Calling for a Healthier Harvard

Recent articles and opinion pieces in this newspaper have pointed out what everyone knows: the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) is not meeting the fitness needs of the Harvard community. What is at stake is not just students’ waistlines, but their mental health, and sometimes even their lives.

Harvard is currently facing a serious mental health epidemic. According to Richard Kadison, Chief of Mental Health Services at University Health Services, 9.5 percent of Harvard undergrads have considered suicide, and 45 percent have experienced a significant depression. This past fall the situation has only gotten worse, with even more students seeking help than after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The link between physical fitness and mental health is well established. Studies from Harvard and several other major medical research centers have shown that people who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and further, that exercise can be an effective treatment for those who are already depressed. One study from Duke University compared the effects of three different treatments for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder: drugs only, exercise only and drugs plus exercise. After four months of three 45-minute exercise sessions per week, those in the exercise only group had the most success in beating their depression and keeping it from coming back. They were still feeling the benefits 10 months after the study ended.

However, as Kadison points out, the last thing depressed people want to do is get out of bed, let alone trek through the snow to a gym filled with long lines, crowded conditions and antiquated equipment. Harvard seeks to serve over 25,000 people—students of the College and nearby graduate schools, as well as faculty, staff and alumns living in the area are all allowed to use athletic department facilities—with only 8 treadmills, 10 elliptical trainers and a bunch of exercise bikes and Stairmasters. By contrast, Yale has an eight-story athletic complex with a 13,000 square foot cardio and weight-training space dedicated to recreational use. Students there rave that their facility is “better than Gold’s Gym,” and speak about “a serious pride in Yale’s athletic facilities.”

The situation is so bad that many students have bought memberships at local fitness clubs like Wellbridge. But the $100-plus monthly fees are a luxury that not everybody can afford, and some undergrads have resorted to taking part-time jobs at the Business School’s Shad Gymnasium so they can gain access to the gorgeous facilities across the river. They find it well worth the effort. Shad has a cardio space about the same size as the MAC’s (but serving a population less than one-tenth the size), men’s and women’s saunas and whirlpools, squash courts, a golf training facility and free towel service, among other amenities. It’s also a pleasant place to workout. The walls are hung with athletic-themed original art, and the whole place is bright and airy.

Fortunately, the administration and the Athletics department know that our recreational facilities need improvement and are working hard to make changes. A study commissioned by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences concluded that currently only 30 percent of the need for recreational facilities was being met. While the deans are set to approve a final plan for the MAC sometime in March, the completion of the renovations is several years away. Millions of dollars will have to be raised and plans will have to be made to move the varsity volleyball, wrestling and fencing teams across the river. In the meantime, some interim measures have already been taken: in 2000, the Athletics department contracted with Boston Sports Clubs (the same group that runs Shad gymnasium) to take over the management of the facility, and much of the equipment in the weight rooms, as well as many of the aging cardio machines, were replaced in 2001.

But these improvements are minor, and facilities are still maxed out. No clear plan has yet been formulated to allow current students access to adequate opportunities for regular exercise. One short-term measure that should be considered is negotiating reduced-cost memberships in local gyms. Perhaps the College could lease or purchase fitness equipment to be installed in the Houses to take some of the pressure off the MAC. A creative look at floor plans might reveal additional space for cardio machines like the balcony overlooking the basketball courts. Finally, a quick glance at the cardio signup sheets shows that while the ellipticals and treadmills are always taken, other equipment mostly sits idle; some of that dead weight should be thrown out to make more room for the more popular machines.

The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. While 45 percent of Harvard undergrads have suffered from depression, only one-third of them are seeking treatment at UHS. The others may be wary of the stigma attached to their illness or may not want to take antidepressants. There is clear evidence that they could help themselves with regular exercise, but to do that, they need decent facilities. The long-term plans to renovate the MAC won’t help today’s students. For them, drastic action is called for in the face of an insidious epidemic.

Molly Moore is first-year at the Kennedy School’s Masters in Public Policy program.