Milken study to track how freshmen develop health practices throughout college

Media Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Sacheck

The research team will ask students about their dietary habits and conduct body scans as part of the study.

A team of professors and students from the Milken Institute School of Public Health will track freshmen’s eating and exercising habits throughout their four years at GW as part of a study launched earlier this month.

The study, titled GW F.R.E.S.H, includes an online survey and an optional annual in-person physical fitness test that will analyze a student’s body composition through metrics like body mass index and blood levels. Members of the research team said they have recruited 78 students so far via flyers posted in campus buildings since last Sunday, and they aim to start the hour-long physical fitness tests with 100 participants before the end of the semester.

Jennifer Sacheck, the study’s principal investigator and the chair of the department of exercise and nutrition sciences, said the study will use data like students’ sleeping habits and physical activities to highlight health patterns. She said the data could help identify students’ food insecurity issues and if the University is lacking healthy dietary options on campus.

“Raising awareness of any of those issues, like a lack of fitness or ability to be physically active, or that the choices of healthy dietary options are limited and therefore their diet might look a certain way,” she said.

Sacheck said she hopes for the study to be peer-reviewed if the research team decides to publish their findings in a report or present their findings to administrators. She said she hopes to present the study’s findings at the GW Research Showcase, an annual conference where students and faculty can present their research and compete for prize money.

Sacheck said the research team will use DEXA scans, full-body scanning tests used to measure factors like students’ body mass index and blood pressure to determine body composition and health levels. She said the physical testing will also include a blood test to observe data like blood sugar and cholesterol levels so freshmen can be more informed about their physical health.

Sacheck said the study is only analyzing freshmen to focus on a group of college-age students who are learning to create their own health behaviors for the first time.

“I had been thinking about this for a while because we have a lot of junior faculty and undergraduate and PhD students, who are all always looking for research,” Sacheck said.

Loriann Hom, the study’s project manager and a second-year graduate student pursuing a Master’s of Public Health in physical activity, said students will receive $10 in GWorld funds if they complete the survey and might earn more rewards after they participate in the physical fitness test.

“It would be great empowering students to know about themselves more and how they can improve either environmental factors on campus that are making them behave a certain way, or just about their own health in general,” she said.

Annika Stadler, the study’s testing coordinator and a junior majoring in exercise science, said the online survey will ask about students’ dietary habits, like how often they drink beverages with sugar, via REDCap – a data organization software that will collect their answers in a spreadsheet.

She said students in the research team are hanging fliers in common spaces like the University Student Center and District House and freshmen-oriented classes to encourage freshmen to participate in the study.

Stadler said the team is also promoting the study to faculty members in all departments, the Milken undergraduate newsletter and Pre-Health Advising – a University-wide team of advisers who help students and alumni pursue a career in health care.

“This is something that I’ve never had experience with, so it’s definitely like a learning point for me and it could potentially intrigue me into doing more research along this topic area or branching out into different research,” she said.

Jennifer Cook, an undergraduate researcher on the team and a junior majoring in exercise science, said the study allows freshmen to learn more about their bodies like their resting metabolic rate – a measure of the number of calories a person burns while at rest – to gauge their fitness levels.

She said the survey and physical fitness tests will help the student researchers increase their understanding of students’ overall physical and behavioral health that could help improve student wellness on campus.

Cook said other schools could use the study’s observations as a guide to implement policy changes that can improve their own campus health.

“At the end of the day, we’re college students too,” she said. “We’re undergrads, so what we learned from this study about college-age students like health habits is really applicable to us.”

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