Project PEER prepares freshmen for healthy year

By Marie Wilson

While many incoming college students may dread gaining the “freshman 15,” 160 female freshmen are taking part in a study that may help them avoid the weight gain.

A team of three professors and about 20 upperclassmen in the departments of Kinesiology, Community Health and Food Science and Human Nutrition recruited the students to participate in Project PEER: Peer education, Exercising and Eating Right.

Weight management is one of the study’s goals, but it will focus more on testing the effectiveness of peer counseling about exercise and nutrition than on preventing weight gain, said Ellen Evans, the project’s director and associate professor of kinesiology and community health.

“We were not looking for people who were overweight or obese or normal weight. We were looking for the whole spectrum,” she said. “It’s not necessarily about weight loss.”

Evans said the program aims to promote self-efficacy and healthy lifestyle choices – practices that the freshmen can carry with them after their time in Project PEER.

“The overall goal is to see if support groups and peer intervention can improve wellness,” said Devon Romano, senior in ACES and peer educator for the study.

Evans and her research team, which includes Kinesiology and Community Health Professor Edward McAuley and Food Science and Human Nutrition Professor Karen Chapman-Novakofski, are in the process of collecting and organizing baseline data about the participants.

Once the data analysis is complete, the researchers will randomly divide the participants into a control group and an intervention group.

The students in the intervention group will attend six weekly, hour-long group meetings, starting the week of Sept. 15. At these meetings, peer educators, who are juniors or seniors in kinesiology and dietetics, will present information about how to eat and exercise right, and how to stay motivated.

“I think that it’s going to teach them most importantly to take ownership of their wellness,” said Amanda Ramirez, senior in AHS and a peer educator for the study.

The other 80 participants will end up in the study’s control group. Evans said they will not receive any help from peer educators, so researchers can compare their habits and health statistics to those of the intervention group.

All of the study’s peer educators are female.

In all-female groups, the peer educators may take on a big sister role and continue to support the freshmen after the six-week period, Evans said.

“We’re looking to change behavior in sustainable and cost-effective ways,” Evans said. “This could be sustained and replicated on campuses across the country.”

Project PEER is funded by a $960,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. The grant began in March and lasts until February 2011.

After gathering data about the peer groups’ effectiveness from the first year of the study, the team plans to create a general education class that focuses on weight management.

“I would like to have done this my freshman year,” said Krista Shawron, senior in ACES and peer educator for the study.

“I wish this would have started earlier because it seems like something that will be really cool to see how it plays out after the first year.