Peers Prescribe Student Health

New course pairs students, with focus on good habits

Stretching Themselves: Students set new health goals and work with health partners to reach them in a new approach to phys ed.
Ann Borden

There's not a pizza box, a potato chip bag, or a beer can in sight.

Bryan Meltz

Lying perfectly still on a basketball court at the Woodruff P. E. Center, about seventy-five Emory freshmen are encouraged to listen to their breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

The hour-long yoga class is held during midterm exams. It is just one component of a recent shift in health education rooted in predictive health research being conducted at Emory. Health 100, a new course in which upperclassmen mentor freshmen, promotes a personalized approach to healthy living. 

“Our present-day medical care system waits for people to break down and then comes in to do repairs,” says Michelle Lampl, director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology. “Many of the diseases that drive people to seek treatment are preventable through exercise, healthy eating patterns, and stress reduction.”

Starting this fall, the Health 100 course is required of all first-year Emory College students. It relies on peer health partners—trained upperclassmen supervised by faculty—who support the students as they conduct health self-assessments, identify their existing strengths through journaling, and set concrete, realistic goals around stress reduction, nutrition, physical activity, and time management.

Course participant Adam Harris 15C committed to exercising and practicing his saxophone at least five days a week and sleeping for seven hours a night. Juggling a long-distance relationship, four music ensembles, a part-time job, and adjusting to a new environment and new friends has proven challenging. “I look at my peer health partner as a mentor,” he says. “It’s very helpful to get someone else’s perspective.” Harris’s peer health partner, Michelle Cholko 13C, is enjoying her first experience teaching twenty-five students. “We just want to focus on techniques that will keep them calm and healthy during their freshman year,” she says.

Previously, first-year students took P. E. 101: Health Education to fulfill the general education requirement. In restructuring the course last year, College Dean Robin Forman prioritized the peer-led model to create an avenue for freshmen and upperclassmen to connect and take a more active role. “Our goal was to provide leadership opportunities for our upperclassmen, while creating a student-centered environment in which our students could engage openly and deeply in the exploration of some of the most important and challenging issues they will face as adults,” Forman says.

Following intensive training last spring and summer, all peer health partners are enrolled in an advanced health course this semester, taught by Lampl along with several other health experts.

The course is grounded in research conducted by the Emory-Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute, where Lampl serves as associate director. In a four-year study, seven hundred Emory faculty and staff volunteers were individually assigned health partners, who helped them examine their health risks, existing strengths and weaknesses, and health maintenance goals.

“We were interested in exploring the idea that if you provided individuals with information about their health status while offering them a partner, could we empower them to take steps to maintain their health?” Lampl says. A number of participants fully achieved their goals, she adds, such as lowering blood pressure, body fat composition, and stress.

Emory also launched a predictive health minor this fall, taking an interdisciplinary approach to studying health stability and predictability under the new Center for the Study of Human Health, which coordinates the health classes.

Back at the WoodPEC, students in leggings and gym shorts twist their bodies into triangle pose, chair pose, and downward-facing dog. Dami Kim 15C, who spent the day before hunkered down in the library, announced at the end of the session that she was very, very relaxed.

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