Living well at RIT

Taking wellness by the reins

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A. Sue Weisler

RIT student Yessena Brown stretches before a hip-hop dance class.

When Cathy Ahern, director of engineering services for RIT’s Facilities Management Services, came to work for RIT five years ago, she was in good physical condition, but not great physical condition. A turning point in 2008 opened Ahern’s eyes to improving her health and she made a commitment to wellness that would affect her life while profoundly changing the life of a close friend. 

Ahern recalls the moment she decided to make the commitment to living well. A friend suffering from polycystic kidney disease desperately needed a kidney transplant, and when Ahern found out that she was a match, she knew the time had come to get her life—and body—in order.

“Throughout this whole process, I knew that losing weight and being in shape would help me survive surgery and thrive during my recovery,” Ahern says. “I was truly motivated because my decision to donate my kidney would ultimately save my friend’s life.”

Today, Ahern exercises five days a week, participates in a boot camp exercise class, rides her bike to work (30 miles roundtrip) and competes in mini-triathlons. 

Ahern is just one of the many RIT employees who have taken wellness by the reins and gained control of their health. RIT is a leader when it comes to workplace wellness, according to Midge Berfield, RIT’s manager of employee health and wellness. The Better Me program, geared toward promoting and enhancing employee wellness initiatives, began in 2007 and has grown exponentially. 

“At RIT, we look at health and wellness from a holistic perspective,” she says. “Wellness is not only about losing weight and being fit, but it’s about how the mind and body work together. It includes eating right, being more physically active, managing your stress and other aspects that you wouldn’t necessarily think about such as financial wellness. We want to make as many resources available as possible that can positively impact our employees’ lifestyles.”

Berfield’s “umbrella of wellness” for staff and faculty includes wellness coaching as the cornerstone to help employees develop their own personal wellness plan and adopt healthier lifestyles. On-site wellness coaches are available to all employees free of charge as an effort to provide the skills to make permanent behavior changes. 

Another core component is the more than 40 Better Me fitness classes offered each quarter, including Zumba, tai chi, boot camp and Pilates, as well as personal training and dietitian services. Berfield and Ahern are quick to point out that registering for a Latin dance class might not be for everyone, so there are other non-traditional offerings that play a role in wellness. 

“We offer gardening for wellness, smoking cessation classes through the Student Health Center and even chair massages which, as you can imagine, are very popular,” she adds.

RIT’s Center for Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation, based in the Hale-Andrews Student Life Center, provides more than 550 wellness classes and serves close to 10,000 students, faculty and staff each academic year.

RIT requires every student to take two wellness activity classes prior to graduation—and RIT is the only college in its benchmarking group to mandate this for students. 

“RIT’s student wellness program employs more than 90 instructors, including 17 full-time instructors and more than 75 adjunct instructors to fulfill the need for health and wellness courses,” says Michelle Schrouder, associate director for wellness. “While we all love helping to make fitness resolutions come true, it’s not just about exercise. We are dedicated to providing wellness education, encouraging healthy lifestyles and motivating our students and staff. RIT is committed to offering unique, cutting-edge programs to the campus community and fostering healthy, positive relationships.”

Berfield believes that the right motivation also makes a big difference for someone who may be considering adjusting to a healthier lifestyle. For Ahern, a quick recovery after major surgery was her motivation. For others, accountability is the push they need. 

“We realize that employees can’t do this alone, so wellness coaches are at the employees’ disposal to help motivate, energize and set employees on the path to whatever their definition is of health and wellness.”

Berfield also sees the culture of RIT shifting in regards to campus wellness, citing noticeable changes in dining halls, cafeterias and catering, as well the creation of the campus’ Farmers Market and Community Garden. 

“It’s exciting to see more healthy dining options being offered to the campus community,” she says. “We are opening our doors to the wellness concept and healthy eating is becoming an active part of our thought process.”

Wellness at RIT is always evolving, according to Berfield. Program leaders and committee members are constantly evaluating the impact that is being made in this area.

“At the end of the day, wellness at RIT is a win-win,” adds Berfield. “The overall health of an organization is linked to the health of its people. We want our RIT family to be as healthy as possible and we are here to support this effort. No matter where a person is on the wellness spectrum, Better Me has something for everyone, and we want to help provide them with the tools to achieve their wellness goals.”

For more information about RIT’s health and wellness initiatives, go to or 

Wellness at RIT - By the numbers

  • 60,324 miles accomplished by RIT employees participating in 2010 Eat well. Live well. challenge. This equates to walking coast to coast 20 times. 

  • Last year, more than 283 pounds of fresh produce was donated to Foodlink from RIT’s Community Garden. 

  • 1,148 pounds—the amount of weight that RIT employees working with a wellness coach have lost since bringing wellness coaching to campus

  • The student wellness program offers more than 150 classes per quarter.

  • The Interactive Adventures Red Barn had 13,445 climbers last year. 

  • The student wellness program employs 4 nationally certified personal trainers.

Getting on the road to wellness

  • Find a professional you trust who is an expert in lifestyle change to help with set exercise and nutrition goals. 

  • Choose an exercise and nutrition program you can follow for 90 days. 

  • Clean out your pantry and grocery shop three days prior to starting your 90-day journey. Clean out your closet and buy some new fitness attire that is comfortable and stylish. 

  • Weigh yourself and take measurements in five areas of your body (arms, chest, waist, hips, thighs) only once a month. 

  • Get started on your 90-day journey and don’t deviate from your plan. If followed properly, you will not only see a difference in your body, but your attitude toward health, wellness and fitness. 

Get a behind-the-scenes look at wellness on campus. Visit and search “Wellness 
at RIT.”