An invitation to play ultimate Frisbee got Alyona Koulanova out of her head and ultimately defined her academic future.
“Like many students I was focused on academics for the first two years,” she says, describing her undergraduate pursuit of a degree in neuroscience at U of T Scarborough.
“An old friend encouraged me to join ultimate Frisbee on campus. After a while, I realized that joining athletics made me better balanced and improved both my mental health and my work.”
Her realizations led to her participation in the Healthy Campus Initiative and, in turn, collaboration with Ary Maharaj to develop the physical activity-based classroom intervention they call Fit Breaks; they received U of T’s Teaching Assistant and Graduate Student Advancement Award for their work on this program.
There are two aspects to the project, she explains. The first was training and implementation. The second was research-based.
“We realized on reviewing the literature, that aside from Hopscotch Math at the primary school level, very little research had been done linking academic success with physical movement, and certainly not on a university level.”
Her passion for the project was the foundation for her pursuit of a Masters degree in U of T’s Department of Exercise Science, and her ongoing research. “I wonder if there is a place for this in the workforce?” she says, citing the recent aphorism that sitting is the new smoking. Alyona is also Involved in the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association’s Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities initiative, working with school boards, teachers and curriculum development to incorporate movement in the classroom.
“I feel like people say, ‘Do what you enjoy, the rewards will come’, and it seems like a cliché, but I have seen that the neuro-circuitry of thoughts and physical activity fuels your brain. Doing whatever is interesting to you leads you to where you want to be.”