Active Bodies, Healthy Outlooks
Program pairs counseling, fitness services to help students
by Tom Speicher, writer/video producer. Illustrations by Kennedy L. Englert, graphic design student.
Published March 4, 2019
Overcast Mondays were a readily accepted invitation for Dustin W. Brown to remain in bed. The gloomy sky – coupled with the dawn of another demanding week – darkened his depressed state, a condition making him predisposed to take refuge in his room.
But on this gray Monday morning, the Pennsylvania College of Technology student is brightening his life. His “room” is spacious and consumed by a menagerie of weight machines. A trainer is nearby, offering instruction and encouragement. Brown heeds the words, as evidenced by the beads of sweat clouding his glasses.
Brown is participating in the college’s exercise mentorship program, a joint initiative of Counseling Services and the Fitness Center. Students incorporate structured physical activity to cope with issues that they are also addressing during individual, on-campus counseling sessions.
“This is a tremendous program,” says Brown prior to his workout. “I was genuinely considering leaving college. Everything was closing in. I felt like I had to get out of here. Then, I was able to get help. That was three years ago, and I haven’t left yet!”
Instead, he’s entrenched on the leg extension machine, dutifully completing three sets of 15 repetitions.
“You’re making it look easy,” says certified personal trainer Domenick S. Schiraldi-Irrera, who records Brown’s progress on a clipboard. “Your glutes, quads and hamstrings are all fired up now. It’s not super enjoyable, but it’s super effective.”
“‘Not super enjoyable’ should be your tag line,” replies Brown with a wry smile.
Smiling and exercising weren’t prevalent in Brown’s past. The Hanover native began struggling with depression and weight issues about eight years ago. He describes staring into a mirror and seeing a “fat loser.”
“I internalized it. It was like it didn’t matter that I felt like crap all the time,” he recalls. “It was just, ‘Get through the day.’ I had no real care for what I was doing.”
“I was genuinely considering leaving college. ... Then, I was able to get help. That was three years ago, and I haven’t left yet!”
Brown’s experience isn’t uncommon. Depression, anxiety and an unhealthy weight are often intertwined, according to Kathy W. Zakarian, director of counseling at Penn College.
“In response to the negative thoughts and feelings that accompany anxiety and depression, some people use food to provide a false, temporary sense of comfort,” she says. “So-called ‘emotional eating’ can lead to weight gain, which in turn can cause people to feel worse about themselves. In addition, people with anxiety and/or depression often report decreased energy and may lack the motivation to engage in physical activity.”
Alex J. Templeman relates. “I’m a fat ass,” he says matter-of-factly. For years, he’s struggled with weight and anxiety issues. Those problems intensified once he arrived on campus.
“College stress on top of being overweight kind of stacks up,” he says.
The electrical technology student accepted his counselor’s advice and enrolled in the free, confidential exercise mentorship program to combat that stress and improve his physical conditioning, so one day he can enlist in the Army.
“I consider myself a realistic thinker,” he says before placing wireless headphones over his ears and stepping onto an elliptical machine for a five-minute warmup. “If I don’t fix my habits, I could be looking at death at 45 or 50 just because of being overweight and stressed. If nothing else is working, why wouldn’t I try this? Why not do it and see if it works? It’s working for me.”
College counselor Jacklyn R. Leitzel isn’t surprised.
“We are always talking about the connection between exercise and mental health,” she says. “There are tons of clinically supported research showing why exercise is important for mental health. It makes a lot of sense, because exercise acts on the same system that antidepressants target.”
As the Mayo Clinic explains in Housecall, its e-newsletter, regular exercise releases “feel-good endorphins” and other natural brain chemicals that enhance an individual’s “sense of well-being.”
The sense of empowerment emanating from exercise also nourishes mental health, according to college counselor Brian J. Schurr, who – like Leitzel – routinely recommends the mentorship program to clients.
“One of the ways to fight back against depression and anxiety is to feel empowered over your emotions,” he says. “You don’t want to feel like your emotions are leading you through life, but rather you are walking through life with your emotions. When you know you can really do something that can influence your emotional well-being, that’s empowerment.”
In completing 10 reps at 140 pounds on the leg press machine, Templeman’s determined face embodies empowerment. His singular focus and the sweat penetrating his untucked gray polo shirt impress Schiraldi-Irrera. “Movement has to be with purpose. You have to squeeze those muscles,” the trainer exclaims. “Beautiful!”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 20.6 percent of adolescents ages 12-19 have obesity (as determined by body mass index). Approximately 71 percent of adults ages 20 and over are overweight or obese.
In an American College Health Association survey, about 40 percent of students nationwide said that they felt so depressed in the prior year that it was “difficult to function,” and 61 percent reported “overwhelming anxiety.”
According to a University of Vermont study, students gained an average of 10 pounds over four years of college.
A National Institutes of Health study found that people aged 18-23 had the highest prevalence of serious mental health issues.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 43.8 million adults experience mental illness each year, with half of all chronic mental illnesses beginning by the age of 14.
Moments later, the Tioga resident moves to the prone leg curl machine to strengthen his hamstrings. The headphones that once were comfortably covering his ears are now wrapped around his neck. Templeman grunts his way to 10 curls. For him, the struggle is well worth it.
“I’m exhausted, but I’m doing something,” he says. “I’m not as stressed, and it’s helping me fix my body issues. I’m extremely thankful for the program.”
“Alex is very dedicated, and he’s on the right path,” says Schiraldi-Irrera, a Penn College alumnus with a physical fitness specialist associate degree and a bachelor’s in applied health studies. “Each time you go to the gym, it’s a coin into the workout savings. You save enough, one day you get a new you.”
Schiraldi-Irrera’s status as a part-time Fitness Center assistant limits his client list. “We hope for more resources to grow the program,” says Leitzel, who serves as the initiative’s coordinator. “There are many students who can benefit.”
During the fall of 2017, Counseling Services had 1,026 personal psychotherapy appointments, a 10.2 percent increase in two years.
“Our top two presenting issues are anxiety and depression, and that is consistent with college counseling centers nationwide,” Zakarian says.
The counseling recipients who enroll in the exercise mentorship program meet with Schiraldi-Irrera to devise individual fitness goals. Several workouts are conducted over the ensuing weeks, with additional sessions as needed. Participants also have free access to the college’s nutritionist.
“We have about a 50 percent success rate with people who continue for the entire semester or academic year,” says Schiraldi-Irrera. “I’m in constant contact with them, reminding them that they have a schedule and need to be here. Sometimes, 75 percent of the battle is just getting to the gym.”
Trainer Domenick Schiraldi-Irrera prides himself on knowing how far to push clients enrolled in Penn College’s exercise mentorship program. He routinely challenges them to advance their fitness level to help reduce anxiety and deal with other emotional issues.
But he’s not above a relaxing walk, to the surprise of client Dustin Brown.
“One day, I was in a bad head space, and Dom suggested going for a walk rather than a high-intensity workout,” Brown recalls. “The whole time, I was looking around, wondering what he was going to do. Like, was he going to pull out some weights from behind a bush and say, ‘Hold these and keep walking!’ But nothing happened.”
Schiraldi-Irrera smiles at the story.
“A walk can be very therapeutic,” he says. “If it’s a nice day, I can say, ‘Let’s go breathe some fresh oxygen. Let’s get some vitamin D.’”
But he does have a warning for Brown. Next time, there just might be some weights behind a bush.
Both Templeman and Brown admit to losing that battle in the past. Templeman began working with Schiraldi-Irrera last spring but slacked off over the summer due to a kidney stone and “lack of motivation.” Brown blames summer laziness and “mama’s cooking” for halting his past progress. It’s a mistake both vow they won’t repeat.
“It was a wakeup call. I knew I messed up,” says Brown, a web and interactive media student. “As quickly as I got to where we wanted to be, it can just as quickly go away if you don’t keep up that consistency.”
His actions support that statement. Without complaint, Brown begins a challenging circuit of body squats, step-ups and situps.
“Does your core feel stronger?” asks Schiraldi-Irrera.
Brown nods in response. The intense activity renders him temporarily speechless, and that’s before Schiraldi-Irrera hands him a 10-pound medicine ball to increase the difficulty of the movements.
When he began the program, Brown could only muster a handful of pushups and situps. Now, he can do 20-plus at a time, not to mention squat 200 pounds.
“He’s not only physically becoming in better shape, he’s able to handle more,” Schiraldi-Irrera says. “He doesn’t decondition as fast. He’s self-motivated.”
He’s also nearing exhaustion, but that’s OK. Brown knows this work has alleviated chronic lower back and knee pain and has enhanced his outlook, leading to better grades.
“When he leaves here, he’s tired, but he usually has pep in his step,” Schiraldi-Irrera says. “His posture is better. He’s awake and ready to go handle the things he has to handle.”
Now, Brown is confidently handling the medicine ball while stepping one leg at a time on an 18-inch-high plyometric box. His workout is nearing its end, when he says waves of “euphoria” and “pride” sweep over him.
One more time, Brown raises the ball above his head and toward the clouds enveloping the Fitness Center’s glass ceiling. It’s obvious he’s generating his own sunshine.