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Talk it out with a friend to improve health habits

In ongoing research, peer coaches help people set and keep health goals.

It’s a new school year, and whether you’re a first-year student living on your own perhaps for the first time or someone still trying to recover from the stress-eating and comfort foods of the past year and half, now is a great time to tune up your health habits. It’s not an easy process. But University of Utah researchers are studying how to make it easier.

Jessie King is an assistant professor of Health & Kinesiology and a part of the U’s Coalition on Student Well-Being. Recently, with funding from Salt Lake County, she and her colleagues began studying how peer health coaching can help people improve their health habits. We spoke with King to learn more about her research.

Jessie King

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What is the Coalition on Student Well-Being? Who’s involved?

The Coalition is a mix of students, faculty, and staff on the U campus who seek to improve student well-being. College can be a tough transitionary period, even when there isn’t a global pandemic; we aim to be a resource for students to improve their health-promoting behaviors and ultimately reduce negative health behaviors. The Coalition is led by faculty within the College of Health’s Department of Health & Kinesiology including myself, Yang Bai and Tim Brusseau. Students from across campus are involved, and in the past, we’ve worked with Housing and the Center for Student Wellness. We’re incredibly thankful to receive funding support from the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Tell us about your recent study using peer health coaching. Who are these coaches and what did they talk about with study participants?

Spring semester was our first roll out of the Prevention Plus Wellness program. Ninety U undergraduates completed a one-on-one health coaching session with a peer health coach. The coaches provide individualized feedback on health habits and then work with students to create an individualized goal plan to improve their health behaviors. Coaches also connect students to more extensive resources across campus and within the community. Specific topics discussed include nutrition, physical activity, sleep, stress management and substance use. Our peer health coaches are typically either Master’s students in the Department of Health & Kinesiology’s Health Education Specialist and Wellness Coaching program or undergraduate students affiliated with Student Wellness’ ACES Peer Health Education Scholars program. All our coaches have received extensive training in motivational interviewing and wellness, and use that training throughout the sessions.

How did the participants’ behaviors change as a result of their health coaching?

Overall, we saw significant improvements in self-reported general health and emotional well-being in the weeks following the health coaching session. We also identified increases in sleep and decreases in sedentary behavior and substance use. We heard a lot of positive feedback from students about the benefit of just having someone to talk to about what’s going on in their lives. The majority of participants were freshmen living on campus, who were quite isolated last year. It might be that just having someone to talk to may have helped them to take some of the pressure off which led to students feeling better, both mentally and physically.

Why is this an approach that works?

First, this is a short, 1-hour, easily digestible program that can be completed either online or in person. This makes accessibility less of an issue and might increase the chance someone would choose to participate in the first place. Second, participants create an individualized plan based on their own needs and goals. Unlike other programs that might deliver the same “product” to all individuals, the coaching sessions use a personalized approach, which creates a sense of ownership and reflects the unique experiences and needs of each student. Finally, these individualized goal plans are created in collaboration with a peer health coach, who is specifically trained to motivate participants and provide helpful feedback so that participants walk away one step closer to achieving their own health goals.

Can students still sign up to be participants in the next phase of this study?

Absolutely! We plan to start sign-ups in September. We’re recruiting undergraduate students on campus and will offer online and in-person coaching sessions. Those interested can email for a link to the screener survey.

How can I use the principles from your study to improve my healthy behaviors or to help a loved one improve theirs?

First, start small by identifying how you or your loved ones are doing across various areas of health, such as eating behaviors, physical activity, stress management, sleep and substance use.

Then, spend some time thinking about a behavior that might be easy to change. Goal setting and writing down a formalized plan to improve health is always a great step to take when you would like to improve healthy behaviors or help someone else improve theirs. When you take time to think about actionable steps you can take to accomplish a health goal, it makes that task seem less daunting and it gives you a practical road map toward that goal.

Additionally, communicating your intentions with someone else, whether that be a health coach, a friend or a family member might help keep you accountable for working towards accomplishing those goals you wrote down in the first place.

Finally, if you are not sure about the appropriate goals to set for certain behaviors, talk to some professionals. There are great resources on campus, including the Student Wellness Center or the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.