UAA's Couch-to-5K group opens new vistas of fitness

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

Student Nicholas Norton and counselor Lizzy Donovan take part in UAA's Couch-to-5K program.

Student Nicholas Norton and counselor Lizzy Donovan take part in UAA's Couch-to-5K program.

Nicholas Norton was strolling through UAA's Campus Kickoff on the Quad last summer when he noticed a booth promoting a Couch-to-5K program. He decided to sign up.

"I had been just starting to work out and get into shape," said Norton, a UAA student from Oklahoma. "I had some experience in running, but only about a month and a half's worth."

UAA's Couch-to-5K program has been helping Norton and other students discover an effective way to shape up, nurture lifelong outdoor-oriented fitness habits, ease adjustment to college life on the UAA campus and connect students with other fitness-minded people, says Lizzy Donovan, a licensed professional counselor at UAA's Student Health & Counseling Center (SHCC).

Developing 'grit'

Donovan launched the campus' Couch-to-5K group in early September, for students taking six or more credits. It is just one of the Center's health-education offerings, which include information about nutrition, flu shots, immunizations and healthy sexuality, as well as sessions for students wanting to get organized, conquer test anxiety or find strategies for getting a better night's sleep.

Finding time to exercise regularly can be a difficult task for students who want to get healthy and fit, but must devote hours of each day to classes, homework and, likely, a job.

"When people say they hate running, that's my target audience," Donovan said. "Running develops what people call 'grit.' It helps you learn how to do things you really don't want to do, set goals, stick with it, follow through, make room in your life for getting healthy."

The founding four members of Donovan's group convene every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon. They stretch at the beginning of each session, then take a brisk five-minute warm-up walk, alternating 60 seconds of jogging with 90 seconds of walking for 20 minutes. They stretch again at the close of the session.

Group members ran on outdoor trails until November's subzero cold snap persuaded them to run inside UAA's Wells Fargo Sports Complex.

Alan Piccard, UAA's assistant director of recreational sports programs, manages student recreation and other programs at the complex. He had previously talked with Donovan about finding ways to involve students in physical activities.

"It gets students out of their dorm rooms and exercising, which is absolutely essential to their health and well-being," Piccard said of the Couch-to-5K program. "What she's done is a model for us and what we can do when we have more space. Right now we're waiting to figure out what is going to happen with our building, what kinds of programs we could do-possibly healthy-eating classes? We could offer something like that here. And outdoor recreation is right outside their dorm rooms."

Piccard says a Couch-to-5K program is just one of many ways a university can teach lifelong recreation habits.

"Students can learn how to use the weight room, join student clubs, play broomball or play the battleship game in the pool," he said. "All those things are fun to do; students can recreate without knowing they're helping themselves. How much fun is that, getting together with three or four people you didn't know before? If you're a student from a village getting into an intramural program, you now have six or eight people who care about where you are Sunday night. They make the city smaller. Finding enjoyment outside of class should be one of our biggest goals."

Betty Bang, a SHCC nurse practitioner, runs with the Couch-to-5K group. She hadn't run for 30 years, though she has hiked and biked.

"It's made a huge difference for me," she said. "There's an actual Couch-to-5K program Lizzy's been following and it's been great. I'm going to be 60 this year. We started so slow and built up, and I've had no problem with my joints."

Bang said most of the participants hadn't run before at all.

"Dealing with a student lifestyle, there's a lot of sitting, not a lot of activity," Bang said. "Time was the big thing, motivation to get outside and do something. For them it's been very beneficial." Students get to know areas where they can exercise and who to exercise with.

"It's good having that encouragement to keep running on a day you'd just as soon not," she said. "One student actually participated in one of the Halloween runs in Anchorage. She was able to run with her friends. If she hadn't done this, she wouldn't have been able to do that. It's a great opportunity."

Finding fitness, confidence

Norton didn't hold any expectations when he attended his first Couch-to-5K session.

"I was there to learn and be a part of it," he said. "It was fun being with others and cheering each other on as we gradually picked up the pace and lengthened our runs."

Norton now likes to run, has run a 5-kilometer (5K) distance (equivalent to 3.1 miles) and feels enthusiastic about the group's plan to work on speed and start preparing to run 10 kilometers.

Running, Norton said, helps him concentrate on his studies and gives him more confidence.

"It slightly changed the way that I approach certain situations now," he said. "By next summer, I hope to participate in a triathlon with my mother and my brother, who helped encourage me to start running in the first place."

Donovan completed her first marathon 15 years ago, and credits her eighth-grade outdoor fitness instructor with inspiring her to live an active life. Now, she hopes to motivate others in a similar way.

"It's inspiring to see the group progress, to see how they relate to each other, connect with each other," she said. "We come from far-away, different communities; feeling connected is a big contributor to student success. It's beautiful to see students meet their individual goals, change their relationship with their body, what they think they can do, the ways they talk to themselves. College is a time to take control, decide what this life is going to be about. I was so deeply touched that someone offered that to me at a formative time. It's nice to be able to offer that to students."

UAA's next Couch-to-5K session begins Jan. 22; students must have a registration form and physical examination completed by Jan. 17 to participate. The registration form and free physical are available at UAA's Student Health and Counseling Center, Rasmuson Hall, Suites 116 and 120. Call (907) 786-4040 to schedule an appointment, or visit

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