Healthy people, healthy planet

Robin Marcus, new Chief

Robin Marcus, new Chief Wellness Officer for U of U Health Sciences.

By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resources Center

Robin Marcus, the first-ever chief wellness officer for University of Utah Health Sciences, recognizes the connection between health and sustainability. “Leading a healthy lifestyle requires being respectful of your body and your environment, and they support each other,” she says. The inputs that maintain healthy bodies—like walkable neighborhoods, clean air and clean water—are also fundamental components of healthy environments, she notes.

One of these components, clean air, is an obvious top priority spanning both environmental and human health, particularly here in Salt Lake. In addition to being essential for physical wellness, cleaner air also has a positive impact on the recruitment of top minds to the University, Marcus notes, adding that there is no simple solution to the problem. “While I do not have the answer, I do want to support the good work that is being done in any way I can,” she says, citing existing U of U transportation initiatives like the Bike Collective outlet, alterations to shuttle routes and schedules, walking paths, and new ways to reward employees for using alternative transportation.

Marcus, an associate professor of Physical Therapy at the U with more than 30 years’ experience in the field, took on the role of chief wellness officer in August. She says she sees her role in this newly-created position as one of “facilitator and connector.” Tasked with coming up with a broad vision for health and wellness on campus, some of her first goals include linking, promoting, and supporting various wellness initiatives already under way. For example, she says she hopes to create a wellness web portal that will direct students, staff, and faculty to information on a range of existing campus initiatives, including but not limited to the following:

  • Environmental Sustainability: Sustainability Resource Center, campus transportation initiatives

  • Food: Real Food Challenge, and its impact on campus eateries

  • Student Athletes: PAC-12 Student Athlete Wellness Initiatives

  • Student Affairs: Center for Student Wellness, Student Life Center

  • General Health and Wellness: College of Health, Campus Diabetes Prevention Program, Peak Health and Fitness, Coaching Wellness Degree Program, University Health Care, employee wellness programs, healthy eating rewards programs, programs that focus on wellness and preventive care

The introduction of this new position is in line with a broader paradigm shift hitting the world of healthcare recently, says Marcus. The new ideal, echoed in the design of the Affordable Care Act, emphasizes preventive care and wellness, rather than just the treatment of people once they’re ill or injured, she says. Practicing good preventive care, she explains, is similar to owning a house rather than renting it. Healthy behaviors “should be investments in the long term, not quick fixes that might get us through a few months,” she says.

Marcus says it makes sense that the position is linked with the College of Health because the college’s seven departments and divisions—ranging from Physical Therapy to Parks, Recreation and Tourism—each hold at their core the promotion of health and healthy behaviors.

Marcus says she is excited by the opportunities presented by working on a campus rich with researchers and creative thinkers. Much as campus is a lab for environmental sustainability projects, such as Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF)-sponsored initiatives, it is also an incubator for ideas and projects related to wellness. Treating the campus community as a lab allows projects, like incentivized wellness programs, to be tested and tweaked before they are extended to the wider community. Projects promoting “accountability for overall health and well-being…may begin up here on campus, but ultimately require coordination and integration into our community,” she says. 

The most important element of pursuing campus wellness is engagement, Marcus says. It is important to listen to students, staff, and faculty, to learn their actual needs, and to hear what works and what doesn’t.

“Much of this is common sense and we know what to do,” she says. “The real challenge is in supporting people making good choices, identifying the barriers, and understanding what drives people.”

Listening is Marcus’s first order of business. Since taking the position, she has been meeting with numerous people in organizations across campus and throughout the healthcare system. She says she has answered every e-mailed query or suggestion she has received—and there have been many. She welcomes further suggestions and can be reached by email at robin.marcus@hsc.utah.edu.

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