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Western’s fitness communities: From anxiety to empowerment

Students and professors overcome obstacles and form connections at the Wade King Student Recreation Center

Vivid blue skies outline Western Washington University’s Wade King Student Recreation Center on Oct. 12, 2023. For the past 20 years, students, faculty and staff have all come together to share this facility and engage in vibrant fitness communities. // Photo by Kiora Surratt

The Wade King Student Recreation Center hosts a variety of fitness communities, from weightlifting and sports clubs to Zumba and Pilates classes, but for some, new communities and prioritizing health amid busy schedules can be overwhelming and intimidating.

Matthew Miller, an elementary education professor at Western Washington University, said he thinks it's worth it to break out of comfort zones after finding his own fitness community. 

Through Western’s Faculty & Staff Wellness Program, Miller has taken fitness classes ranging from tai chi to pickleball. While the physical results are great, he believes the biggest reward is the mental health support.

“Work is often stressful, so I think it’s beneficial to carve out some specific space to commit to your well-being. That’s what I see the fitness program is doing,” Miller said.

Miller made a point to emphasize the mental health and stress-relieving benefits of staying active, and he’s not alone in feeling this way. The amount of poor mental health days experienced in one month is decreased by just over 40% in individuals who exercise, according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal.

“Before, I would just come to work and do my job. Now, I have this little moment during the day where I get to step out and devote time to self-care. I think everybody deserves that,” Miller said.

Despite the benefits of staying active, Miller admits it isn’t easy. Sometimes the difficult part is getting to the gym, and other times it's the actual workout, he said. 

“I love that it’s faculty and staff coming together in one space to engage in fitness,” Miller said. “[I could be] doing this crazy crunch or suspending my legs in the air and everything’s screaming, but other people are there doing the same thing. There’s this sense of, ‘We’re all in this together.’”

For those who don’t feel comfortable working out alone or who are looking to make friends and find community, the rec center's fitness classes and clubs are designed to help.

Serena Calkins, a fourth-year student and president of WWU Girl Gains, a weightlifting club for women and femme-presenting people, believes a community of like-minded individuals can make all the difference.

“[Girl Gains] is where I’ve met the majority of my friends, and looking forward to seeing them in the gym is a huge motivator,” Calkins said.

Calkins has been involved with Girl Gains since it formed in December 2021, giving her opportunities to make friends and build her social network. 

For Nora Joslin, a fourth-year Western student, all it took was walking into the pool room and asking the lifeguard if there was a swim team. One of the swim team captains was at the pool when she asked. While Joslin had missed the first practice, the captain encouraged her to come to the next one.

“I got lucky meeting the captain first because she was really nice,” Joslin said. “I just went [to that next practice] and never stopped going.”

Joslin’s main reason for joining the team was to make friends. Her first year at Western was online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so when campus reopened, she hardly knew anyone. Despite wanting to make new friends, she recalls being terrified of joining the team because of social anxiety. 

Co-owner of Bellingham gym Training Grounds, Dani Schemm said lots of experiences in life are intimidating, such as starting a new job. 

“You can’t let [intimidation] be an excuse,” she said.“You might be scared, but at the end of the day, you need money and you need to pay your bills. The same concept applies to fitness and health.”

Joslin didn’t let her anxiety hold her back. Two years later, she’s now a swim captain and the majority of her friends are from the rec center and the swim team. 

“We all have a common link but we’re also very different people,” Joslin said. “I feel really lucky to have met the people I did.”

Kiora Surratt

Kiora Surratt (she/her) is a campus life reporter for The Front. She is a senior majoring in public relations and minoring in English literature. In her free time, she enjoys working out, shopping and spending time with friends and family. You can reach her at

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