Feinberg study aims to improve student health

Kelley Czajka, Reporter

The Feinberg School of Medicine launched a study this fall to assess the effectiveness of mobile devices in preventing college students from losing healthy behaviors.

The study, called NU You, will track students’ habits using an app, in-person exams and social media.

“The college years are a time when people lose between 13 and 20 percent of their long-term health,” said Prof. Bonnie Spring, the project’s principal investigator.

When students get stressed, they tend to decrease healthy habits, such as eating right and exercising, and they increase harmful habits such as drinking and smoking, Spring said. Although these may seem innocuous in the short term, they can lead to premature illness and death over time, she said.

“They don’t scream, they don’t cry, ‘Pay attention to me!’” Spring said. “They just slowly, over a long time, undermine your health and cause you to die early.”

To curb these risk factors, Spring worked with project coordinator Angela Pfammatter and a team of NU alumni to design NU You, which will assess the health of 500 current freshmen over two years. About 260 students have already enrolled, Spring said.

Last year, the team conducted several focus groups to evaluate what students value most as well as what factors prevent them from maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

A major topic of the conversations with students was the concept of “stress as a badge of honor,” with students competing to see who can go the furthest to do well academically at the expense of their health, Spring said.

Spring and Pfammatter said students in the focus groups also expressed a need for help with time management. To address this, the team created a scheduling app for students in the study.

The app will be synced with Canvas to track students’ classes, work and other obligations. It will also send reminders to help students track due dates for assignments and even recommend healthy ways to spend free time.

“We also built it so that different features in the app will actually be optimized and work better the more you use it,” Pfammatter said. “In a sense, it kind of gets to know you and your schedule and what’s up with you, so that it can make recommendations that are more relevant for you.”

The app will also include a weekly questionnaire about health habits such as eating, physical activity, alcohol and tobacco use, sexual activity and sunscreen use, Spring said. This data will be de-identified and compiled to track the acquisition of risk factors.

“It really just gives us a very quick, non-burdensome snapshot about what’s going on,” Pfammatter said.

The release of the app has been delayed due to the Apple iOS update, but it will be available for participants in the App Store this week. It will also be available to Android users.

Participants are required to fill out an online questionnaire about their health habits when enrolling in the study and must complete three in-person health assessments, one each in the fall of freshman, sophomore and junior year.

Weinberg freshman Marco Alvarez said he enrolled in the study primarily for the compensation — all participants will be paid $25 after each in-person health assessment. Participants will also have the chance to earn monthly rewards such as cash for completing weekly questionnaires on the app. In addition, the freshmen will be entered in a raffle for $150 for sophomore year and $250 senior year with 100 winners to be announced each year.

Alvarez said he is curious to see how the study impacts his health.

“Especially with the weekly questions, I think it’ll get me thinking about my health more often than other people might,” Alvarez said.

NU You will run an Instagram account and a private Facebook group for participants in the study. The goal of the social media component is to provide social support and attempt to “build a culture where academic success can be balanced with health and well-being,” Pfammatter said.

Spring said NU You is also looking to establish a student advisory board to keep in line with what is important to students and the types of technology they prefer.

“We are really hoping to be able to expand this work and engage students in developing new technologies that will be helpful in improving not only health, but well-being,” Spring said.

Spring said NU You is the first step in achieving this long-term goal.

“We hope that Northwestern can take a leadership position in being one of the first places to tackle this loss of college-student health and start to develop some ways of trying to turn it around,” she said.

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