70% of college students gain weight by graduation
Attending college can be stressful and taxing – often affecting students’ health and wellness. Researchers at Auburn University followed 131 students over four years of college and found that a whopping 70% gained weight by graduation (an average of 12, and up to 37 pounds). The overall percentage of students found to be overweight increased from 18% to 31%. The researchers noted gains in body fat composition and waist circumference.
IVC (iVein.com), the trusted leader in preventing and treating vein disease, understands the importance of learning and practicing healthy habits during the formative college years and is offering the iVein® Health and Wellness Scholarship to reward students who are committed to a lifetime of healthy habits.
How to Apply
Any current full-time undergraduate/graduate student attending an accredited US university or college with a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.7 is welcome to apply. Eligible students will:
- Write an essay of 800 to 1000 words, promoting a practical approach to healthy lifestyle during college years and how these habits can be sustained over a lifetime.
- Demonstrate detailed knowledge of health and wellness and discuss why healthy living is a lifetime endeavor based on your personal experiences.
- Your essay should be in a word document or similar (pdf, Google Doc) file type with your first and last name in the document title.
- Forward their completed essay, documentation of GPA and full-time enrollment status to scholarship@iVein.com with “iVein Scholarship” in the subject line on or before the listed deadline.
Requirements to Apply
Students must provide unofficial or official transcripts showing the following requirements are met:
- Enrolled in an accredited US college or university
- Enrolled full time (12 credit hours for undergraduate students, 9 credit hours for graduate students)for the semester your are applying for
- Cumulative GPA of at least 3.7
- Students in pass/fail programs must provide proof of passing status
- Please indicate the semester you are applying for
When Is The Deadline to Apply?
- Fall Semester: August 31st, 2023
- Winter/Spring: December 31st, 2023
Who is Eligible To Apply?
Any current full time undergraduate or graduate student attending an accredited college or university with a cumulative GPA of 3.7 is welcome to apply. Medical school students may provide proof of their pass/ fail classes.
Do I Have To Be Enrolled in a University or College to Apply?
Yes. You must submit proof of full time enrollment status for the semester your are applying for along with your essay. The scholarship funds will be sent directly to the financial aid office of the winning candidate’s institution.
What Are Acceptable Documents To Prove Enrollment Status and GPA?
An unofficial or official transcript. Make sure your name and your institution’s name is clearly visible on the document. If you are an incoming freshman, submit your senior year high school GPA. If you are entering a graduate program, submit your most recent GPA from your undergraduate.
Two scholarships of $2,500 each will be awarded annually. Recipients are only eligible to receive the scholarship once.
Selection Process and Notification
The IVC Scholarship Committee will review essays and supporting documentation and one winner will be declared for each academic semester. The winner will be selected within 4 weeks of the deadline date. Once the winner has been determined, he or she will be contacted by IVC and informed of the scholarship award. The scholarship funds will then be sent directly to the financial aid office of the winning candidates’ institution.
If you have any other questions or need more information, please email scholarship@iVein.com. We ask that you please do not call our office or utilize the text feature on our website for scholarship questions as it distracts from providing excellent care to our patients.
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2023 Winning Essays
The world we live in is one largely ruled by principles of balance. Newton’s third law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. All living organisms have mechanisms that tightly orchestrate complex physiological systems in search of homeostasis. Ecological food webs and chains remind us that every component making up the environment matters—large or small. It is to no surprise, then, that we humans also need balance in order to promote good health. The road to achieving said balance in our daily lives, however, is a lifelong journey. To improve and maintain one’s personal wellness is a holistic process that comes with countless challenges, many of which I encountered personally and through the experiences of others.
Like many college freshmen, that fateful August move-in day marked my first real taste of independence. Though liberating, I soon found the transition to be bittersweet, afraid that I had too much freedom. Suddenly, every decision was up to me and me alone. Do I go to the doctor’s office? To church? To the gym? No invisible hand guided mine toward the steamed vegetables and away from the colorful buffet of desserts in the cafeteria. Faced with so many choices, trial and error led me to a critical understanding: there are few “either/or” solutions in life. I was my happiest and healthiest self when I made a point of acknowledging my diverse needs and avoided both excess and deprivation. Previous research corroborates me on this point. A 2008 article proposing a model of lifestyle balance evidenced the importance of balancing biological needs with those of personal satisfaction (1). Equally important, the article also emphasizes that wellness is a multidimensional concept that changes over the span of our lives. Reflecting on this idea, I am reminded of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory, which uses a tiered triangle to describe various levels of human need— physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (2).
Applied to my own experience, most of the stress I dealt with in college came from allowing one category of need, or stressor, to overshadow others. On some days, I neglected my physical health for the sake of getting good grades. I would routinely skip meals, spend days without exercising, and average four or less hours of sleep a night—all unhealthy habits associated with poor mental health and overall well-being (3). In fact, evidence shows that sleep deprivation can alter the body’s glucose metabolism, which increases one’s risk of developing diabetes and experiencing unintentional weight gain (4). Adding on to my stress, I also struggled with attending to my physical needs while juggling my friendships, family obligations, and extracurriculars. However, I could not afford to disregard my social needs, which also play a key role in determining one’s health and mortality (5). Just as the body requires a careful balance of ions, minerals, and vitamins for healthy functioning, my physical and mental health improved exponentially once I reevaluated how I weighed my priorities. To better address all my needs, I started using my phone’s timer app to carve out different slots in my day for different activities. I allotted myself a certain amount of time for doing schoolwork and extracurriculars, cooking, exercising at home, and writing stories. Developing a better lifestyle balance also allowed me to focus more on my personal relationships and get more hours of sleep, which helped me better manage stress and increased my sense of wellness.
These lessons were echoed throughout the duration of my college experience, reaching a fever pitch during my junior year when I signed up to become a volunteer crisis counselor. I did not know what to expect on my first shift. My mind swelled with concerns about what lay ahead: anxiety, depression, bullying, homelessness—only a few of the infinite possible manifestations of the all-encompassing umbrella of crises. By the time my heart slowed its erratic thumping, I had already received my first message. Gradually, I overcame the steep learning curve. A few shifts in, a new insight sprang to life in my mind: even in the most devastating situations, balance still plays a vital role in coping. In my conversations, we operationalized depression as lifestyle imbalances—bridgeable distances between past loves and current realities—over and above neurotransmitter imbalances. Panic could be quelled by grounding: letting go of internal and external noise and letting your immediate senses guide you back to peace through meditation. The blow of hopelessness was softened by remembrances of pets, people, and passions overshadowed by brain chemistry. Of my hundreds of conversations, I had the most impact when I helped someone realize that small adjustments—such as going for walks, talking with loved ones, and practicing reflection—eventually build up into larger transformations in their lives.
Now a first-year medical school student, I still rely on these insights to help myself continue to work towards a balanced lifestyle. Despite my busy schedule, I stay active by walking around campus, fight the urge to order delivery by recreating simple online recipes, and aim not to study past midnight. However, this can also prove challenging at times, especially when my school-life balance is stretched thin. When thrown off course, I reflect on the lifestyle tweaks that will best restore my sense of harmony at the moment. As my body and mind change with time, my needs and priorities will always be evolving along with them.
Above all, I constantly remind myself that wellness is more than a healthy diet or exercise regimen. The factors contributing to personal wellbeing span across various dimensions of life, all of which come together to make us the complex people that we are. Though achieving balance within this complexity can be difficult, it is a goal worth continually striving for.
- Matuska, K. M., & Christiansen, C. H. (2008). A proposed model of lifestyle balance. Journal of Occupational Science, 15(1), 9-19.
- Mcleod, S. (2020, December 29). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html#:~:text=From%20the%20bottom%20of%20the,attend%20to%20needs%20higher%20up.
- Wickham, S. R., Amarasekara, N. A., Bartonicek, A., & Conner, T. S. (2020). The big three health behaviors and mental health and well-being among young adults: a cross-sectional investigation of sleep, exercise, and diet. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 579205.
- Sharma, S., & Kavuru, M. (2010). Sleep and metabolism: an overview. International journal of endocrinology, 2010.
- Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior, 51(1_suppl), S54-S66.
2022 Winning Essays
Habits, Health, and the Happy Life
What makes us happy? Is it money? Is it a nicer house, a nicer car, or an exotic vacation? Or perhaps happiness is more circumstantial. Does my partner like me today? Are my kids well behaved? Do my parents support my decisions?
It seems instinctive for us to target external factors as determinants of our happiness. The nicer house or nicer car may give us a sense of success or a feeling of satisfaction with our quality of life, but what substance do these items hold if we don’t really feel successful or satisfied with ourselves? In other words, how much of our happiness is determined by our circumstances, and how much is determined by our behavior?
We may be surprised to learn that having the nicer house or nicer car does not necessarily correlate with improved quality of life. For example, a study conducted in 2010 demonstrates that having more “things” not only fails to increase happiness but may decrease one’s ability to “reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures” (1). The wealthier test subjects in this experiment had a significantly lower capacity to hold on to positive emotional experiences than their counterparts who were not exposed to wealth. Why is this so? Perhaps our happiness has less to do with the things we possess and more to do with the life we are striving to create for ourselves.
A curious study on Italian natives takes this question a step further. The study examines the relationship between happiness and health and concludes that happiness is correlated with perceived good health, which is to say, the healthier we think we are, the happier we will be (2). During college and medical school, I have grown to appreciate three important aspects of health and well-being: dietary health, sleep hygiene, and gratitude.
So much of our physical health depends on our eating habits. While it is important to be aware of the consequences of our food choices, it is equally important to ensure that we are obtaining essential nutrients in our diet. For example, in medical school we learn the important role that dietary fiber plays in food absorption. We also learn that fiber binds to carcinogens and is associated with decreased risk of colon cancer (3). Unfortunately, however, it can be difficult to obtain adequate amounts of fiber, which explains why many Americans (~80%) are fiber deficient. To me, this was an alarming statistic, especially considering that colon cancer runs in my family. With this new information, my wife and I were quick to incorporate fiber-rich foods into our diet, and I take fiber supplements on days when our diet lacks in fiber.
In addition to dietary health, sleep hygiene is another vital – and often underappreciated – aspect of health and well-being. A 2018 study found that those who slept less than 7 hours each night had a higher likelihood of developing obesity compared to those who slept more than 7 hours (4). Another study revealed that reduced sleep duration and increased frequency of sleep disruptions were associated with poor mental health (5). I believe that many issues with sleep arise from staying up too late rather than getting up too early. In my experience, when I am intentional about getting up early, I am also more intentional about going to bed early; conversely, when I go to bed late, I tend to justify oversleeping because I feel that I have “earned the right” to sleep in. These tendencies do not promote a healthy bedtime routine.
My determination to wake up earlier has helped me overcome poor sleeping habits – but this hasn’t always been the case. One night, back in January, I was scrolling through my phone when I came across a post on Facebook titled “5 Morning Habits of Successful People.” 2 of the 5 habits were ones I did not follow. They were, first, wake up early, and second, get moving early. I determined that I would try this advice the following morning. I set my alarm for 5:30 AM, which was significantly earlier than usual, and placed my phone across the room so that I would be forced to get out of bed to turn off my alarm. Little did I know, my decision to do so would change my approach not only to academics, but to my lifestyle routine in general. I discovered a world of ultra-productive mornings, where my mind was clear, everything was quiet, and time seemed to stand still. My experience has made me a believer in the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
Perhaps the most underestimated aspect of healthy living is the daily practice of gratitude. A randomized clinical trial conducted in 2019 investigated the relationship between gratitude and mental health (6). The subjects in the “intervention” group wrote daily gratitude lists for 14 days, after which they completed a series of questionnaires evaluating positive and negative psychological affect. The study found that gratitude intervention increased happiness and life satisfaction, while simultaneously decreasing negative affect and depression symptoms.
My experience with gratitude came in the form of a gratitude journal. I started my own gratitude journal during my sophomore year of college. Writing down what I was grateful for only took a few minutes, but it made a significant difference in my life: I became more optimistic, less irritable, and more friendly towards others.
Our health is a valuable gift, and if we lose it, we may never find it again. The difference between where we are now and the healthy life is intentionality: intentionality with what we eat, intentionality with how we approach sleep hygiene, and being intentionally grateful for what we have. My personal journey to healthy living has been a process that has required consistency and a willingness to abandon old habits for the sake of a healthier lifestyle. It has led me to increased productivity, self-confidence, and above all: happiness.
1. Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away … – Journals.sagepub.com. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797610371963?casa_token=jbNlYjbnCssAAAAA%3ANAN5GsOaZLvkTFkY4i6l8Vrezb8LkwFM6pqDgxQnzw6_hQmo_iEIaozuqUNbzx4yhc-C-NTKWqo6.
2. Sabatini, Fabio. “The Relationship between Happiness and Health: Evidence from Italy.” Social Science & Medicine, Pergamon, 24 May 2014, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953614003189?casa_token=0qyXlO_iVswAAAAA%3AkRO1zwC-UROf5DUyZy3DO0XAh1Iqg56VSdjIFjZPZ_xx1u5DG22bt6vKfYtQ3S82NUr4Xycu.
3. Negri, E, et al. “Fiber Intake and Risk of Colorectal Cancer.” American Association for Cancer Research, American Association for Cancer Research, 1 Aug. 1998, https://aacrjournals.org/cebp/article/7/8/667/108660/Fiber-intake-and-risk-of-colorectal-cancer.
4. Cooper, Christopher B, et al. “Sleep Deprivation and Obesity in Adults: A Brief Narrative Review.” BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, BMJ Specialist Journals, 1 Oct. 2018, https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/4/1/e000392.abstract.
5. Milojevich, Helen M., and Angela F. Lukowski. “Sleep and Mental Health in Undergraduate Students with Generally Healthy Sleep Habits.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0156372.
6. Cunha, Lúzie Fofonka, et al. “Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00584/full.
I still remember the amused look on my father’s face as he watched my sister and me spread bitter leaves out to dry on a sunny afternoon. We were so focused on our task that we could only spare him a few glances, wondering what he found so funny.
“Do you guys really think you would have the time to cook all that… in university?” His voice had a confusing mix of laughter, sympathy, and disbelief.
We could not understand what he found so amusing about our plan; to us, it was a phenomenal one. We had it perfectly laid out: we would dry as many ingredients as we could; that way, if it became challenging to go to the market to get fresh ingredients with the demanding university schedule, the dry ingredients would be a perfect back-up plan. Hence, we would always be able to cook our own meals. We bought all the kitchen utensils that we could think of, including ones that most university students never fathom bringing to school. To us, university was an anticipated war and we were readying our armour; if we would go down, we would not do that without a fight.
My family has always been a health-conscious one. There are histories of diabetes and hypertension in my family, so my parents have been particular about our food choices since I was young. We rarely add sugar to drinks and snacks, junk food is discouraged in our home, and I grew up thinking that fruits and vegetables were the most delicious food group on the planet. We always drink ample amounts of water; first thing upon arising and at least three litres a day. However, daily exercise was not emphasised. I now realise that I came from a very health-conscious family, save for the poor emphasis on exercise.
When I heard about the horrors of university and the complicated manner with which it drove students to make dreadful food choices, I was appalled. Given my background, I could not imagine such horror stories being my reality. In an attempt to circumvent the impending doom, my sister and I fervently designed our fool proof plan to ensure that we got adequate nutrition while in university.
It was not long before our plan crumbled. We quickly learnt that the forces that govern students’ poor nutrition – and general lifestyle – choices were deeper than we could comprehend. By the end of the first semester, we had already relegated our ingredients and utensils to the background, only using them on rare occasions. However, we were only able to do this because we attended university in Enugu State, a South-Eastern Nigerian state that is renowned for its tasty, nutritious, and – most importantly – affordable food options. In addition, our home was nearby, so our parents often brought containers of homemade food to us in school. Given all these, we were able to passively maintain a nutritious diet throughout our years in university. I still consider myself fortunate to have had those options.
Nutrition aside, university taught me other things about my health and wellness that I had not noticed previously. There, I realised that I had a sleep problem. I usually like things to be organised, and I found that I would always wake up at night to organise things in my room. This went on throughout university, and I barely got adequate sleep as a result. I also started to emphasise exercise; I tried to get about twenty minutes of intense exercise whenever I could. However – as with the food – I faltered, but walking around campus each day was a true workout, and I was able to get passive exercise that way.
I had gone into university fully prepared to defeat the stereotypes and be a star in the health department, but I realised that I had a lot to learn. I was naïve in my approach but having a proposed framework helped me to detect weaknesses in my overall wellness. This is what I now consider to be the most important part of university: an opportunity to study oneself more. Although I had a decent background in good nutrition, I learnt that I was still lacking in that aspect, and was able to detect flaws in my exercise and sleep patterns. University students are often chided for their poor health choices, and they can feel pressured to focus on different aspects of their health and try to ‘fix’ as much of it as possible. However, my advice would be to pause, evaluate one’s current preferences and environment, and try to progress from there.
The lessons I learnt about my wellness in university have continued to guide me. When I graduated and no longer had the privilege of passive nutrition and exercise, I had to make a conscious effort to maintain those aspects. In 2020, I began practising yoga religiously, and worked on getting consistent sleep each night. By improving these aspects of my health, I was able to study effectively for the MCAT – an important exam required for admission into U.S. medical schools – and am now completing post-baccalaureate studies in the U.S. to prepare me for medical school. I strongly believe that paying attention to my health and wellness helped me to succeed before, and during, my current studies in the U.S.
Good nutrition, adequate exercise, adequate sleep, emotional and mental wellbeing, and even environmental cleanliness, are few aspects of health that are important. While students may be unable to excel in these aspects, university is a useful place to pay attention to the aspects that are lacking and strive to improve them. Maintaining good health is an unending learning process, one that requires patience, constant effort, and determination.
My father eventually had the last laugh. Today, almost six years later, some of those dried leaves remain in our home, tucked away in a corner. However, like the leaves, the invaluable lessons I learnt in university still remain, and I consider that to be the greatest gift.
2021 Winning Essays
In season 2, episode 15b titled “Band Geeks,” of the hit TV series SpongeBob SquarePants Patrick Star uttered the now-infamous line, “Is mayonnaise an instrument.” Unfortunately, and much to his demise, mayonnaise is not an instrument, as Squidward numbly pointed out. Squidward’s profound analysis of mayonnaise is correct in the episode’s context because the only real sound mayonnaise can make is a ‘macaroni in a pot’ type sound, a sound not quite wanted for an orchestra playing at the Bubble Bowl. However, looking at mayonnaise as a whole, it is, in fact, an instrument for a healthy balanced diet.
Mayonnaise, a cold-served dressing composed of a mixture of a neutral plant oil, eggs, lemon juice, vinegar, and a pinch of salt, has had a bad reputation for many years. In the nutrition industry, a widespread fat hysteria is caused by mommy bloggers, TV personalities, nutritionists, and doctors recommending people to cut back foods with fat. Fats were noted to cause inflammation, increase blood cholesterol levels, and cause excess weight gain. However, these publications and programs did not make a distinction between the types of fats. It’s a diet full of saturated fats that have disadvantages to overall health, but a diet with mono- and poly-unsaturated fats has a beneficial effect on health. Not only do mono- and poly-unsaturated fats support the absorption of the four fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin A, D, E, and K, these healthy fats help the gut microbiome and overall gut health and aid in hormone production. Omega-3 fatty acids are currently being looked at in treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other gut and intestinal-related illnesses. Misinformation and panic are caused by a misrepresentation of research as well as insufficient research at large. Even now, groups of people call for boycotts on all carbs and promote a paleo diet, and others claim that everything except veganism is wrong for
With so many opinions of what diet is the best, it’s tough for people to figure out what they should eat. It’s especially pressing for college students because they have complete control over when and what they eat. They are also limited to what they have access to. For example, some students may have a kitchen in their dorm/ apartment to cook their food, while others only have the dining halls. Not only is their diet put into question, but also their physical health. Many college students see college as a place to reinvent themselves, which often focuses on weight and
weight loss. There is immense stress for college students having to fend for themselves and worrying about their weight.
From an aspiring dietitian student to all of my peers, I, with the greatest sincerity, offer the advice that it’s okay to feel lost. It’s okay to feel confused. It’s okay to make mistakes. There are no right or wrong answers to what defines a healthy diet or a healthy lifestyle for YOU. Living a healthy lifestyle ultimately depends on many factors such as the ability to afford healthy foods at a grocery store or dining hall passes, accessibility of grocery stores or dining halls, and ultimately time, all play a factor in what someone can do to lead a healthier lifestyle. Work within your means and set expectations to follow. You have somewhere between the next two to four, and sometimes more, years to make slight modifications to your diet and lifestyle.
There are three main things all college students need to know to make their current lifestyle and diet healthier and to be sustainable well into the future:
First, no diet is perfect for everyone. Some diets are too restrictive in allowed foods, and others are just not feasible given your budget or lifestyle. IF you want to experiment with a diet, take the time to research both sides of the diet and make a pros and cons list for YOU and YOUR current living situation and dietary preferences. If you do get overwhelmed or stuck, remember the most straightforward thing that everyone can do is take their current diet of foods they love and make a few modifications to make their diet healthier. These modifications include: incorporating more whole-wheat or whole-grain bread/pastas, using skim milk instead of whole or 2%, consuming less fatty meats like beef and more lean meats like chicken or turkey, adding fruits and vegetables, and limiting soda and sweets. Small changes like these will eventually become a habit and will be unconscious choices because you are still eating the foods you love. It ensures that these changes will be sustainable and can continue even outside of college.
Second, don’t be afraid to experiment with cuisine different from your own. Because most college students ate what their parents cooked/ wanted to eat, they have limited experience with a
wide array of foods. Many colleges are located in bigger cities that tend to be more diverse, with restaurants and specialty markets that serve authentic, or authentic inspired, foods from these other cultures. One of the best things about people’s diets is diversity in what you eat. It ensures that you can avoid vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and it’s a great way to learn new flavors and new philosophies around food.
Third, no matter what dietary and lifestyle path you choose, please let your philosophy be for your overall physical and mental health and not for weight loss. Focusing on weight loss is a slippery slope to poor dietary choices and often leads to mental distress when a certain number on the scale is not met. Even if the weight loss goals are met through dieting and exercise, it tends to be done in a way that is not sustainable and cannot overpower the body’s natural hormonal desire to regain most of that weight back. Instead, shifting your focus on achieving physical strength, increased flexibility, or a more environmentally friendly diet will allow you to make conscious decisions that go with the flow of your daily life and not be bound by numbers.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in understanding how people tick and how I might be able to help others. This interest led me to obtain my undergraduate degree in psychology and my first job post-college at Social and Health services in Washington state. While there, I worked with low-income people living in poverty and witnessed first-hand how difficult it was for folks to live in a way that promoted their health due to lack of resources, stress, knowledge, or healthcare coverage.
Since then, I’ve held a variety of leadership roles in the private sector working in various aspects of digital health. One of the first digital health companies I worked for was called “Free and Clear.” It was a little startup on a mission to help one person at a time quit using tobacco. In my tenure there, we helped over 1M people quit tobacco. The program, “Quit4Life,” lives on today, and is now owned by Optum Health. Next, I moved into weight loss digital health programs, at first, at another little startup called Retrofit out of Chicago. I served as the head of product and worked with the development teams to build the mobile app and program. On that team, we eventually reached recognition from the CDC as an effective program that helped to prevent type 2 diabetes. After all the work that went into that accomplishment, we all raised a glass to cheers this occasion.
After all of this life experience, I began to realize what it meant to live a healthy lifestyle over the long-term whether you are in college or in a stressful job or in need of public services. One must approach themselves with compassion and come to believe that their health is the most important thing in the world. After all, without your health you cannot do any of the things you plan to do. For example, for younger folks in college, it takes a recognition that if I “pull an all-nighter” without eating a proper dinner, I will likely perform worse on the exam than had I prioritized my well-being with a nutritious meal and a good night’s sleep. So, when your own health and wellbeing is prioritized as the first value, everything else seems to fall into place assuming you have the proper health coverage and knowledge about how to get care when you need it.
In addition to valuing your own health as your number one value, it takes the recognition that there is truly no distinction between mental health and physical health. They are fundamentally intertwined. For example, if you end up in the ER for chest pain and are told to take a medication and practice deep breathing my guess is that you will not follow through with that because of the focus on the physical symptoms vs. the underlying reasons for the symptoms in the first place. It takes recognizing and believing that your mental health is likely more important to how or if you practice a healthy lifestyle in the first place.
For college students today, I’d say managing stress is key in approaching your day-to-day health. To that end, eating a healthy diet, exercising, avoiding alcohol, and getting a full night rest are daily habits that should be incorporated. From first-hand experience, I know that students might need to talk to a health coach to help them establish these habits. These habits are not easy for anyone and they require daily effort. From there, it is recognizing that being healthy is a daily practice with good days and not so good days. Next, college students should get the support they need in truly helping them to effectively manage stress. This may sound trite but I think people (myself included) rarely manage stress effectively and need outside support to assist in breaking down what the stressors are so that there is relief. Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address mental health challenges larger than daily stress such as depression or anxiety which are rampant on college campuses. Folks that are depressed have a hard time taking any action let alone actions that prioritize themselves over all other things. So, each college student (and anyone really) needs to continually assess whether they might be suffering from depression or anxiety and take the steps needed to get help. This is easier said than done, so having a support network around you will help you to identify when you might need outside support.
In summary, I’d say that living a healthy lifestyle starts with having your basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy met (i.e. shelter, food) and then a recognition that you matter and that you are important in this world regardless of what you do or accomplish. This belief can help mitigate stress and propel you into the lovely world of living your best life.
2020 Winning Essays
Growing up in a lower income neighborhood in Oakland, California I was exposed to more liquor stores than grocery stores. I never stepped foot into a Whole Foods until I moved to San Diego for college. I remember leaving as soon as I read $5.99 for 4 stalks of asparagus in a jar of water. Being in college is a stressful and transformative time. You’re away from your family, coping with academic stress, juggling work and relationships, all while trying to incorporate a healthy lifestyle. As I was writing this scholarship essay, I realized how many of my daily habits originated from my years in college. It was a pivotal time of experimenting and implementing different healthy habits as I was growing into an adult. While achieving good health is a lifelong journey, the habits I learned in college completely transformed my life today.
The common perception that college students survive off cheap ramen and hot Cheetos is not only misleading but normalizes this unhealthy behavior for incoming students. Chronic illnesses like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and depression can be prevented by what we put at the end of our fork. Every meal is an opportunity to either feed health or feed health problems. Even though I couldn’t afford shopping at Whole Foods as a college student, I found ways to cut back on food expenses while still getting plenty of nutrients. You can find healthy options at Trader Joes or Walmart for half the cost as Whole Foods. Frozen mixed vegetables became a staple in my grocery list during college. It was cheap, nutrient dense, and quick to prepare when in a rush. I would often buy black beans as a source of protein which are also packed with antioxidants and cost 99 cents per can. Healthy options are available and affordable. It just requires creativity and some planning.
When I eat healthy, I feel more energetic, vibrant, and motivated. Although spending money on healthy foods can seem burdensome in the moment, I know it will save me thousands of dollars in healthcare costs in the long run. Sleep is another vital component of our health that often gets neglected especially during college. As someone who struggled with sleep deprived anxiety in college and even today, I learned different techniques to get into a deep relaxation state that mimics sleep. According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford University, his number one tip is to get direct sunlight to your eyes in the morning. Exposure to direct light sets a biological timer in your body by producing melatonin. This signals your brain when it’s time for rest. In addition, he stresses the importance of avoiding bright light at night. I found turning off my notifications on my phone after 9:00 pm and setting it away from arm’s reach helpful in getting to sleep faster.
I experienced my first onset of mental health challenges in college. I had crippling anxiety and moderate depression that prevented me from being present for the people I love. I found two methods that help manage my mental health. Both are free and accessible anytime. The first one is conscious breathing. There is transformative power and neurobiological effects of deep conscious breathing. I typically breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale slowly through my nose. This bodily action immediately activates the parasympathetic nervous system which increases oxygen flow and lowers stress levels. The second method is journaling. I considered talking to a therapist when my anxiety was reaching its peak, but I unfortunately couldn’t afford a therapist at the time. Journaling is a safe, free, and accessible way to track your symptoms, process your fears, and identify negative behaviors. I’ve become my own therapist in a way by writing things I could never say to anyone. It’s played a major role in becoming more connected to my inner dialogue and identifying areas in my life I want to work on.
My final healthy habit I have cemented in college is a salient factor for my overall productivity today. As an incoming physical therapy student this fall, I have a deep passion for the science and therapeutic effects of exercise. Exercise has diverse effects on our brain and body. Exercising can physically change the structure and function of the brain by promoting the growth of new brain cells and prevent them from degeneration. It results in better mood, energy, memory, and attention. I personally exercise for the mental health benefits. The gym became my therapy throughout college. Every time I felt anxious about an upcoming exam or social event I would play my favorite album by Notorious B.I.G. and sweat out my stress at the gym. Although it can feel like a luxury in today’s busy world, I make it a priority because it has compounding positive effects on my overall productivity and mindset for the day.
Living a healthy lifestyle is an on-going process as our bodies continue to evolve with time. I am committed to living a healthy lifestyle so I can be present for others. Being healthy not only frees you from different disorders and diseases, but allows you to share meaningful moments with the people you love. It is within these moments we look back and cherish the most. Having almost lost my dad in 2017, I understand how impermanent life is and how time is truly the most important currency. As I embark on this next chapter of starting my doctor of physical therapy program back in my hometown of Oakland, California, I am excited and eager to educate and give back to the community that shaped me today.
My senior year of high school altered the course of my life and ultimately steered me towards a healthier lifestyle. My year began with a familiar routine, volleyball practice everyday after school, college applications in the evenings, and time with friends when possible. The day of my volleyball senior recognition celebration changed everything. It was early in the day when I first understood that something was wrong, I heard a sharp ringing in my right ear and when I tried to describe what I was feeling, my words came out slurred. I stood up to walk towards the nurse’s office and quickly realized that the whole right side of my body was affected and I could not walk straight. With a friend on each side of me, we made our way across campus. My dad arrived and we drove to the emergency room. After a myriad of tests and a night in the ER, I was admitted to the hospital. I had suffered a vertebral artery dissection, a stroke. I spent five days in the hospital’s ICU, hooked up to various monitors and beeping devices, while med students and residents cycled through to evaluate a rarity — a seventeen year-old stroke victim,
with joint hyper-mobility and various other curious anomalies. The consensus was that the stroke had likely been caused by a chiropractic manipulation of my neck the day before. I underwent intensive speech, occupational, and physical therapy for 3 weeks to teach my brain to compensate for the affected parts. I regained my physical strength and returned to school, working closely with a counselor to catch up. That fall, I applied to university and focused on healing.
Over winter break I caught a bad cold, and couldn’t seem to shake it. I had no energy to do the things I was just getting back into. After a long-awaited cardiologist appointment, I was diagnosed with dysautonomia, an autonomic nervous system disorder. My dysautonomia manifested in improper regulation of my heart rate and blood pressure. Treatment included radically increasing hydration and salt, and regular cardio exercise.
Ultimate frisbee season was starting up and I decided to play. I forced myself to go to the workouts and practices, and once I settled into that routine I began to feel better. The first out of town ultimate tournament rolled around and I was running down the field to catch a disc with a defender close on me, feeling alive again. I jumped and grabbed the disc, but as I landed something popped in my knee and I collapsed to the ground. I had torn my ACL.
I worked hard at physical therapy and walked across the stage at graduation the following month. I began to look forward to my weekly physical therapy sessions, the improvement made each week was incredibly encouraging to me.
My experience throughout the year encouraged me to develop a regular workout regimen and working out became a habit. While I had an unbelievably challenging year health wise, I have come out of it stronger and more resilient than ever.
College is what you make of it and the freedom may seem daunting at first but you must take the initiative to structure your days productively. Finding the motivation and time to workout is generally the biggest roadblock for college students. Most universities offer at least one recreation center, fully equipped with more equipment than you could ever need. Going to the dining hall every day quickly becomes a routine for college students and if more students begin to workout every day, it will become ingrained in their routine. The tangible progress I made simply by being physically active was a catalyst for the establishment of my routine. With exercise as a part of my routine, I am taking big steps towards recovery from knee surgery and dysautonomia. I hope that working out remains a prominent aspect of my life as I strongly believe it is the key to my health and my happiness.
I am currently studying Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder with the intent to go on to Physical Therapy School, inspired by those who helped me back up each time I was knocked down. Since beginning university, I have been able to get back to the things I love while also studying subject matter with real applications to my life and the lives of so many around me. I have enjoyed several challenging hikes in the beautiful rocky mountains and plan to join the club volleyball team and start skiing when I am able. Until then, I am continually exercising in every other way I can. After this year, I have learned valuable lessons and nothing will keep me down or away from what I want. When things were looking bleak I was more motivated than ever to put in the work to get myself healthy again. It takes about 2 months to form a habit and once regular exercise becomes habitual, you can begin to live a healthier life and set yourself up for a healthier future.
2019 Winning Essays
The nurse handed me my information packet to take home and written at the top of the paper in bold, capital letters it said, “IF YOU DO NOT TAKE YOUR MEDICATION YOU WILL DIE.” Simple enough, but how did we get here? When I was twelve years old I was unexpectedly diagnosed with life-threatening heart disease and told I needed a heart transplant to live. Obviously this was a life changing moment for our family, and something that would change my life and approach to healthy living forever. I waited 832 days, but in 2014, at the age of 14, I had a successful heart transplant – and I’m not wasting one second with this gift.
My life has been changed in many ways, one of which is my dependency on special medications. They are extremely expensive and cause some unappealing side-effects, but they keep me alive. The human body will always reject foreign tissue, and my new heart is foreign tissue, meaning that my immune system is always trying to attack my new heart. In order to prevent this I take immunosuppressive medications and will take them the rest of my life. That means that I’m extremely susceptible to illness, so I have become quite the germaphobe. I have to be careful what foods I eat, carry a medical mask with me to places like the movie theater, and germ-x is my best friend. If I were to get sick, it would have a far worse impact on me than it would anyone else because; even though it’s done on purpose, my immune system is very weak.
The fact is a heart transplant isn’t a cure, and while I choose not to focus on this, I know that I will likely need another transplant one day. The average lifespan of a transplanted heart is 12-14 years (this was hard to hear as a 12-year-old). My heart transplant and its implications are something I will live with for the rest of my life. That’s why it’s my responsibility to take care of my body and heart, so it can last years and years from now. Many teenage organ recipients tend to struggle with their transitions to college. They have previously relied on their parents to remind them to take their medications every morning and evening. Furthermore, some teenagers even depend on their parents to order their medication and fill their medicine case with the correct doses. Therefore, when they leave for college many students fail to take their medications at all, which, like I said earlier, has dire consequences. Luckily, my parents gave me the responsibility, with their assistance, to handle my medications from an early age. When I was transitioning to college, my doctors requested monthly labs, to ensure I was still taking my medications. My doctor told me, “I don’t think you’ll have any problems, but I’ve been wrong before and I don’t want to be wrong again.” At the end of freshman year my levels had always been consistent and I proved I could be trusted to manage my own medication.
Aside from my medications, it is important that I keep my body physically fit. The “Freshman 15” is real. And being a heart transplant recipient gives me no excuse not to pay attention as much as anyone else. It would be easy to say, “I tire easily… my legs are weak… my body is off today…” and while I may say this occasionally , overall I remember that it’s my duty to keep my heart in the best shape possible. I try to be active and get at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day to protect my heart – I’m obsessed with “closing my rings” and getting my 10,000 steps in on my Apple Watch. This truly isn’t hard as a busy college student running around campus, but during the summer I often hear the ding of my watch, reminding me “It’s time to stand up!” Apps like these are so beneficial for young adults my age, who can get lost for hours scrolling through social media or binge-watching Friends on Netflix. Furthermore, I try to eat healthy, which can be extremely difficult at school. Most dining halls try to provide healthy options, but speaking honestly, sometimes the chicken stir fry (I use the word “chicken” loosely) doesn’t look as appetizing as a hot slice of pepperoni pizza from the snack-bar.
After I received my transplant, I was excited to return to the active, sporty life I had loved before I was diagnosed. Only a year after my transplant I joined high school sports teams, only to realize my body had a long way to go. Unfortunately, I would never be the athlete that I might’ve been. That’s not to say that there aren’t transplant recipients who run marathons – because there are. Everyone has their own story. For me, I do what I can. Instead of running a soccer field or hitting volleyballs, I build my stamina by riding a stationary bike at the school athletic center, lots of walking on campus, and doing simple workouts in my room.
My perspective of health and wellness likely looks different than the average college student. My heart was given to me by a 20-year old girl, whose life was cut short in a car accident. She gave me a second chance and I will honor her by living my life well. You won’t find someone more driven for a healthy lifestyle than I am, because honoring my organ donor is the greatest motivation of all.
“I’ll have a large pepperoni please,” I told the Little Caesar’s cashier as I ordered their iconic 5 dollar large pepperoni pizza. Yes — the whole pizza was for me.
This was a weekly ritual for me and my friends every Friday night after exhausting ourselves during our high school football games. Not to mention our Taco Bell breakfasts the following mornings to help soothe our body aches, and the occasional burger outings sprinkled throughout the week. Habitual mass food consumption defined my high school football career. The sheer caloric intake gave me the energy to plow through defenders, bench press 290 lbs, and squat near 400 lbs. I treated my body as if it were a machine — one that I fed as much as I could. At 6’1, 250 pounds, my size and strength were a testament to the food and training my body endured to operate effectively on game days. I was high functioning but not healthy. I realized my health required more attention after one of my regularly scheduled blood tests in the days leading up to my final season of football. I received a call from my doctor to discuss the results and he told me, “Normal triglyceride levels are under 150 mg/dL. You’re at 430 mg/dL. Normal LDL is under 130 mg/dL. You’re at 180 mg/dL . You’re only seventeen Danny, you need to make a change.”
By eating in the way I did, I was playing with a hereditary fire -the genetic predisposition to hypercholesterolemia that has affected numerous members of my family. The path I was starting down was all too familiar, and I was making decisions that I knew could cut my life unnecessarily short. Like father like son.
So, I promised myself to strive towards the betterment of my health. My physical activity has remained as constant as it was before, and I am now more conscious of what I am putting in my body. After three years of an improved lifestyle, I am 60 pounds lighter with a lipid panel that reflects the change.
As I transitioned into my new lifestyle, I was also transitioning into college. As a pre-med undergraduate, I was exposed to the intricacies of human biology — all of which continue to fascinate me well into my second year. With the amount of information known about the human body, I sought to improve my health given the information on diet and physical activity found in the scientific literature on longevity. Much of what I learned led me to change the way I began eating and exercising.
I changed my workout routines based on myoelectric studies on different weightlifting exercises. By measuring the electrical activity in a given muscle, exercise scientists have indicated optimal lifting movements for muscle activation. By knowing what exercises result in more muscle activation, you can effectively encourage muscle growth. While a muscular frame may be deemed as purely aesthetic, a 2005 study from UCLA’s school of medicine indicates that the preservation of muscle mass as you age leads to a decrease in all cause mortality.
What I found to be most intriguing, however, was research on the gut microbiome-brain connection which suggests that brain activity can be regulated by the bacterial populations in your intestinal tracts. I had the opportunity to attend a talk at my school, UC Irvine, given by Dr. Emeran Mayer, one of the pioneers of gut-brain interaction research. He discussed studies in mice which demonstrate that anxiety and depression can arise from a change in bacterial populations in the gut. Interestingly enough, these bacterial changes are often caused by excess consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars. These are the same two substances that have been linked to a host of metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. Needless
to say, sugars and refined carbohydrates make up a much smaller portion of my diet in an effort to preserve my physical and mental health.
These insights provided me with a guideline through which I would shape my lifestyle. And as the word implies, “lifestyle” is for life. Now, making the choices you know to be right is not always easy and a particular struggle for college students. Indulgence is always around the corner. It’s in the restaurants your friends invite you to and in the delicious fast food that is often much more affordable than the right food. How then, should a college student navigate their academic career while maintaining a healthy lifestyle?
Routine. Just as a student carefully schedules their classes and extracurriculars for a given day of the school year, their health should recieve equal attention. As a busy full time student
with a job and a position in a research laboratory, a planned routine that takes into account meals and physical activity has helped me keep my health in check. My 6am workouts, in particular,
enable a feedback loop of good decisions throughout the day. As I leave the gym, knowing that I’ve completed a major health oriented task before the day has begun fills me with a sense of
accomplishment. It is a feeling that I strive to maintain throughout the day by being productive and making health conscious choices.
This feedback loop of good decisions repeats itself on a larger scale — a good day, turns into a good week, and a good week turns into a good month. The forward momentum that comes with routine is the key to long term maintenance of a healthy lifestyle.
Our future will be brighter if the college students of today take steps towards living a healthy lifestyle. Especially for those like myself who wish to pursue a career in medicine, being an exemplar of a healthy lifestyle is of utmost importance as they are the face of health and well being. As these young men and women aim to contribute towards the betterment of society in their respective fields, sustaining a healthy lifestyle will grant them the health and longevity to innovate and impact the world.
2018 Winning Essays
APIA, Samoa—In the early heat of the morning rush-hour, a line wraps around the corner for 10 sene panikeke, small buttered doughnuts donning the check-out lines of markets. A woman hands her children plastic bags filled with panikeke as they each pop one into their mouths, wiping streaks of frying oil on their lava lavas. She hands them each a bag of Bongos, the Pacific’s most popular brand of cheese puffs, for a lunchtime snack and sends them on the public bus as vendors try the perimeter with bags of chips and soft drinks.
I looked on in confusion. A papaya tree stood tall directly behind me, ripe with its orange-red fruit. Avocadoes, limes, pineapple, and oranges…I envied this tropical oasis placed directly before those who preferred canned Vienna sausages or corned beef. Yet, as much as I tried to search for answers, I began to find an innate similarity between the choices made by the Samoan people and those made by college students.
Why do these food preferences exist? What has caused this epidemiologic transition from fresh produce to high-fat diets?
These questions formed the crux of my research questions this summer as I traveled to Samoa as a Wilbur Downs International Research Fellow to investigate the chronic disease burden in Pacific Islanders. The Pacific faces the highest rates of obesity and diabetes globally, in which up to 93% of adults are overweight or obese and nearly 47% have diabetes. Lifestyle changes, nutrient-poor diets, and a lack of physical activity have contributed to significant noncommunicable disease morbidity and mortality. On top of these existing challenges, geographic isolation from the nearest specialty care centers in Hawaii and New Zealand, which are more than 2000 miles away, has created a system where many cannot access proper care. Medical supplies are limited and the cost of diabetic care is unsustainable.
In 2011, the Pacific Islands Forum even issued the statement, “The Pacific is in an NCD crisis.” How did the Pacific get here? What will the chronic disease burden look like 10 years from now?
Traveling to remote villages, I was hoping for an answer that would address the unique challenges of Pacific Islanders. I collected anthropometric measurements, blood pressure, hemoglobin A1C values, and even screened for eye complications. Yet, as much as I expected that these would deliver me the answer I was looking for, it was through conversation with the Samoan people that I gained remarkable insight into the difficulty to achieve healthy living.
“It’s affordable and pre-packaged,” some of the villagers noted. Others commented, “Those with larger stature are viewed as more beautiful, wealthier, …more Western.” And others would note, “We don’t have time to sit down for a long lunch. There is no such thing as ‘lunchtime’ here. You grab what you can and continue to work.”
As I listened to their recounts, I realized that despite traveling across the world, I had uncovered some of the very same tenets that I—and other college students—encounter at home. Affordability, time, and social perception—these three factors weigh heavily in food choice and the ability to live a healthy lifestyle. As a Master of Public Health student, I was familiar with the role that external factors, including cultural norms and social variables, play in the rise of the obesity epidemic in the United States, but did not anticipate the similarity among these variables that exists on a global scale.
I boarded the plane from Samoa to Boston, considering what I had witnessed and what I had discussed with those from some of the most remote villages. I questioned my lifestyle choices as a college-aged female student, acknowledging that affordability, time, and social perception often dictated my food choices while living at college. Pursuing a rigorous curriculum and course-load, I found that many of my peers and myself often allowed healthy food choices to suffer at the expense of attending class, staying in the laboratory until 11:00 pm to finish an experiment, or skipping lunch to attend an organizational meeting.
As a first-generation college student, I experienced the challenge that cost and social perception plays these decisions—between choosing less expensive snacks versus more expensive fruit or vegetable options. Just as Samoans expressed that many of these factors began to control their decisions, I found that I had also fallen victim to these variables.
I was frustrated. I felt that these choices had to be black or white…for myself, for Pacific Islanders, for first-generation or low-income students, and for all college students.
Seeking to address just a few of these healthy lifestyle barriers—affordability, time, and social perception—I approached healthy living with a community I could support and would support each other in turn. As President of A Leg Even, the First-Generation and Low-Income Student Network at Yale, I have worked closely with first-year students encountering the challenges of college-life and how to balance an academic lifestyle with personal health. I have worked with students to obtain PDF versions of textbooks to avoid the cost, to create a community that shares professional clothing for interviews and meetings, and to openly discuss questions related to choices during their first year.
Recognizing the inherent need for earlier guidance and intervention with regards to healthy living, I implemented the first Yale First-Generation Speaker Series, inviting professionals to speak about how they managed their finances as a first-generation or low income college student, and how these relate to healthy living. I witnessed the powerful underlying causes that tied my work with first-year students at Yale and the community of Samoans who generously invited me into their homes and villages, making healthy living far from a narrow but rather a global endeavor.
I have learned to approach public health and community work with the provision that you cannot judge the condition of another without providing equity in resources and the empowerment to sustain them.
I met “Wanda” in the lobby of the motel that served as a family homeless shelter. At the front desk, Dr. Chatterjee and I passed a colorful display of Hostess pastries before we walked over to tour her family’s room. As she swiped her key card to open the door, we could not miss that her key card was also a $5 coupon for three Domino’s Pizzas. Yet neither these temptations nor the challenges of cooking with a bathroom sink and microwave deterred Wanda from preparing a nutritious meal for her family.
Her motivation to eat healthfully came to mind as I analyzed transcripts of focus group discussions I had with students during my senior thesis on healthy eating during college. “I’m young. I’m in college. I can eat what I want with no consequences,” explained one classmate. “Maybe if we were 60 and had diabetes we’d be more willing to make a sacrifice in our diet,” said another. I was shocked to learn that even my fellow Harvard varsity hockey teammates drafted by the NHL had little concern for healthy eating. Maybe college had too many unhealthy food temptations. I wondered if I could encourage students to overcome this like Wanda had.
As a varsity hockey player, I found that when I began to pay more attention to eating nutrient-rich foods, I noticed a considerable change in how I felt and functioned on and off the ice. I set out to learn all I could about nutrition and wellness to maximize my training. Thinking my peers would eat better if they knew more about their food, I implemented a study of traffic-light food labels (green: healthy, red: less healthy) in cafeterias on campus. My study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, included 12 Harvard dining halls which served 6400 undergraduates and over 2.6 million food and beverage portions.
Although the labels provided nutrition information in a simple color-coded format, I learned the same label could give vastly different meanings. Two weeks after I implemented the labels in Harvard dining halls, a small but important number of students raised concerns that the traffic-light labels could exacerbate eating disorders. Late one Saturday night, I received an email from “Diana,” a classmate who was disturbed by the labels and recounted personal struggles with bulimia. The issue promoted widespread discussion about the implications of food labels on campus, and I wondered if I should continue the study.
Since college-age women are at risk for eating disorders, I carefully considered the implications of a red label that discouraged selection of particular foods. Although the majority of students viewed such a label as a simple, convenient way to provide information, a small minority thought a red “stop-light” label could be triggering for those struggling with an eating disorder. On the other hand, college cafeterias could be an effective intervention site. University students gain weight faster in their first year at college than average Americans at the same age, and they begin to develop lifelong eating patterns.
Two editorials in the Harvard student newspaper, titled “A Red Light for Food Labels,” and “Cross Your T’s, Dot Your… Food?” highlighted the controversy of the labeling and how differently people value food. One editorial believed the traffic-light labeling “let students know the moral value of their food” and that this type of food labeling is inherently faulted because “meals are not ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” To the contrary, I had a significantly different attitude towards food that I shared with many of my teammates. I found that as a varsity athlete, I felt better when I ate certain nutrient-rich, “good” foods and performed better on the ice. What began as a practical labeling study to share this knowledge with my classmates, opened me up to a totally different and important outlook on eating that I had not personally experienced. I needed to find a way to balance both of these perspectives.
I got to work immediately with the faculty advisers and student members of the Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach group at Harvard to redefine the traffic-light label colors as “nutrient-rich choice” (green), “nutrient-neutral choice” (yellow), and “there’s a more nutrient-rich choice in yellow or green” (red). The use of “choice” in the messaging aimed to make labels less judgmental, and the use of “nutrient” highlighted that calories did not influence the label color.
Stepping back, the controversy over the labeling made me realize how complex it can be to try to influence people’s behavior to achieve good health on a wider scale. Healthy eating is extremely personal, and can carry different meanings for different people. Working with people to understand their backgrounds and helping them overcome challenges to reach their health potential is truly captivating. This cemented my desire to pursue medicine where I would be in a unique position to do just that.
I so admire women like Wanda who despite many barriers, are working hard to take care of their own health. In June 2016, I started teaching a nutrition workshop, “Cooking Without Kitchens,” to homeless families living in temporary shelters and motels. In these classes, I begin with a nutrition lesson, and then give cooking demos of recipes. Using a microwave, I craft meals that can be made on limited budgets within the shelters such as poached eggs, spaghetti, spinach lasagna, tacos, and red lentil salad. These experiences have taught me that we are unlikely to find a one-size-fits-all approach to healthy lifestyles. Efforts to improve student health on a large scale will likely require preparatory work, including student involvement at all stages of development and implementation with iterative improvements based on periodic student feedback, to ensure that interventions are effective and that people are comfortable with them. As a future doctor, I am thrilled to continue this work more broadly to inspire and empower others to explore the adoption of healthy habits that meet unique mental, physical, and social needs.
2017 Winning Essays
The year is 2017. Social media fitness experts, diet plans, and “the five secret tips to your best body” are ubiquitous. There are unlimited online tutorials on how to lose weight and get the perfect beach bod, but how about living a healthy lifestyle? Most online health and wellness plans advertise that customers will lose 20 pounds in two months on their revolutionary diet. Or that their secret supplement will make consumers feel more energized and promote weight loss. Then the two months are up the supplement pills are exhausted and people return to eating the same foods as before and anxiously await the next fitness trend. In addition, most workout plans are temporary. They only last around eight weeks and provide a few stagnant workouts and exercises that the individual will rarely revisit. Health and wellness is not merely a sprint to the finish line in a race of who can see the fastest results. Health and wellness is a marathon journey that lasts a lifetime.
My fitness journey began when I was about eleven years old in the 6th grade in my hometown Teaneck, New Jersey. I keenly remember the fear and anxiety that came with being overweight at that age. Taking off my shirt in the gym locker rooms and exposing my overgrown chest and rotund stomach was a terrifying experience. I anxiously surveyed the room for peering eyes before I ducked into a corner to quickly change shirts. I quickly learned to do this out of habit and the other kids that didn’t suffered the consequences. The embarrassment was compounded when I was unable to keep up in my physical education class; barely hanging on to the bar during the flex arm hang with all my peers snickering in amusement. Or being one of the last to cross the finish line whenever we had a race. One time I tried to do the rope climb after I saw a boy reach the top and everyone greeted him with roars of applause. When my classmates saw me approach they whispered under their breath, “he’s too fat to climb it” and walked away because I was to fat to deserve their attention. I couldn’t wrap my feet around the rope. And every overweight middle school student can relate to the dreaded moment in health class when they reach the health and wellness chapter and the students incessantly look around the room to find someone that meets the endomorph body type description.
I decided I finally had enough when in that same health class we encountered was to get fit and be healthy. We read about obvious nutrition tips like eating fruits and vegetables and drinking water and basic exercises like running and jumping rope. Then, of course, the popular good-looking boy that could easily do twenty pushups blurted out “ Isaiah can’t run!” I’ll never forget this moment. His words changed my life forever. They are the single most pivotal reason I am here today. My whole class keeled over in laughter. I couldn’t open my mouth to protest. I couldn’t defend myself. I was paralyzed with the truth.
That was the moment that I decided what was truth and what was a lie. I took control of what was fact and fiction. I began my health and wellness journey doing pushups and sit-ups in my bedroom before I went to sleep. I could only amass about four half pushups and twenty sit-ups in which I could barely get my shoulder blades off the ground. But I persisted. The exercise I did at my home formed the basis for the passion and love I have for fitness today. I began to enjoy playing recreation soccer and basketball and continually asked my mother to sign me up for the next year. As I grew older I became healthier but I was still missing several elements of a healthy lifestyle.
I was still very similar to the majority of Americans. When I wasn’t playing a recreation sport I lived a sedentary lifestyle. Currently in America 20% of the population is considered obese (stateofobesity.org). Technology has largely hindered rather than helped Americas health. People can sit on their couches and watch T.V. for hours at a time. Moreso, streaming services such as Netflix allow people to binge watch whole seasons of shows varying up to 20 episodes in one sitting.
As I entered high school I learned what having a healthy lifestyle is. I no longer binged watched T.V. and I participated in my schools sports; track and cross-country. In addition, I did strength training in the gym to make be a better athlete. Squats and deadlifts gave me leg power and core stability; clean and presses made me explosive; Pushups and pull-ups gave me the upper body stretch to generate force and run faster; and abdominal workouts gave me the core strength to finish the last 100 meters of a race as fast as I could. I improved my nutrition by avoiding greasy foods, eating healthier, and drinking more water. For example I dilute sports drinks with water because of their high sugar content.
As I enter into college I am implementing these healthy habits into a concrete routine of health and wellness. I have a schedule of varied workouts like basketball, high intensity interval cardio, heavy weight lifting, body weight drills, running, swimming etc. Furthermore I am improving my healthy lifestyle in college. Actively abstaining from drugs and alcohol that inhibit motor abilities is tantamount to a healthy life. Furthermore I get approximately eight hours of sleep, an often overlooked but necessary part of health and wellness that is crucial to mental and emotional health. Meditation is also a good way of alleviating mental and emotional stress that can lead to overeating. Fitness should be a permanent routine woven into the fabric if one’s life and maintaining a healthy lifestyle requires resilience dedication and devotion, things that don’t come easy, but the benefits are life changing.
I have lost 100 pounds by adopting a healthy lifestyle. I learned a wellness secret for college students along the way. My journey of discovery began one day in Civics class.
“Ronald, it’s your turn,” said Mrs. Hirayama.
“Oh, okay,” I stuttered.
I was in the 12th grade, and it was my turn to present.
“Don’t trip; don’t trip!” screamed the voice in my head as I stood.
Not only did I trip, but I fell straight on my face. The class erupted. I did not know what hurt more: my face, or the fact that Mrs. Hirayama was laughing too.
Eventually, I made it to the front of the room. At this point, my knees took on lives of their own, shaking madly like Shakira’s hips. I opened my mouth. The only sound came from the ticking clock.
I stared at the students as they stared back at me. My lips quivered in silence. Half the students were shaking their heads, as was the teacher. “Ronald, sit down,” said Mrs. Hirayama.The bell rang; school was out. I felt like my heart had been shred apart. On my way home, a couple of Civics classmates rode their bikes past me. “Get outta the way, useless pig!” they yelled.
I found myself burning with shame. Deprecating remarks like these were typical of my teen years as I struggled with both obesity and autism. Not only did I struggle with repetitive motions with my knees and lips, but I also struggled to articulate words. I also had difficulty reading both body language and sarcasm. I simply could not tell if people were joking or being serious. Furthermore, I laughed at the wrong times and had the tendency to stare at people without blinking. My weight further reduced my self-confidence.
I felt trapped. However, there was one person who saw potential in me. In a concerned tone, my friend Nehemiah said:
“Life is short; you only get one body!”
He was right. I realized I could be the first in my family to take a stand against obesity. While I walked home that fateful day, I resolved to be different from my unhealthy parents. I pushed myself to transcend my depression and obesity problems. I challenged myself to start living.
I asked for Nehemiah’s coaching, and together we created a diet and exercise regimen. I promised him I would lose 30 pounds. By persisting with Nehemiah and holding myself accountable, I was actually able to lose 100 pounds over two years, starting at 260 pounds and ending at 160 pounds. I broke down in tears several times in my journey. However, in my moments of self-doubt, I used the memory of my failed presentation in Civics class. That was the last time I would allow a class, along with the teacher, to laugh at me. My desire to triumph over pain was channeled into real weight loss results. In addition, my confidence and social skills drastically improved as I continually lost weight.
The members at my local church saw my physical transformation and social improvement. In turn, I became an inspiration and volunteered to create the Fitness Association. Along with a select group of people, I was able to empower others on issues related to health, fitness, and nutrition. In the end, we helped hundreds of people in turning their habits around. For example, young Bobby and Sally learned to pack their own sandwiches to school instead of eating unhealthy, oily school food. In addition, Mr. Li set a goal to bike to work three times a week, and he ended up losing over 20 pounds. I was able to influence people and inspire them to change their lives for the better.
In my journey of losing weight and helping others, I uncovered a profound lesson: habits are more powerful than emotions in achieving health and wellness. The key to great health, then, lies in leveraging solid habits with the compounding effect. The compound effect occurs when small habits accumulate over time to produce remarkable long term results. If one is living in the compounding zone, one will continually push oneself beyond one’s perceived limitations. For instance, whenever I became tired during exercise, I would push myself to do extra sets. I would jog for an extra minute at the end of my runs, and I would eat extra fruits beyond my quota for each day. When these actions in the compounding zone became a consistent habit, my bodily progress became truly impressive. By adding a companion to my schedule to hold myself accountable, I was able to generate sustained results.
I also learned that the key to sustaining healthy habits is to change one’s exercises. Indeed, the body adapts to the same routines used over time. The FITT principle (changing the Frequency, Intensity, Time interval, or Type of exercise) can be used to vary one’s workout schedule. That said, healthy living is a lifetime endeavor because it requires one to alter exercise routines to prevent the body from plateauing.
In all, the secret to a healthy lifestyle involves leveraging novelty in one’s life. When variable workouts are consistently performed with the compounding effect, results will skyrocket over time. Such habits can be initiated during one’s college years and can be sustained over a lifetime by partnering with someone with similar fitness goals. Indeed, I have taken advantage of these strategies and remain committed to a lifetime of healthy habits. I invite you to jump aboard.
2016 Winning Essay
A bowl of trail mix – a curated mixture of almonds, walnuts, dried apricots and dark chocolate morsels – sits beside me as I write. I wonder if I will be denied this scholarship because of the last chocolate chip I munched. But that chocolate chip keeps me going. By giving myself choice, living a healthy life has become a way of life.
Sustaining a healthy lifestyle has never been easy for me. When I first began college, I mindlessly enjoyed the unlimited ice cream and chocolate chip waffles on Saturday mornings. I had days when ice cream on top of my waffles made for a classic pick- me-up morning feast. I eventually realized, however, that this meal had the exact opposite effect of a “pick-me-up”. I felt lethargic and tired. I was first surprised and then became depressed once my jeans became a little too snug. Like many college students, I bounced between extensive varieties of diets. The 1200-calorie days. Fat- free foods. Zero-carb diet. The ketogenic approach. Many of these diets were great for a few days, even weeks. Then, I’d get a sniff of fresh chocolate chip cookies or a grilled cheese sandwich. Sometimes, it would simply be a carton of full-fat yogurt. When I’d have one of these “cheat” bites, my entire day of dieting would crumble apart and I’d resort to overeating, perhaps it was even binge eating. I would not be able to concentrate on school or immediate assignments. Rather, I’d take the day off while eating all the sinful foods I had restrained from myself. There were days I would eat until my stomach hurt. There were nights I hated my body and myself. I would feel useless and simply go to sleep. The next day, the diet would start again. To overcompensate, I’d go half a day without eating. Needless to say, I never lost a sustainable amount of weight during this period of dieting. More importantly, I was unhappy, unproductive and very unhealthy.
A year later, I began studying for the MCAT – a crucial time for any premedical student. While studying for the exam, my days were jam-packed with study sessions and summer school so I didn’t have much time to think about my diet. I fell into a rhythm of waking up early each morning and eating four home-cooked meals everyday. Every evening, I would go to the gym so I could energize myself without the need for caffeine. I slept by midnight everyday and made sure to get 8 hours of sleep. Studying for the MCAT was like training for a marathon; I didn’t want to cram and made sure I had ample energy to study diligently for the entire summer. Suddenly, it wasn’t so hard to eat healthy on a regular basis. No urgent cravings and no binge eating. With the exam only weeks away, food was not the center of my attention.
Today, I am twenty pounds lighter than my first year of college. I am mindful of what I eat and how much I eat. However, I hold myself to no restrictions. A philosophy of healthy living as a lifestyle allows me to enjoy day by day. I’ve learned to forgive myself and celebrate milestones. These changes have brought me ample more happiness and pride than my weight loss.
As a medical student, I have the great pleasure to learn from physicians who value the art of medicine as much as the science behind it. One physician in particular is Dr. Sheffield, an endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente. During a lecture on obesity, he asked us, “Which two specialties in medicine express the most compassion?” According to a survey, the answer was oncology and pediatrics. His rationale behind the answer was that both of these specialties have something special in common; oncologists and pediatricians never blame the patient for his or her disease. Then, Dr. Sheffield asked us to consider the following hypothetical situation: “It’s 2 AM, and you’re the physician on call. An obese, diabetic man just suffered a heart attack from exacerbated atherosclerosis.” He wondered how many of us would blame the patient, “if only the patient watched what he ate”. He urged us to think like an oncologist or pediatrician and be more compassionate towards our patients.
I think back to my difficult and ongoing journey towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I will never blame my patient for his or her inability to sustain a nutritious diet. I have learned from my personal and academic experiences that healthy living is really a challenge of a lifetime. I strive to eat mindfully, exercise frequently, sleep well and perhaps most importantly – forgive myself. Eating well and losing weight is hard. Maintaining healthy habits to be sustained over a lifetime is even more difficult. I have realized that I will not lose weight in a day, nor will I gain it overnight. The best and most practical approach is to forgive myself and move on with the day. No day should be wasted because of a chocolate chip cookie.