It is a lazy, hot afternoon, and Ian Culbertson’s Wednesday, 1 p.m. stress management class saunters onto Brittingham Intramural Field.
The first order of business? Split into three groups, form circles and pass a soccer ball around while saying the name of the recipient.
“All I hear is, ‘Suh,’” Culbertson said to one student, perhaps fibbing a classmate’s name. “Learn each other’s names!”
A couple of newcomers walk in and join in on one of the circles.
“We’ve got two new additions,” Culbertson said to the group. “Learn their names.”
For the next 50 minutes, there will be no class to sit through, no notes to take, no readings to worry about. After all, this is a class on stress management. For the next 50 minutes, students will unwind by playing soccer — a basic, yet effective activity that gets the endorphins flowing, encourages teamwork and trust and carries them away from the unforgiving grind of college life.
That’s the overarching goal of USC’s physical education program, which has grown into a popular option for students seeking to mix exercise and relaxation into their class schedule. It offers a variety of classes from the more traditional physical conditioning to two levels of yoga classes, along with Kundalini yoga and meditation.
“I hope [students] can understand where stress comes from,” Culbertson said on the goals of the stress management class. “So teaching them about nutrition, the importance of exercise and time management helps to enforce what you need to protect your body and your mind from stress.”
In addition to soccer, Culbertson’s class does a variety of activities to relieve stress, including yoga, core exercises, ultimate Frisbee, capture the flag, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation techniques.
Culbertson spoke to the various activities helping to mitigate the body’s “fight or flight” response to stress.
“One of the best ways to do that is through forms of exercise,” he said. “We exercise in different ways to alleviate those toxins that are in the body.”
Every class also has a lecture component, where students learn about living a healthy lifestyle and how to apply the activities to their everyday lives.
Over at the Lyon Center, Sarah Hayes starts off her Friday 10 a.m. weight training class with a review session. There is a midterm in two weeks, and she is going through terms, such as what antagonistic muscles do (oppose the action of another muscle), what the difference is between elasticity and excitability (both are characteristics of muscle tissue) and what reversibility is (losing the results of training after not working out).
Then, it’s off to the weight room to turn the terms into action, as Hayes demonstrates the proper technique for a lat-pulldown and seated row.
Like Culbertson, she echoed how beneficial P.E. classes are toward relieving stress.
“We realize how stressed students are,” she said. “Stress management is so important in today’s society in general. It’s great to have the [physical education department] offering those classes so the students can have that de-stressing. I always teach that they should be coming to PED classes to de-stress and not be stressed.”
In addition to helping with stress, the classes give students a chance to be active, which Hayes said is becoming more difficult with advancements in technology.
“They’re here to sit and study, and I understand that,” she said. “So we have to take that time, make that time every day, at least five days a week to try to keep moving.”
Her students seem to be grasping the objective. Eric Gonzalez, a junior majoring in anthropology, said he only did cardio at the gym before taking this class and learning proper weight training techniques. Now, he enjoys the guidance from Hayes along with the break it provides in his class schedule.
“It takes out some anxiety,” he said. “Helps you sleep better.”
Though opting to take P.E. classes counts as one or two extra units — there is the opportunity to audit a class — students say it is well worth the commitment.
“It doesn’t impose on anything,” said Stephanie Saisi, a sophomore majoring in business administration and Italian. “I only have this class once a week, but I wish I had it every day.”
Both Culbertson and Hayes say their students are primarily non-athletes from different years, ranging from freshmen to Ph.D. students.
“It’s a good option for a lot of those majors that find themselves doing a lot of work and sitting down a lot,” Culbertson said. “I’m sure all majors do a lot of work. There’s some that need a lot of self-care. It would be great for all students to have this kind of class. It helps enforce what they need to learn and what they need to do to take care of themselves.”
Demand for a spot in P.E. classes has never been higher. Over 5,000 students took a P.E. class last school year — the most in the program’s history — continuing a 15-year trend of an increase in total enrollment. The program has come a long way from the 1,919 sign-ups in 2000, when the PED department broke from being a subsidiary under exercise science and became an independent P.E. program, according to Steve Vankanegan, the director of physical education.
Vankanegan attributed the growth in the program to a strong group of instructors and students who want to get the most out of their USC experience and then recommending classes to others via word of mouth.
“We’re seeing in instructor evaluations that students indicate it was so worth their while,” Vankanegan said. “They say, ‘It’s the most productive class I’ve had on campus.’ People are thinking, ‘This is of value to me when I graduate, and not just a workout.’”
Vankanegan said that surfing is one of the most popular classes offered, and the two new classes added this semester — health coaching and Kundalini yoga and meditation — filled up quickly.
It’s a testament to both the quality of the P.E. program and students’ desire to find middle ground between hitting the books and hitting the gym.
“It’s just what we need in today’s society — especially on campus — to have that balance,” Hayes said. “[Students are] learning a little more about themselves and how to live that balanced lifestyle for the rest of their lives. Find that time and make that time for yourself.”
Culbertson offered the following to anyone who has not taken up that opportunity.
“If you haven’t taken a P.E. class yet, you should,” he said. “Choose any class and check it out. I guarantee you, once you take one P.E. class, you’ll want to take another one.”