Exercise your options: students leading movement toward lifelong wellness

January 09, 2009
Tonya Thomas
Tonya Thomas, a 2003 Lander University graduate, assists a Wesley Commons resident with exercises at the community's Wellness Complex.
What is your goal in life? If you had your dream job, what would it be? These are two of the questions Wesley Commons Wellness/Lifestyle Manager Tonya Thomas asks Lander University students who apply for internships at the community's Wellness Complex.

They are the same questions that Thomas, a 2003 Lander graduate, asked herself as she began her course work in exercise science at Lander.

Her answer to the first question didn't come immediately. However, after working with a local assisted living facility and taking course work on aging as part of the curriculum at Lander, Thomas focused on a goal to learn more about geriatric wellness. Her interest led her to an internship at Wesley Commons, a continuing care retirement community. By the time she graduated from Lander, the internship had turned into a full-time job.

In the years that followed, Thomas has been instrumental in exposing numerous Lander students to the experience of working with the Wesley Commons wellness program. In fact, each semester the program hosts two Lander exercise science students.

"From personal experience, I know what the interns want to learn, as well as what they need to learn" said Thomas. "They end up learning a lot about the geriatric population through Wesley Commons' physical therapy and wellness programs, where we focus on holistic wellness - mental, physical, spiritual and social wellness."

When student interns begin working with Thomas, they receive a comprehensive tour of the entire Wesley Commons campus. Thomas says they are always amazed at what they see. Spanning over 100 acres, the campus is home to an average of 450 residents, who live in a mixture of independent living areas and assisted living accommodations. All areas have access to wellness activities with an abundance of residents participating weekly in group exercise classes and weight room programs and swim programs. Wesley Commons' 8,000-square-foot Wellness Complex houses most of these activities and wellness staff and interns offer 30 fitness classes per week.

Paired with a wellness staff member, Lander interns get to experience all aspects of the center's wellness program. "For example," said Thomas, "we ask students to participate in the fitness classes, and they also get to teach some of the classes."

Beyond the classes, students are given a project that is specifically tailored to their interests.

Student Interns
Lander University interns at Wesley Commons work one-on-one with residents. Here, resident and Lander docent John Barnes receives weight training assistance from Lander exercise science major Justen Evans of Honea Path.
Lander senior exercise science major Justen Evans of Honea Path, who interned with Thomas last summer, works part time as a personal trainer at the YMCA. There, he generally works with individuals wanting to shed a few pounds or build muscle tone. At Wesley Commons, many residents are more interested in weight maintenance or gain, and in improving their balance and mobility.

For his project at Wesley Commons, Evans helped residents update their personal exercise programs. He also developed exercise programs for residents who were just beginning a fitness regimen.

The benefits of his project were twofold. Because the wellness staff was trying to add more one-on-one fitness opportunities for their residents, Evans was able to help the staff gauge resident interest in personal training. At the same time, he was able to hone his skills with in working with an older population. The staff anticipated that Evans would assist 10 people, but he ended up working with 20.

"My motivational skills as a personal trainer helped me get the Wesley Commons residents active," said Evans. "They were ready to learn from me even though I'm a young guy just starting out. In the end I learned as much from them as they did from me."

Evans explained that the residents he worked with, whether through personal training or in fitness classes, never hesitated to give him pointers on how he could better teach them. Residents were also interested in learning more about him personally.

"Before the interns get here we make sure they understand the expectations of the residents," Thomas said. "The residents want to learn about the students and about their backgrounds, and they want them participating in classes. The residents see this as a great learning experience for the interns, and they really enjoy meeting the students and talking with them."

For Evans this exchange was reciprocal. He said of the residents, "I loved hearing their stories."

Internship experiences are a perfect example of the value students get from "applying what they've learned in their course work at Lander," said Dr. Cathryn Dooly, chair of Lander's Department of Physical Education and Exercise Studies (PEES). "We're taking them out of the classroom and laboratory and putting them in a real life setting ... and they are being placed in situations where they can potentially get a job."

The Lander exercise science program connects students with many opportunities for experiential learning in a variety of wellness and fitness settings. Dooly has placed students in nearly 40 businesses throughout the Upstate, where they gain experience in occupational, physical and aquatic therapy, and industrial and cardiac rehabilitation. They also work in general fitness and sports training environments.

About 25 students are enrolled in internships each fall and spring and 15 in the summer. Exercise science majors must complete internship assignments as part of their degree requirements.

"A solid internship program will make our students more marketable," said Dooly. "The more varied the internships students take part in, the more experience those students will take to the workplace."

Thomas, who, as a student, benefited from Lander's internship program, and who now, in her role at Wesley Commons, mentors current Lander students, shared two suggestions for interns and for those beginning their careers - "Put yourself in a position where you can continuously learn as well as grow," and "always put yourself in a job that you enjoy."