N.C. State nutritionists hope to change bad habits one step at a time

relder@newsobserver.comJanuary 22, 2013 

— Eating right, exercising and getting plenty of sleep aren’t high on the to-do list for most college students.

That’s why a new program at N.C. State University aims to ease students into healthier lifestyles one habit at a time.

“Each week we’ll try to get people to make one behavior change, and over six weeks, we hope to introduce at least one new habit that they can continue to do all year,” said Lisa Eberhart, dietitian in charge of University Dining.

One Change is a six-week program that begins Tuesday and is focused on imparting strategies that can make a big difference in overall health: walk instead of ride when possible, drink more water, engage in 30 minutes of aerobic activity daily, eat more vegetables, find time for relaxation, and record meals in a food diary.

“If we can just get them moving, that’s a really positive thing,” Eberhart said. “Obesity is an issue on every campus, and hypertension is a particular issue in North Carolina.”

Students often come to the university straight out of high school, where they may have been active in sports or recreational activities several hours a day, she said. But once in college, a more sedentary lifestyle becomes common. It’s just easier to take the Wolfline to classes or hang with friends instead of hitting the gym.

In addition, Eberhart said, the campus’s 8,000-plus dining-card holders have an all-access pass to “all the Coke and pizza they want. And that would be a challenge for anybody.”

Claye Paca, a dietitian intern, stressed that the program isn’t about harshly limiting students’ diet. Simply choosing an apple with peanut butter over a hamburger occasionally can yield real benefits over time.

“We try to encourage making the best choice you can, depending on where you are and the choices you have available,” Paca said.

The intellectual and emotional challenges of college also may cause students to overeat.

“Food is a stress reduction technique, but not the only one,” Eberhart said. “We would encourage exercise instead. Take a walk with friends or take a little Zumba break.”

In fact, Zumba, a Latin-inspired dance exercise program, is one of the most popular classes at the campus recreation center, which offers 120 exercise sessions in a variety of formats each week, said Natalie Freeland, assistant director for fitness.

Getting hooked on exercise can be a real game changer for some students, including Jeffery Florence, a senior, who traded a sedentary lifestyle for a part-time job as an instructor at the recreation center during his time at the university.

“For me, Zumba was a gateway exercise,” said Florence, from Greensboro. “I got in shape, felt better and started losing weight. Then I decided I ought to eat better, too.”

Most of the center’s classes are full this month, but Eberhart said attendance tends to fall as commitments to New Year’s resolutions fade and mid-terms loom.

“Life demands are one of the biggest hurdles to regular exercise,” she said.

One Change organizers have developed some strategies they hope will coax more students to participate in the One Challenge program.

Pedometer giveaways are planned to encourage walking, along with special walking maps and timetables offering quick routes across campus.

Calorie statistics posted in the cafeteria will be accompanied by the amount of exercise required to burn off that plate of fries or ice-cream sandwich. And prizes will be handed out to some who sign up for exercise classes at the recreation center for the first time.

“We hope that by the end of the six weeks, there will be some things they can incorporate into their life and continue to do – whether that’s taking the stairs or skipping the sweet tea at lunch,” Eberhart said.

Elder: 919-829-4528

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