by Marina Komarovsky
At the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, we know about nutrition. At the Tufts University undergraduate Schools of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering, they want to know about it. MS Nutrition Communication and DPD candidate Kate Sweeney ’11 decided to take on the challenge of linking supply and demand. When Dr. Jeanne Goldberg, her advisor, recommended Sweeney connect with Tufts Director of Health Education Ian Wong for her internship requirement, she became the graduate student intern for Balance Your Life, a healthy lifestyle campaign for Tufts undergraduates that kicked off this year.
As I chatted with Sweeney, she apologized for pausing to text back and forth with a fitness instructor that would be teaching kickboxing in a dormitory lounge that evening. She explained that Friedman students were already volunteering to lead cooking classes for undergrads. After our meeting, she e-mailed me examples of cute signs flaunting the nutrient content of dining hall selections designed to be posted along the buffet lines. But how did Sweeney and her collaborators at Tufts-Medford figure out what students would respond to? Read on to see what went down.
Well, you probably recall that college students do not tend to have the healthiest lifestyle habits. As they fly along their daily trajectories between classes, band rehearsals, study groups, debate team meetings, drop-ins with friends, and parties, undergrads are grabbing whatever food they can find along the way. And when they have an hour, they opt to utilize it to finish a paper (due in an hour) rather than trek to the gym.
In fact, a 2008 survey at Tufts showed that 87% of students were not eating the recommended five fruits and vegetables per day, and that 61% were not fulfilling physical activity recommendations, as specified by the Department of Health and Human Services. This was a clear indication that change was necessary.
But what do students want?
Two focus groups provided the answer. Last spring, students in a course taught by Dr. Goldberg led a focus group discussion on diet, exercise habits, and barriers to healthy behaviors with Tufts freshmen – the primary target group for the campaign. During the summer, Sweeney organized another focus group that honed in on the specifics of where students sought health information, which campaign title and logo would resonate with them, and what kinds of interventions might be effective.
The ultimate goal of a healthy lifestyle campaign is to prevent chronic disease in the long term. When researchers at the John Hancock Research Center for Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention looked at Tufts students’ HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels as part of the Tufts Longitudinal Health Study, they found that as many as one third of students were not in the optimal range for at least one of these – already putting them at increased risk for chronic disease – and that these values were associated with students’ levels of physical fitness. Nevertheless, as Sweeney learned from focus group discussions, “a misconception that a lot of students have is that it’s okay to push this to the future.”
So Sweeney and her collaborators considered: How can we prevent chronic disease if students don’t care about it? They made the executive decision to give the students what they want. Fine, they said, think about heart disease later. For now, let’s talk about how exercise will help you to feel energized, how eating fiber-containing foods will satisfy your hunger, and even about how the copper content of mushrooms is actually good for your hair.
Balance Your Life focuses on two behavioral goals: increasing fruit and vegetable intake, and increasing physical activity. For each of these, “it’s a two-pronged approach,” Sweeney explains. “We’re sharing recommendations and giving students the opportunity to practice those things.”
On the nutrition side, “What can nutrients do for you?” is an informational initiative that draws attention to fruit and vegetable options by highlighting one nutrient per food item and describing the specific benefits it confers. Friedman Nutritional Epidemiology PhD candidate Shilpa Bhupathiraju points out that while it is true that “if you advertise foods with respect to just one nutrient, you’re not discussing the other important nutrients present … it reinforces the concept of consuming different foods.” In her research, Bhupathiraju has found that even when the intake of fruits and vegetables is limited, greater variety makes a difference. Sweeney has also worked to really engage students across schools. Undergrads were put in charge of creating bulletin boards about nutrition for their dorms, while Friedman students are making visits to teach healthy cooking classes on the Medford campus.
Physical activity initiatives are also in full swing. “Gym Comes to You” brings fitness instructors straight to freshman dorms, eliminating the popular excuse of “the gym is too far.” Professor and researcher Dr. Jennifer Sacheck, who worked on the study looking at physical fitness in relationship to HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, stresses the importance of incorporating physical activity. The study showed that having better aerobic fitness was more important for reducing chronic disease risk than having a low percent body fat. “We’re better off thinking about getting healthy first, and then getting thinner … is something that will come naturally,” she says. A host of information on physical activity and nutrition can also be found on the campaign’s ever-expanding website, http://ase.tufts.edu/healthed/balanceGetActive.htm.
Who will be involved?
The campaign is continuing to evolve, with new initiatives happening all the time. Sweeney estimates that it will be in development over the next three to five years, and will eventually become part of the campus culture. “It’s not a program, it’s a permanent resource,” she articulates. Of course, a campaign this size will require a number of collaborators to work together. Balance Your Life is already working across four college departments and enlisting three student organizations, plus a number of student volunteers in the effort.
And most importantly, Sweeney stresses, “getting students [from Friedman and Tufts-Medford] involved with each other is a secondary goal of the campaign.” We have all this nutrition and physical activity know-how, it’s only logical to share it with our undergrad littles. Sound good? You can get in on it! Contact Kathryn.Sweeney@tufts.edu and look for more news on Balance Your Life.
Marina Komarovsky is a Friedman alumna (’11) with MS-Nutritional Epidemiology/MPH-Health Communication degrees from Tufts. Her goal in writing is to relate study findings from researchers who are into nutritional biochemistry and statistics to those who are not into those things at all. She currently works as a research coordinator at Northeastern University.