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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sound Bodies for Sound Minds: Architectural Interventions to Ameliorate the Sedentary Life of Scholars on College Campuses, 1865-2016

  • Author(s): DeClercq, Caitlin Price
  • Advisor(s): Cranz, Galen
  • et al.

Since the founding of the earliest colleges in the United States, the built campus environment has been designed and modified to foster a healthy student body, a vision long challenged by sedentary study. One building type has served as the focal point of administrative and pedagogical efforts to respond to the perils of sedentary classroom study: the campus gymnasium. Often among the first buildings to populate a new campus, gymnasia housed special apparatuses for physical training and postural remediation, both of which were intended to move, strengthen, and train student bodies to withstand the rigors of scholarly life.

Founded in 1861 as the first women’s college and with the explicit goal of educating student minds and bodies, Vassar College is an apt case study to understand how shifting ideas about the perils of sedentary behavior were translated to the specific context of college settings and responded to through a host of interventions over time. By analyzing Vassar’s spaces of physical education, I demonstrate how gymnasia—from the earliest gyms of the 1860s and 1870s to today’s athletic facilities—have both shaped and reflected changing ideas regarding the perils of sedentary study and methods for mitigating its effects on the student body. In particular, I show how the shift from in loco parentis to laissez-faire and risk management paradigms of campus governance mirror a shift in public health approaches, from a focus on broad, environmental and policy interventions to approaches targeting individual behaviors and risk mitigation. At the same time—and stemming from these changes—physical education courses and programs moved from a compulsory part of the college curriculum and experience to a leisure-time pursuit. The result of these shifts can be read in both campus interventions and the built environment as movement (physical education) was relegated—administratively and spatially—to the periphery of campus. Yet the decline of compulsory physical education does not signify the solution to the problem of sedentary behavior: in fact, the problem is largely unresolved today.

We can also see in the example of Vassar College how the still body assumed in spaces of (mental) learning—as opposed to the specialized spaces of bodily instruction epitomized by campus gymnasia—is increasingly problematic as we learn more about the perils of sedentary behavior. Indeed, given what we know today about the limits of individual, compensatory, and leisure-time based interventions to reduce sedentary behavior, it is clear that the solution to reducing the perils of prolonged sitting cannot be found in historical precedents. What is needed instead are new interventions that address the built environment and experience outside of the gymnasium, namely classrooms. Yet interventions must address the persistent problem of control in classrooms: control has long meant still bodies, so injecting movement requires a fundamental shift in culture, pedagogy, and the built environment.

Thus, to respond to burgeoning findings regarding the deleterious physiological and cognitive impacts of prolonged sitting, I introduce design science as way to identify novel classroom interventions. Ultimately, I propose a range of interventions—from modifications in individual behaviors to changes in objects and built environments, to deeper pedagogical and cultural changes—as informed by research on educational environments and adjacent institutions of learning and work.

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