UW-Madison OT Program - 2011 OT Matters - Program News - Taking Time to Smell the Apples

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Taking Time to Smell the Apples

Pilot wellness course teaches importance of healthy lifestyle habits, routines

Kim Kritzer spent a January weekend at the beginning of her final semester at UW-Madison evaluating post-graduate career options – holistic medicine, yoga certification and similar wellness pursuits. The next day, she received an auspicious email announcement for a new healthy living course.

Apple on table"It was fate and I went with it," Kritzer said. "I thought, that's one thing I can tack on and it will give me a feeling of less stress."

The pilot course – Living Well: Lifestyle Redesign and Health Promotion for College Students – applied biological, cultural and social theory and research to strategies for small yet transformative lifestyle changes that bolster health and well-being.

The UW-Madison student lifestyle often includes skipping meals, binge drinking, overeating or eating unhealthy foods, and exercising sporadically, which may only include climbing Bascom Hill between classes.

Added to the stress of adjusting to a new academic and social environment away from home, these behaviors take a toll on students' physical and mental health.

“This life transition provides an opportunity for reexamination and an opportunity to make thoughtful choices about lifestyle," said Professor Beth Larson, who designed and taught the Living Well course for the first time this year.

Kinesiology and Occupational Therapy faculty see themselves as a clear and obvious partner with University Health Services to help all students better care for themselves, she said.

Most young adults have acute health issues, but the pressures college students experience often concentrates or heightens some of those issues, said Gerald Ryan, University Health Services clinical director.

“When you aren’t taking care of your body well, your brain is not functioning well, and it becomes self-perpetuating,” Ryan said.

Although some pressures students experience are theoretically good pressures, they can become unhealthy if their social lives aren’t playing out as they’d wished, he said.

College students are more educated about healthy habits and health risks than in past but they aren’t necessarily behaving differently to the same degree, he said.

“Part of human growth is how we respond to stressors,” he said. “We hope to steer students into valuing their health, which is just as important as education.”

Healthy behaviors and activities need to be incorporated into a routine. But those changes must be incremental to be effective or they will instead become stressors, he said.

“College students don't realize enough that they have more time now to take care of themselves because life only gets more busy,” he said. “The habits they form now can affect them for the rest of their lives.”

If they establish healthy habits and routines now, they are more likely to carry them through life, he said.

Ryan’s concerns about student health informed Larson’s course preparation. In the class, students examined health and well-being related to their time-use patterns; balance among daily activities, routines and habits; circadian rhythms, energy cycles and sleep; self-care and stress management activities; and their daily environments. Based on that data, they designed a lifestyle project to follow for a better life balance.

Larson started out each class session presenting research and theory on wellness, students were then allowed to lead discussions on background readings. Each session ended with large or small group wellness activities.

"You can put everything away except your apple," she announced about 20 minutes before the end of a February class session.

The class watched a short video produced by the Harvard School of Public Health on the seven steps of mindful eating: honor the food, engage all of your senses, be mindful of portion sizes, chew your food, eat slowly, do not skip meals, eat a plant-based diet.

Following the video, Larson led the class in a contemplative eating session with the organic Pink Lady apples that she handed out earlier.

“This week's challenge: for five minutes each day, do something like this – be mindful of something you eat,” she said.

A few weeks later, the students spent class time working in groups to share their lifestyle project ideas and brainstorm strategies for improving life balance.

Larson sat with each group, coaching them along in their answers to the questions:

  • How will it change your life?
  • What are you already doing to achieve your goal?
  • How confident are you that you will achieve?
  • What have you tried? What is keeping you from doing it now?
  • What are your next steps?

Senior Chris Jumes signed up for the course because he wanted to add something less scientific to his already busy academic schedule, he said.

“It seemed to have more practical applications than some classes – things that I could hopefully use,” he said.

Jumes especially appreciated the in-class relaxation techniques but the week-long sleep diaries made the biggest impression on him, he said.

“That was eye-opening,” Jumes said. “I noticed I tried to catch up a lot on the weekends while it varied a lot during the week with class schedules.”

He had never before kept track of his sleep or perceived his energy level the morning after, he said.

“It was neat to see what sort of things affected that and how to manage that more consistently,” he said.

The course forced students to reflect and focus on important aspects of their college lives that they may take for granted but that are just as challenging as the academic and social activities, Kritzer said. 

“(Larson) pushes us with all of the topics by trying to break us out of some of the habits that we've built,” she said.

Every topic in the class is meant to help students think of life and daily activity choices in new ways, especially something like eating slowly when students have so many competing responsibilities and activities, Kritzer said.

“It's challenging to sit there and be mindful and think about nothing except for the moment that you're in,” she said. “Eating slower – I had no idea that could be something that could make your day so much better.”

Jumes and Kritzer each said they wished they could have benefited from the course earlier in their college careers, but at least were able to make some changes in their final days in school.

“It's hard to change years-old habits,” Jumes said. “If I had known about some of this stuff in freshman or sophomore year, I think it would have been really huge for college life, health-wise.”

Larson plans to train other instructors and graduate students in the material so that the Department can offer more course sections. She also is working on a funding proposal to develop a smart phone “app” that would help students monitor and improve their daily lifestyle choices during and beyond the course.

Kritzer said she hopes successive cohorts of students will benefit from the same experience. She brought the course material back to her sorority in hopes that newer members will adopt and share what she learned and even take the Living Well course themselves.

“If you just let freshmen talk about how stressed out they are, like we did in the weekly check-ins we had, you could realize that the entire room feels the same way you do,” she said. “That's really powerful.”

Healthy living course photo

Assoc. Professor Beth Larson (2nd from left) leads her Healthy Living class in a mindful eating exercise with apples. Larson starts out each class session presenting research and theory on wellness. Each session ends with group wellness activities.

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