Caetlin Beavor didn’t have the healthiest relationship with exercise prior to arriving at FGCU as a freshman in fall 2019.

The third child of four in a fitness-minded family from Jacksonville, Beavor was into the arts, not working out. But she knew it was important.

So the sophomore walked into Howard Hall to learn about FGCU’s Prevention and Wellness services and eventually came away – quite to her surprise – with more than just a love of exercise.

Thanks to a global health initiative in which FGCU already has the framework to be a national leader, Beavor also was handed a key piece to lifelong physical and mental well-being.

“I said, ‘I really want to get into fitness. But I don’t know how,’” said Beavor, still awed by the change in her comfort with fitness thanks to the relatively new program, known simply as Exercise is Medicine (EIM). “When I was younger it was like I would rather die (than work out).

“Now on days I don’t do something active, or if I’m going a few days without working out, I’m like, ‘Dang. I really need to go to the gym.’ I love it.”

Launched jointly in 2007 by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association, Exercise is Medicine has the simple message but sizable task, in part, of trying to counteract so many modern pressures toward sedentary lifestyles.

It cites data showing that nearly half of all American adults do not engage in the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a week.

Given the benefits of exercise on a host of health issues, it aims to put assessment and promotion of physical activity alongside routine health markers such as blood pressure, heart rate and others as a standard in medical care.

Assistant Professor Patricia Bauer

“With the cycles that we’re in in our lives, I think a lot of us forget what feeling good and healthy and rested and active even feels like,” said FGCU Assistant Professor Patricia Bauer, who advises the EIM program through Marieb College of Health & Human Services. “There’s been kind of this move away from active jobs, active lives, active hobbies, and moving ourselves toward a lot of things that come to us. We find ourselves now in a place where our health biomarkers aren’t looking so good.”

The university component of the initiative, known as Exercise is Medicine On Campus (EIM-OC), directs those same efforts at all elements of university populations. While that includes faculty and staff, the largest target audience is college-age students, whom studies show experience a decline in physical activity upon leaving high school.

A 2018 American College Health Association study showed that an even higher percentage of college students fell short of the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense weekly activity (about 54 percent) than did all U.S. adults (46 percent).

“High school life is pretty regulated and structured,” said Bauer, pointing to greater independence and often demands as well in college. “That wellness can go by the wayside. The habits and support they can get in this transitional time in their life is key.”

FGCU became an EIM-OC program in 2015 at the silver level, or middle of three tiers, which meant it had more than just a program and events, but also was collaborating across campus departments. Since 2019, however, FGCU has operated at the highest, gold level thanks to the all-important addition of physical activity as a vital sign on electronic medical records.

That addition, which is in keeping with EIM’s broadest goals, was directed by Student Health Services and underscores the critical, campus-wide support FGCU has for the program and all-important referrals it’s able to make to students.

FGCU was one of 73 schools nationwide to receive gold status among 153 that applied in 2020. There are more than 280 EIM-OC schools, including about 20 internationally.

“Exercise is Medicine really feeds into the holistic approach and wellness culture we have here,” said Bauer, noting FGCU’s varied indoor and outdoor bounty. “It’s all here.”

Where FGCU has begun further distinguishing itself has been in turning the message that Exercise is Medicine into potentially lasting action among students.

In the past two years, FGCU senior exercise science majors Katie Edwards and Rachel Gastaldo have overseen the development and careful honing of a student-to-student mentoring element, dubbed Exercise is Medicine, Eagles in Motion.

The largest target audience for Exercise is Medicine is college-age students, whom studies show experience a decline in physical activity upon leaving high school. Photos: James Greco/FGCU

By pairing mentors who have gone through training and interviews with mentees with comparable interests, FGCU is addressing the all-too-common pattern it was seeing with students entering – then leaving – the program.

The program, which gives service-learning hours to mentors, includes a pilot study this spring into the impact of mentors on self-efficacy among program participants.

“It’s all about the mentee,” said Edwards, pointing to activities from table tennis to campus walks that address exercise goals while fostering comfort, confidence and even friendships. “(College) is a time of change. Why not make it a positive change?”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the program’s reach – there are 14 mentors working with 10 mentees this spring – program leaders think they have seized on the ingredients to expand to a far larger university population.

Participants this spring already are showing significant improvements in mood, self-confidence and weight loss, even without a program focus on the latter as a primary goal.

“We know we need to add that student-to-student conversation and promotion,” Bauer said. “I think we’re ready now to really roll it out.”

For Beavor, like many others, most past bids at exercise were intimidating, unproductive, frustrating experiences. But the digital media design major made a rapid transformation to fitness enthusiast this spring with the help of mentor Ashley Krieger, a sophomore philosophy major who has taught yoga on campus.

“We clicked instantly,” Beavor said. “We would work out twice a week and sometimes hang out outside of that. It was like, ‘OK, we’re friends.’”

Now, the 20-year-old who jokes she once could barely lift a 20-pound bar encourages her roommates and other students to make the first contact to the EIM program.

“A workout can be anything,” she said. “You can go to a cycle that’s intense and scary, or just walk on the treadmill and talk for a little bit. It’s completely up to you.

“The mentors they choose are really great people. They have a lot of knowledge and genuinely want to help people out. It’s really nice.

“I think it would benefit everyone. It’s a good way to get in the gym, take care of yourself mentally, physically, meet some new people. It encompasses everything. It’s great.”