Healthy Body Healthy U study by GW researchers updates old school dieting and exercise with a tech-twist.
Florida-native Ashlee Skeens can’t remember a time when she wasn’t “bigger than the other kids.”
As an overweight teen, Ms. Skeens attempted to overcome a sedentary lifestyle and family-style nutrition that was heavy on carbohydrates with occasional bursts of dieting and exercises.
But lack of motivation and minimal results left her frustrated.
Last spring, during her freshman year at the George Washington University, Ms. Skeens hit her breaking point when she weighed in at 200 pounds.
“It was after Christmas break, and I thought to myself enough is enough,” Ms. Skeens said. “I exercised a little, ate healthy and managed to lose about 10 pounds, but I was still in this black hole of not knowing where to start because I never had anyone to go to for advice.”
Enter Healthy Body Healthy U (HBHU), a weight loss research study that offers nutrition tips, exercise lessons, stress management tactics and encouragement to participants through daily text messages, online instructional videos and a private Facebook community.
Ms. Skeens has lost 40 pounds since joining the program in April 2015.
“I love it because my phone is attached to my hip,” Ms. Skeens said. “Those days when I am feeling down and I hear my phone buzz and see a text telling me to hang in there and get to the gym or eat a healthy meal have helped me reach my goals.”
Milken Institute School of Public Health Associate Professor Melissa Napolitano and her research team launched HBHU just over a year ago at GW and the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
The study is funded by a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health following an initial study at Temple University where participants who received positive reinforcement from text messages and Facebook interactions saw an average weight loss of 5.3 pounds during an eight-week period.
Enrollment in HBHU is open through December 2017 for undergraduate and graduate students ages 18 to 29 who are 10 to 100 pounds overweight. Details and registration is available online.
According to Dr. Napolitano, one third of college students are overweight and between 25 and 40 percent of students have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, increased abdominal circumference or other “metabolic risk factors” that can lead to heart disease, diabetes or other life-threatening diseases.
“A lot of times, we don’t think about children and young adults as being at-risk for these more significant health problems, but increasingly they are,” Dr. Napolitano said.
The learning curve
GW sophomore Sally Schmidt lost 50 pounds in high school after her parents bought her an elliptical machine to use at home. She says the stress of transitioning to college life caused her weight to creep back up during her freshman year.
GW sophomore Sally Schmidt said that the transition to college life made it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle. With support from the Healthy Body Healthy U study, she has been able to work toward her goals. (William Atkins/GW Today)
“I’ve gone to sleep away camp, but college is a very different world,” Ms. Schmidt said. “At home I biked a lot, but I didn’t feel comfortable working out at the gym with other people, and I was eating out—a lot.”
Ms. Schmidt joined HBHU during the fall 2015 semester. She was randomly assigned to the “blue group,” which prioritizes teaching the connection between energy, mind and body attitude through Facebook and text messaging. All groups in the study receive Facebook information and text messages, including the “green group,” which provides weight loss information and general weight loss tips, and the “purple group,” which offers participants messages and feedback that are tailored to their specific needs.
“We had one question in the Facebook group about what affects our perception of ourselves and our body image,” Ms. Schmidt said. “I realized I am really affected by seeing photos of friends and people who are thinner on Instagram and Facebook, and it is nice to know other people are struggling with some of the same issues.”
Ms. Schmidt also said the HBHU has made her more accountable to her commitment to weight loss and helped her understand how sleep and stress can affect health. For example, since participants are required to take an inventory and report their sleep, mood, exercise and eating, Ms. Schmidt has noticed how her mood and food cravings were affected when she did not get enough sleep.
“It’s easy to get distracted watching Netflix on my computer late at night or hanging out with people, but now I can see now how important sleep is,” Ms. Schmidt said. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the program, but I know it’s working because I feel more in control of my body. I have more self control.”
Last summer, Ms. Skeens timidly walked into a clothing store fitting room with items from the “juniors” section. Earlier that day, she tried on clothes from the women’s section as usual, but found they didn’t fit.
Even though the scale was telling her she had lost the unwanted weight, memories from her childhood of being too large for youth sizes were still fresh in her mind.
“I did this because I want to take care of myself and love myself more."
- Ashlee Skeens, GW sophomore
“I have never been able to wear teen clothes—ever, and I would get teased for not being able to wear younger, fashionable clothes, ” Ms. Skeens said. “But that day, I bought all new clothes, and I was so proud. I think I even cried later thinking about it.”
Ms. Skeens is now a size 14, down from a size 18. She does yoga, zumba and kickboxing at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center during the week, shops for groceries to make healthy meals and takes pride in focusing on her health. Though she gained some weight during the holidays, she was able to get back on track and lost it this semester, with the help of HBHU.
She hopes to lose another 30 to 40 pounds to reach a healthy weight and BMI for her 5-foot-4-inch frame.
“This was a big risk to put myself out there, but when I went in to get weighed and have my waist measured, the Healthy Body Healthy U team was so nice to me and made me realize I was more than my weight or a number on the scale,” Ms. Skeens said. “I did this because I want to take care of myself and love myself more."
“I’ve seen how being overweight can lead to diseases, and I don’t want it to get to that point— I’m still in my prime, and I’m doing something about my health.”