colleague about six months ago and we saw seven deer. We talked about that for the next two weeks.

It’s much easier to do this in the valley because if you have a walking meeting across the St. George campus, you’re constantly interrupted by people you know who want to talk to you. So you don’t get much of a walk, and you don’t get much of a meeting. Here, you can go down in the relative solitude of the valley. And in addition to the beauty, you’ve got the uninterrupted conversation.

One of the things I’m going to initiate now that I’m principal is something like a Walk With the Principal to introduce the valley.

JS: Have you walked yet from the campus all the way down to the lake?

BK: No, but I’ve cycled down. I have a mountain bike in my office. So cycling is also in my plan.

JS: When I was a graduate student at Oxford, I rowed for two or three years. I’ve never forgotten it. I think this just goes straight your point and it would be wonderful if all of our students have this sort of experience that will reshape their thinking about physical activity and expose them to the sheer pleasure of it for the rest of their lives.

BK: I would like to see every UTSC student graduate with confident knowledge about how to live in a healthily, embodied way, and assured that they can joyously experience physical activity, life-long productivity, and all that implies. I also want to help ensure that they’re not intimidated by our new athletics facilities, that they don’t feel that they have to be an Olympic champion in order to use the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, and they find some kind of activity that they enjoy and that they know is good for them.
It is our students who have helped make UTSC one of the best-equipped campuses in Canada for sport and recreation. Any bright, young person who wants to study in a demanding, world-class university, but also has a love of sport and physical activity and wants to go to a place that has outstanding facilities and programs, has got to start with UTSC.