LSU's Pennington Biomedical Working to Support Solider & Military Family Health
If your spouse or significant other is a fitness buff or a couch potato, chances are that your activity habits are similar to theirs. Data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study shows that by middle age, couples' exercise habits tend to become very similar. Hence, exercise more and your partner is likely to join you and experience improved health and fitness.
Because of the mirror effect on exercise and overall health, the Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Intensive Program is utilizing spouses, significant others, live-in relatives, or even older children to encourage the partners and loved ones in their lives to make healthier choices. Designed by LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Intensive aims to improve soldiers' health by having those people closest to them help encourage healthy activities, like getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals and managing stress.
As part of the program, each soldier and their partner receive a Fitbit to measure physical activity, a smart scale which remotely tracks weight and sends data back to researchers, and access to an app filled with information on diet, exercise, sleep and more. The participant pairs also hear throughout the study from behavioral specialists at Pennington Biomedical who try to help them overcome obstacles to making healthy decisions and provide insight along the way.
"We know that family life makes a huge contribution to overall health, and as we focus on improving the health of the soldier, we are looking beyond just what these men and women eat and how much exercise they're getting. We want the Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Intensive to equip families to help serve as a support system for their soldier (and vice versa)," said Dr. Tiffany Stewart, the Dudley & Beverly Coates Endowed Professor at Pennington Biomedical and a psychologist who is leading this behavioral health program.
"As an engineer officer in the Louisiana National Guard and a father of 4 children, I am excited that the Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Intensive Program allows military families to participate together with a common goal to improve their overall health. It is also an incredible tool that allows leaders to help improve their soldiers' physical and mental fitness," says First Lieutenant Michael B. Switzer, an Army H.E.A.L.T.H. project manager at Pennington Biomedical.
The Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Intensive focuses on four key goals: nutrition, physical activity, sleep and resilience. That fourth objective – resilience – is a combination of stress management and reduction, mood and anxiety modification, and mindfulness training, which Stewart says can play a big role in overall wellness.
"We know that if you're stressed out or struggling with depressed mood or anxiety, that can lead to a loss of sleep, a feeling of low energy that makes it more difficult to exercise, and on top of that you can easily consume more calories than your body needs or not enough healthy foods to fuel your body for optimum health and performance," said Stewart.
Weight loss is an initial goal in the first phase of the program, which lasts for six months. The next six months focus on weight maintenance, which Stewart notes is important for soldiers, given the military's strict standards for weight and fitness, which can play a role in whether a soldier is able to advance, and/or continue his or her career with the military.
Pennington Biomedical has a long history of partnering with the U.S. military to ensure soldiers are resilient and healthy. Its 28-year history of working with the U.S. Department of Defense makes Pennington Biomedical their largest provider of nutrition information. Among the more than 100 research studies they have conducted in health and performance for the military, Pennington Biomedical scientists have helped to develop and test First Strike Rations, which are more portable than traditional MREs, more palatable to soldiers, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals that help maintain overall health.
"At Pennington Biomedical, we are looking at the health of the whole solider. We want our men and women in uniform to be ready for whatever they may face during their service, and that means being physically, emotionally and mentally healthy," said Stewart.
Additionally, the Army has already been using a program similar to the Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Intensive for years. Prior to the Intensive program, the original Army H.E.A.L.T.H. program – with a similar goal, but without the more intensive one-on-one coaching component – was tested with active duty soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the New England Reserves before rolling out with the Louisiana National Guard. The program was recommended by the U.S. Army Surgeon General in 2013 and is now in use Army-wide.
The Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Intensive is looking for soldiers and their family members to volunteer to participate in the program. For more information about how you can volunteer, e-mail Michael Switzer at Pennington Biomedical: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit www.pbrf.org.