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This spring, Penn graduate students will get a little help with a popular New Year’s resolution.

The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly — in partnership with Student Health Services, PennRec and other local wellness providers — is launching a comprehensive four-month long fitness challenge to encourage students to look at their health and well-being in a holistic manner.

Penn’s Director of Campus Health Initiatives Sharon McMullen said that although a variety of wellness programs are offered to students throughout the year, there is definitely room for improvement.

“The graduate experience can be stressful,” McMullen said.

The program – Penn Student Health and Physical Exercise – is loosely modeled after the reality television show “The Biggest Loser,” and will focus on mental and emotional health in addition to physical fitness and nutrition.

Fifth-year Annenberg doctoral candidate and GAPSA Vice-Chair for Communication Susan Mello, who is also involved in publicizing PennSHAPE, said that graduate students often don’t think about their fitness as much as they should.

Mello, who also works as a part-time group exercise instructor at Pottruck, said grad students often think, “‘I have a paper due, my advisor is on my case — I’m getting some ice cream!’”

According to a health assessment survey conducted by Student Health last spring, about one third of the graduate students who took the survey had an unhealthy body weight.

Additionally, less than half met current federal guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity, and only seven percent reported consuming more than five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

The idea to create PennSHAPE came from fifth-year doctoral candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology Kilang Yanger. As the GAPSA Vice-Chair of Student Life, Yanger is responsible for organizing seminars and workshops on health-related topics.

“I thought, why not make it more fun by adding a competitive angle into it?” she said.

Yanger explained that “PennSHAPE is not about telling students when to work out.” According to her, the program will provide motivation by rewarding students for attending the workshops and incorporating what they learn into building their own fitness routine.

This is not GAPSA’s first initiative to improve graduate student health. In 2011, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and SASgov — the School of Arts and Sciences graduate student government — lowered the Pottruck Fitness Center membership rate from $360 to $300.

For PennSHAPE, PennRec trainers will measure each participant’s height, weight and body fat percentage, as well as a host of other fitness parameters – once at the start of the semester, and once again at the end. Students will also be given a PennSHAPE t-shirt.

A grand prize will be given to the male and female participant with the biggest relative increase in fitness level according to all parameters, as well as their participation in the workshops.

Throughout the semester, students will be able to share their struggles and triumphs on a dedicated PennSHAPE Facebook page.

The program will be offered free of charge, with the number of participants limited to 120 students. Third-year doctoral candidate in History Anthony Pratcher will be among them in January when the program kicks off.

“I want to work myself back into shape,” said Pratcher, who recently hurt his knee playing basketball.

At the end of the program, participants will also receive a second color-coded t-shirt corresponding to the relative increase in fitness they were able to achieve during the semester.

Yanger hopes the program will have a lasting effect.

“We hope PennSHAPE will increase visibility and awareness of what Pottruck and Student Health have to offer,” she said.

Pratcher added that the competitive aspect of the challenge is a great way to motivate graduate students.

“I’m really looking forward to kicking everyone’s butt,” he said. “Bring it on!”

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