Fitness and Wellness from the East
"I’m always thinking and thinking and have so much trouble settling down those thoughts and relaxing in general."
- Sarah Rich, sophomore at Stonehill College.
Large piles of books. Tall cups of coffee. An annoyed roommate tossing in the bed across the room. Sound familiar?
All-nighters are the plague of college students everywhere. Even the rare college student who hops into bed by the early hour of midnight every night still has to fight through mountains of work to get there. Whether this overload occurs because the procrastinator waited too long or the overachiever took on too much, one thing is certain—college generates an often unhealthy amount of stress.
Sarah Rich, a sophomore at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, is no exception.
“I always feel constant pressure here," Rich said during an instant message conversation. “There’s always a new assignment, and just when you get something done, 10 more things show up to do - it never seems to end."
More and more college students throughout the country are turning to Eastern disciplines for stress management. Eastern disciplines, such as yoga and the martial arts, combine physical exercise with meditation practice, creating perhaps the ideal method of dealing with tension.
Doctors have long said that regular exercise can help regulate stress. According to the Gale Health and Wellness Resource Center, exercise not only provides an outlet for releasing tension; it also stimulates feelings of euphoria via the release of endorphins, proteins in the brain that serve as the body’s natural pain reliever. Meditation, or a heightened state of focus and concentration, has also been proven to ease the negative effects of stress.
As Matt Flagge, a sophomore at Yale University in Connecticut and a regular practitioner of meditation, said, “Meditation has the dual effect of, first and foremost, reducing the number of useless and stressful thoughts, and secondly, allowing us to recognize them for what they are when they do arise."
For Rich, the biggest drawback of stress is the effect it has on her mind.
“I’m always thinking and thinking and have so much trouble settling down those thoughts and relaxing in general," Rich said.
Rich found a solution in meditation. She pieced together a routine from Web sites, an audiotape and what she learned during meditation sessions at the Zen Center in New Haven, Connecticut. While her routine sometimes falls by the wayside when she gets really busy, Rich said, when she meditates consistently she feels a big difference in her ability to relax.
Meditation has been an increasingly popular relaxation device since the 1960s when there was a surge of interest in Eastern philosophy. While meditation does not offer quite the same benefits as exercise, a 1995 report to the National Institutes of Health on alternative medicine concluded that “more than 30 years of research suggests that meditation and similar forms of relaxation can lead to better health, higher quality of life and lowered health care costs."
Flagge, who has studied meditation for over a year, said, “In general, [meditation has] no direct effects for the physical health. I think, however, it would be beneficial indirectly. It eliminates a great deal of stress, and stress is very much detrimental to the physical health."
Indeed, as the Gale Health and Wellness Resource Center reports, stress can cause “anxiety, high blood pressure, irritability, tense muscles, headaches, stomachaches and lower resistance to illness."
If meditation found its ground in the U.S. in the 1960s, then the 1970s martial arts craze initiated by actor Bruce Lee kicked alternative health options up a notch. Today, there are martial arts schools all across the U.S., and most colleges offer martial arts classes through their fitness centers or even for credit.
Martial arts - which include karate, kung fu, aikido, judo, jujitsu, tae kwan do and tai chi - combine physical self-defense training with mental strength and development.
Valerie Cross, a tae kwon do instructor at Ithaca College in New York, said all forms of martial arts are based on “respect, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit." As a result, most martial arts classes begin with a period of meditation to focus the mind and increase self-awareness. The remainder of class is spent improving the body’s strength, power, speed, endurance, control, balance and timing.
The Rochester Institute of Technology in New York offers a number of no-credit martial arts classes to its students. In order to counter boredom and stress on Friday afternoons, sophomore Chris Troester spends three hours in karate training classes. During the first 90 minutes, he learns fundamental moves; during the second half, he participates in cardio and muscle-building workouts as well as sparring matches.
“I’m getting in amazing shape," Troester said. “I’m also gaining valuable experience and having a lot of fun in sparring."
Cross said martial arts are an ideal “outlet for the stresses of being a college student."
“If you spend all your time studying or all your time partying, you’re not going to develop any life skills," she said. “I view [the martial arts] as one way to help people develop life skills - thinking about things other than their academic curriculum, thinking about something practical."
Choosing A Discipline
Adopting an eastern discipline requires finding one that fits the needs of the individual.
“Tai chi and yoga are about flexibility and balance, whereas in tae kwon do that’s important, but it’s much more of an aerobic sport," Cross explained. “Karate tends to be more in-close and upper-body movements while tae kwon do is more foot movements. You have to decide what kind of a physical fitness activity you’re interested in."