Campus News

October 10, 2011

New health course shifts to peer-led, personalized approach

Health 101
Students stretch during a Health 100 yoga session.

By Margie Fishman

Lying perfectly still on a basketball court at the Woodruff P.E. Center, about 75 Emory freshmen are encouraged to listen to their breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

That reliable rhythm drowns out the steady hum of treadmills, shouts from a nearby tennis practice, a fire alarm — all distractions that come with daily living.

The hour-long yoga class is held during midterm exams. It is just one component of Emory's strategic shift in health education, rooted in the predictive health research being conducted here. In a new course where upperclassmen mentor freshmen, "Health 100: It's Your Health" 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 for 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."

Self-assessments and goal-setting

Starting this fall, the 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.

The goals are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely), such as eating two cups of vegetables with dinner. Nevertheless, they require diligence and patience.

Course participant Adam Harris 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, he says.

"I look at my peer health partner as a mentor," he says. "It's very helpful to get someone else's perspective."

Harris' peer health partner, College junior Michelle Cholko, is enjoying her first experience teaching 25 students.  

"We just want to focus on techniques that will keep them calm and healthy during their freshman year," she says.

Changing direction

Chelsey Carter, a senior at Emory College, teaches the Health 101 class.

Chelsey Carter, an upperclassmen peer health partner, leads a Health 100 class.

Previously, College freshmen 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 actively shape their Emory experience and build community.

"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 Lisa DuPree, health partner at the Center for Health Discovery and Well-Being; Jill Welkley, associate professor of health and physical education; and Deborah Ingalls, lecturer in health and physical education.

The new course is grounded in research conducted by the Emory-Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute, where Lampl serves as associate director. Under a four-year study, 700 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 in their health, 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.

That study led Lampl, DuPree and Welkley to pilot back-to-back freshman seminars last year on predictive health, engaging students at a crucial time when they start to establish behavior patterns for life. Thirty of those students became peer health partners.

While disease prediction is not a novel approach, health prediction represents a fundamental paradigm shift, notes Lampl. Rather than emphasize the negative, such as chiding students for eating McDonald's hamburgers, predictive health is about promoting positive outcomes.

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. The Center is also coordinating all 52 Health 100 classes and will be sponsoring seminars, lectures and conferences after it fully launches next year.

Practicing healthy living

Back at WoodPEC, students clad in leggings and gym shorts twist their bodies into triangle pose, chair pose and downward-facing dog, their limbs elongating.    

"It's amazing how many of them don't look at their cell phones for this amount of time," Lampl says.

At the end of the session, College freshman Dami Kim announces that she is "very, very relaxed."

Kim spent the previous day cooped up in the library writing a paper. Her goal for the course: Stretch three times a week at 15 minutes a pop to reduce stress.

"So far, I've done it about twice a week for five minutes," she admits, sheepishly. "But this class has taught me some fun new stretches, which I hope to incorporate into my routine."

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