A common recommendation for making healthy new habits stick is to enlist the support of a buddy. With UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative (HCI), participants have buddies, co-workers, students, communities — heck, an entire university — behind them. Not only that, Semel HCI shares research-driven tactics — simple ones — for achieving a balanced life.
The Semel HCI sprang from a dinner conversation between philanthropists Jane and Terry Semel and Chancellor Gene Block. The gist: UCLA was excelling in treating disease, but not in addressing health and well-being. The Semels had an idea about how to change that. “Our initial intention was to promote health and prevent illness,” Jane Semel recalls. “Then we realized that at UCLA we could teach young people and older people, faculty, students and staff how to take care of themselves while they’re young enough to do something about it.”
Taking it another step, Terry Semel suggested to Block, “Do it in one place — let it be at UCLA — and prove that it works. The rest of the world will follow.”
Jane Semel continues, “The Healthy Campus Initiative is a community of students, faculty and staff working to find the balance between a healthy body and a healthy mind for ultimate well-being.
“We realized that at UCLA we could teach young people and older people, faculty, students and staff how to take care of themselves while they’re young enough to do something about it.”
“Being smart is not enough — as my mother said, ‘Without your health, you have nothing.’ [It’s] a sobering thought, [but] the Semel HCI offers us the tools,” she adds.
The Semels’ approach for making a lasting impact: “The students of today are the parents of tomorrow. We keep growing the initiative by learning more about the tools that can help in times of stress.”
The Semels’ initiative was meant to serve as a springboard for those looking to make healthy lifestyle changes. Drawing from UCLA’s strengths, seven subcommittees were created — EatWell, MoveWell, MindWell, BeWell, BreatheWell, EngageWell and ResearchWell — to impact various aspects of lives, a well-orchestrated interweaving of modalities that would work their “healthy choice as the easy choice” magic.
“It’s a bottom-up, inside-out effort,” Wendelin Slusser, M.S., M.D., associate vice provost for Semel HCI, says of the collaborative component of the program. “We work in policy, physical environment, operations, academics and service to improve health equity. Our senior operators and content experts work together to lead all students and staff.”
Funded by the Semels, the Semel HCI kicked off in 2013 to “foster a culture of physical, emotional and social well-being,” Slusser explains.
There are signs of Semel HCI at work everywhere on campus, although one might not immediately realize their link to the initiative — for example, the decrease in the campus speed limit from 35 miles per hour to 20. This change was made to increase “walkability, bikeability and scootability,” Slusser says. Plus, studies have determined that reduced vehicle speeds result in lower injury severities and can even eliminate accidents altogether.
Other eye-catching Semel HCI additions: a medicinal garden that has been flourishing just south of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center for the past seven years, and a bike channel on the steps to Ackerman Union and the engineering buildings that lets cyclists roll — versus bounce or carry — bicycles up staircases.
Yes, Semel HCI has been bringing holistic wellness to UCLA and the community through science-driven and innovative ways since its inception. So, with 2020 just beginning, why not embody some of the elements of Semel HCI’s pods for many healthy years ahead? We promise … it’s easy.
Is the thought of healthy nutrition daunting? Amy Rowat, an EatWell co-leader, has suggestions that run the gamut from simple to challenging, starting with: “Drinking just plain water is great.”
A “do good/feel good” suggestion is to eat 20% less red meat, which could reduce greenhouse gases by 1 million metric tons. “This makes a huge difference in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” Rowat says.
Then there’s: “Choose fresh food over processed.” Making the latter directive easier, the EatWell pod strives to make plant-based menu options more accessible at UCLA dining venues. They’ve also established a healthy vending operation that has influenced vending policies across the University of California campuses. Based on a study in the Netherlands, UCLA began placing healthier vending fare at eye level and raising the price of less healthy items. Such moves have made a difference, ultimately encouraging the university’s vending operation to increase the number of healthier choices.
Another challenge from Rowat: “Learn to cook from scratch. Even if it’s just one dish, start the new year off with the goal of cooking a fresh, whole food.”
The fourth item on Rowat’s list might be a stretch for some: “Share meals with other people.” UCLA has been finding ways to encourage this for residents of the Hill, aka the campus dorms and dining halls. “It allows for celebrating the taste of food and increasing general enjoyment.”
Places you can see EatWell in action include a biodynamic garden by the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, where 31 raised beds can be adopted by students, staff, faculty and intergenerational groups. A portion of the harvest goes to UCLA’s Community Programs Office Food Closet, which serves students dealing with food insecurity. For these same students, a teaching kitchen geared toward healthful, delicious and economical cooking launched in October.
The Semel HCI’s diabetes prevention program combines EatWell and MoveWell. UCLA’s 22-session, yearlong program was the first university program to be certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants in a similar program, with results published in the New England Journal of Medicine, saw a 58% decrease in their risk of getting diabetes. The key components were some diet shifts, modest weight loss and increased physical activity. The success of UCLA’s program, now in its fourth year, has seen its expansion across all UC campuses.
The MoveWell pod goes beyond mere workouts. “Our main pillars are to activate, create alliances and awareness — to get folks to become informed, aware and to understand the value of movement,” says Angelia Leung, a MoveWell pod co-leader from 2013 to 2019. The benefits of these principles are boundless. What Leung really wants people to do? “Pay attention to your body — your home,” she says. “This is key for becoming aware of your body’s needs. Take care of your home.”
Move for two to three minutes every hour. First and foremost, Leung suggests that chronic “sitters” need to move for two to three minutes every hour. Five minutes is even more beneficial. “Just stretch the arms, twist the spine, tilt or take a moment of deep breathing, before you resume your head work,” she says. “Not only does it benefit bodily health, but it improves one’s alertness, readiness and capacity to do demanding cognitive work.” It’s important to take this exercise outside of classrooms and workplaces. Sitting in front of televisions or video games, it’s easy to forget to take time to move, especially without built-in commercial breaks. Leung recommends setting a timer.
Also, harness technology to help you. Mindfulness, meditation, breathing … these easy techniques can reap great rewards but often get lost in daily chaos. Leung’s tech device favorites, meditation apps and fitness trackers, have built-in guidance for taking much-needed wellness breaks.
Find something you love and stick with it. As for the key to longevity, Leung points to physical activities, everything from walking to swimming to hitting the gym. Just don’t overdo it. Moderation is best. “Know what you have inclinations for [workout-wise], do it, build a level of commitment to it and find joy in it.”
Practice progressive muscle relaxation. One of Leung’s ways of tuning in to the body’s messages and needs is also ideal for winding down at bedtime — progressive muscle relaxation. During this exercise, participants visualize and scan each body part, tensing and relaxing while breathing. “This is a way to become more aware of and tune in to your physicalness,” she says.
Resolve to sleep more. And should drowsiness occur during this exercise, great! Robert M. Bilder, co-director of the Semel HCI MindWell pod, weighs in on sleep’s importance to well-rounded health: “It’s amazing how [students] always think that they should be sleeping less to do more work, when the reality is that if they slept more, they’d get more done, be happier and achieve better grades.” Of course, the same holds true for everyone. And the requisite seven to eight hours of sleep a night remains essential. Not good at achieving shut-eye? Bilder stresses, “It’s critically important to have a regular bedtime and, to the extent that it’s feasible, a regular wake-up time, and then to manage your environment.”
As resolutions go, Semel HCI’s to expand its community has surpassed their expectations. “The idea was for us to do it well in our own backyard and to inspire others,” Slusser says. Turns out, many have been inspired. Today, the health initiative — called the Healthy Campus Network — is implemented systemwide throughout the UC network. “It was surprising how quickly it could be adopted,” Slusser says of this step, which took just two years to accomplish. For those looking to embody new habits, that’s something to consider when seeking inspiration.
Listen to Bilder, and a whole new vocabulary emerges. Familism, biophilia, eudaimonia — they’re Greek words, and when you learn what they mean, you’ll feel the urge to include them in your life.
Familism, or putting priority on family, is first. Bilder defines this cornerstone of well-being as “having strong social supports, whether they come from relatives, friends or others in your community.” It’s one thing to have these critical, foundational relationships, but maintaining them requires effort. Bilder promotes regular phone calls, visits, communal dinners and outings.
Biophilia, or a love of nature, per Bilder, is how engaging with nature can help humans feel better: “Exposure to green spaces and running water is of such value to human well-being.” To achieve this “proximity to green things,” Bilder says, “either get out and immerse, or bring nature in — think plants in the office.”
Eudaimonia means living with peace, harmony and purpose. “Eudaimonia translates to human flourishing or prosperity,” Bilder explains. “But we define it as the sense of well-being and happiness that comes from living life with meaning and purpose.” How do we achieve eudaimonia? Perhaps the answer can be found by observing winners of UCLA’s annual Eudaimonia Awards. In 2019, seven UCLA students, staff, faculty and alumni were honored for exemplifying many of the elements the MindWell pod promotes — from resilience to dedication to the common good — and inspiring others through their actions.
Resilience has a special ring to it, right? This pod step has to do with recovering from stress — and developing coping strategies. “We’re all stressed, and we all face challenges,” Bilder says. “The important thing is figuring out how to manage those stressors in the best way for our own well-being and for those around us.”
One method the Semel HCI encourages is meditation. Various opportunities are available for those looking to dive in, particularly through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), part of the Semel Institute. Every Thursday at 12:30 p.m., MARC’s Diana Winston and other MARC-affiliated teachers lead a 30-minute meditation session. There’s also the UCLA Mindful app.
Still fretting over what healthy resolutions to make for the new year? Start here, with the pods that speak to you, and the changes will happen with ease. One more tip from Bilder: learned optimism. “We can learn how to become more optimistic — to think explicitly about how we expect better things to be coming, and to consider the future in a positive light.”