December 18, 2023 | Alumni
Fitness instructor, public policy director, wellness champion: The many hats of alum Sandani Hapuhennedige
By Megan Mueller
With a Master of Public Health from U of T, Sandani Hapuhennedige channels her passion for wellness into a hugely popular Zumba class, which she has been teaching at the Hart House Fitness Centre for nearly ten years.
Students, alumni and community members who decide to take Zumba classes at the Hart House Fitness Centre will be taught by an extraordinary U of T alumna. Health and wellness expert Sandani Hapuhennedige (MPH 2018), who runs the low-pressure, high-energy class, is also the director of public policy at Children's Mental Health Ontario (acting director, then returning to her role as senior policy advisor later this fall). She has, additionally, worked at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Mount Sinai Hospital and a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre (at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy), after earning her Master of Public Health from the University of Toronto.
She has a strong enthusiasm for health and wellness, and encourages new and returning U of T students to visit the Fitness Centre, where she has taught classes for almost a decade.
Hapuhennedige first discovered Hart House in 2016. “The House is a special place; a cultural hub for the city; a place for gathering, for learning, for finding and building community. It’s a connector for the broader Toronto community. You can get a great mix of people. With Hart House, there’s something for everyone.”
When completing her Master of Public Health, she used to work and take study breaks in The Arbor Room. “It’s a very welcoming environment. Moreover, there's always something going on at the House – shows and musicals at Hart House Theatre or the 5-Buck Lunches,” she says, adding, “I just learned about the Hart House Farm as well! That's really cool!”
She was instantly drawn to the Fitness Centre, and her career trajectory reflects this passion. “Health and wellness are definitely important to me. This has been a central part of my career, but also in my personal life and my personal interest and wanting to maintain what I felt, for me, was a healthy lifestyle.
“In my career, I was always drawn to promoting healthy living and wellness, and understanding some of the barriers and challenges. My Public Health degree was a natural fit for me in understanding the key determinants of health.”
The social determinants of health are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes; the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping daily life, according to the WHO. They include factors such as education, income and social protection, housing, as well as job and food insecurity. They speak to underlying socioeconomic inequities.
Through her personal learning and career, Hapuhennedige acknowledges how these factors have an impact on achieving and maintaining personal wellness. “Wellness can look very different for people. And it's important to have a holistic view on what that encompasses,” she explains.
The evolution from fitness to “take what you need”
Interestingly, and related to this holistic view of wellness, the way Hapuhennedige teaches has evolved over the years. She used to approach Zumba as a purely fitness-based endeavour. “That's what Zumba is labelled as. And that’s true, but I also encourage those who attend the class to take what you need from it, recognizing perhaps you're coming to the class feeling stressed, or maybe you've been sitting all day and you need to move. Or maybe it's a sense of community that draws you in.
“It's really about ‘What do I need, today, and how is that going to improve my wellness?’” she elaborates.
The joy of dance and music
It is clear Hapuhennedige greatly enjoys the class. “I love moving my body, dancing, challenging myself and seeing how participants enjoy the time together. I love the enthusiasm that comes upon entering the space and sensing the excitement of what the next hour is going to offer. Dance and music are such big connectors, and I think there's so much joy that comes from that experience.”
Hapuhennedige likes seeing the progress that participants make on the technical side, but it’s more than that: “I'm always blown away when I see someone who comes in, for the first time, and they're shy and they stay at the back of the class and they don’t talk very much … Then slowly, they get more comfortable, start to open up, come and chat. I love seeing that progress too. There's a confidence piece that is so great.”
She has seen a lot of friendships blossom in the class as well as a sense of community. These are key factors in keeping Hapuhennedige coming back to the Fitness Centre every year: “I've been teaching the class for so many years for a reason,” she emphasizes.
Advice to students
Hapuhennedige encourages students to come and check out the Hart House Fitness Centre offerings. With her ‘take-what-you-need’ approach, she points out, “It’s a fun time with low pressure. If you need to just sit in the corner and listen to the music, then that's totally fine … But I promise you'll want to get up and move!
“And you never know where something can take you,” she adds with a smile. It turns out, she was once the shy person at the back of the class. “And now, I'm at the front of the class and I'm teaching it!”