Dr. Stephen Shaw sees plenty of Cal State Northridge students who are remarkably out of shape. Some of them wind up huffing and puffing after they climb a single flight of stairs; others complain that their weight makes them unattractive to members of the opposite sex.
But instead of offering long, boring lectures on diet and exercise--something he’s convinced doesn’t work--Shaw, a physician who works in CSUN’s Health Center, has decided to stretch conventional thinking a bit. He recently established a program that helps students develop their own custom-tailored fitness regimen, one that mirrors their interests and abilities and, he hopes, sets them on the road to a lifetime of physical fitness.
“Studies have shown that an individual’s attitudes about health and wellness are pretty well determined by the time they are 18 years of age,” the 32-year-old Shaw said. “If you look at someone 20 years later, they are going to have the same habits they had back in high school and college. If you catch them at the right time, when they are vulnerable, they can be changed. And that may help them prevent a lot of chronic diseases that can build up over a lifetime.”
Shaw, who also serves as physician for the school’s 17 sports teams, received his medical degree from UC San Diego. He has worked at CSUN for the last year and is studying for a Ph.D. in kinesiology at UCLA. Last spring, he started the program after receiving approval of the Health Center’s director, Dr. Robert Taylor, who described the program as “very elaborate and very good.”
Taylor added, “There’s an attitude among young adults--especially males--that they’re invulnerable. So we’re definitely fighting an uphill battle. But we’re hoping that a percentage of the people who get involved with the program stick with it.”
Nevertheless, “setting up the program wasn’t easy because physician productivity is not gauged by how meaningful your visits are and what affect you have on people, it’s purely how many people you see in a day,” Shaw said. He had no extra money budgeted for the program so he just had some brochures printed and waited for students to hear about the program through friends, an article in the school’s newspaper, or an annual health and fitness fair sponsored by the university. During the spring semester, he worked with six students.
“These are people who are bright and attuned to their environment. They’re not totally satisfied with themselves. They’ve put the pieces together and said to themselves, ‘I know exercise is a good thing, but I don’t know where to start, and this seems like a good way to do it.’ ”
Any CSUN student is eligible to participate in the program, which could cost upwards of $300 if administered by a fitness consultant or a private clinic.
(At the Pritikin Center in Sherman Oaks, for example, a four-week diet and exercise course costs about $400 and includes six hours a week of classroom instruction and workouts. Pritikin uses physical education instructors and registered dietitians. And there are 20 to 30 people in a class, while Shaw works on a one-on-one basis.)
After a student fills out a health and exercise survey that indicates his or her background, life style, medical history and interests in terms of exercise and physical activity, Shaw spends 30 to 40 minutes consulting with them to determine how they feel about themselves and what kind of shape they’d like to be in.
He follows this with a brief orthopedic exam to see if there are any limitations that should be taken into consideration. And, finally, he has the student take flexibility and strength tests, as well as a Rockport Fitness Walking Test. The latter consists of having an individual walk a mile at a comfortable speed, which is factored together with his elapsed time along with heart rate before and immediately after the activity. That, Shaw said, offers a foolproof way to find out what kind of shape a student is in.
After talking to students about proper attire, footwear and stretching, he sends them out to get in shape. “I make it a point to match what they like to do to their life style. I look at their accessibility to different facilities--swimming pools, aerobics clubs, a track or tennis courts--and then put together a program based on what I think they will do consistently. The key is making it part of their life style.”
Despite the close guidance, all participants exercise on their own. There’s no coach to stand over them and no one to ensure the students are following through. But every week they visit Shaw and discuss their progress, and, at the end of 10 weeks, they are retested. “That’s when they see their improvement and, hopefully, become motivated enough to stick with it.”
One computer science major approached Shaw because he felt he was leading too sedentary a life; he spent several hours a day in front of a computer and knew he needed some physical activity. Shaw put him on a walking program. A business student who was already in good shape wanted to improve his conditioning further so he could participate in a triathlon. Shaw put the student on a tough regimen that included running, swimming and cycling so he could strengthen different muscle groups, prevent injuries and strike the necessary aerobic balance for competition.
Sheri Sedlik, a 22-year-old senior at CSUN, came to Shaw after reading about the program in the school’s newspaper in April. She decided to give it a try because “I have always liked sports but I’m kind of lazy, so I’d exercise about once every blue moon. I was always tired and had no energy. Plus, I wasn’t real happy about my weight,” she admitted.
Shaw put her on a walking program and, before long, she was feeling so good she asked to start running. Today, five months later, Sedlik runs, walks, does aerobics, rides a LifeCycle or plays tennis four to five times a week--in addition to push-ups and sit-ups. She’s also lost 10 pounds, partly as a result of a special sugar-free diet Shaw put her on.
Sedlik said: “I can’t see not exercising anymore. If I go two days without doing anything I feel terrible. I have completely changed my life style.”
Shaw said that not everyone has steadfastly followed his recommendations and that some students have dropped out of the program. And while it’s always an uphill battle to change bad habits, “most of these students are pretty enthusiastic about this. They never thought anyone would sit down and discuss their personal health and welfare with them.”
This semester, he’s hoping to have a couple of dozen students participate, and he’s looking forward to having a full school year to work with them. “It remains to be seen how successful the program is,” he said, “but it is worth the effort. Our educational system fails miserably at teaching people how to take care of themselves. Having someone sit down with you and explain these things is where it is at.”