A Nobel Prize winner, an Olympic athlete, and a FitnessGenes founder

Thursday, June 14, 2018. Author Martin Cheifetz

Samantha awards

Our co-founder and Chief Knowledge Officer, Dr. Samantha Decombel has enjoyed a long and successful relationship with the University of Birmingham (UK). 

She completed all her University degrees there, right up to the Ph.D. level.  She's not just brains though.....she's a highly competitive sportsperson, a mother, and a big believer in giving back to her community, whether in the form of local events, political activism, alumni affairs, or supporting other entrepreneurial women.

Recently, Samantha was honored by her Alma Mata with the Alumni of the Year Award for 2018:  They wrote, "We feel the exceptional progress and commitment you have displayed throughout your career would be a real inspiration to both our students and our Alumni.  We very much hope you will accept this award".

Samantha was selected from a diaspora of over 300,000 alumni to win this award, and previous recipients included Nobel Prize winners and Olympic athletes, so she's understandably thrilled with the honor!

One of her recent alumni projects was the University's 10,000 Lives appeal which has the ambitious aim of changing the lives of 10,000 11-18-year-olds by funding scholarships to improve access to education, volunteering as a mentor, or providing paid internships to students.  

Samantha has done the latter two and, in addition, run an essay competition on the question ‘How would you improve your University to encourage students to adopt a healthier lifestyle?’ to generate new ideas and give students the opportunity to have their work presented in front of a wider audience. The composition below is one of Samantha's favorites and focuses on how students can avoid the "Freshman 15" and lead healthier lives at University.  This lucky student, Victoria Wainwright, who is a 2nd Year Student reading Biomedical Sciences (BSc), won a free FitnessGenes DNA Analysis plus a £200 voucher from Amazon!  Congratulations Victoria!

Helping university students adopt a healthier lifestyle

Studies show that around 40% of university students change their eating patterns and 30.7% increase their alcohol intake [2], leading them to gain up to 1.1kg in the first 3 months of university [2] and 6.8kg in the first year [3]. This weight gain can hinder their exercise capability and their mental wellbeing, and overall impact their university degree. However, what tends to be ignored are the students who lose a significant of weight rather than putting it on. Therefore, any strategy should not just focus on weight loss but around how to live a healthy lifestyle at University. Living a healthy lifestyle does not focus solely on healthy eating and exercise; it also involves stress management, a healthy mind, spiritual growth and interpersonal relations [1].  

University means that students are moving away from home, and for most it is their first time not living with their parents. This has a major impact on their diet, as it can be hard to know what to cook on a budget, and also what is quick and easy to make. This becomes one of the major downfalls in healthy eating amongst students; they do not have inspiration for what to cook and they perceive it to be too difficult. Therefore, they buy cheap and easy options that tend to have high calorie and high fat content, or skip meals to make it simple for themselves. An idea to reach all students is to create recipe cards that can be placed in the Guild of Students, which can be refreshed every few weeks. These can give students ideas on meals that they can cook using healthy ingredients while sticking to their weekly budget. To run alongside this there could be interactive demonstrations for the first year students during ‘Fresher’s Week’, on simple meals and how to be proactive with food shopping. 

Students who choose to be catered for their first year do not get a say in the health value of their food. It can often be that because the food has to be mass-produced it contains a higher calorie count than if it was made individually. The cafes on campus have four counters of differing food; however only one of them serves vegetables and the other three serve a portion of salad alongside pizza, pasta or chicken with chips/rice. Therefore, the University would need to work with the catering staff to create meals that are appealing to the students but have a healthier nature.  Throughout the University there are vending machines, but most of these comprise of sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks. An idea could be to place healthier snack bar options, such as Nakd bars or Kind bars, into the vending machines but still keeping chocolate/sweets, as a healthy lifestyle requires balance.  

Exercise for some students is a major part of their lifestyle already, but some students do not like going to the gym. To encourage them to exercise, 5-day workouts could be placed in the Guild of Students, containing short 5-minute workout plans (Editor’s note – check out our very own Dr Dan’s 5 minute daily jumpstart videos!). This allows the students to get in exercise, but they can do it from their own room and it does not take a large proportion of their time to complete.

Many students struggle to know how to create an effective workout routine in the gym and how to maintain interest. One idea could be at the beginning of the year to have group gym sessions giving workout ideas. This could also include sessions dedicated to free weights, machinery and high intensity training that are held in the first week of University. Another suggestion could be to put up posters of workout ideas around the gym. One could be in the weights section, showing simple but effective exercises with weights and another with the running machines showing interval training.  

To keep people motivated to go to the gym, they could hold competitions to win free membership for a month or free personal trainer sessions. The machines at the University Gym have interactive screens, so an idea could be to create an achievement system to progress the members. There would be different levels for an individual to achieve: such as how long it takes to run 10K on the running machines, giving the students a goal to strive for.  Having goals to reach generates greater outcomes in both physical and mental wellbeing [5].  

As much as healthy eating and exercise is a large proportion of living a healthy lifestyle, students also need to have stable mental health. Going to university, being away from parents and having to cope with the workload can cause stress upon students, leaving them unsure how to cope. Therefore, holding mindfulness classes for the students gives them ways to relax their body and switch off their mind so they become calm. This can also help improve their sleeping habits, as it will give them techniques to unwind before bed so they are not constantly stressing over work. Research has shown that mindfulness brings about positive psychological health and effects, increasing wellbeing, reducing psychological symptoms and improving emotional reactivity [6].  It has also been shown that constant mindfulness can lead to the preservation of fibre integrity in the white matter in certain areas of the brain, increasing learning and maintaining brain functions [7].  

There are many societies within the University, therefore, to create one centred on health will encourage interaction and also ensure that the students will benefit from ideas being put in place. This can also be the main centre for recipe/workout cards and organising demonstrations.  As it would be run by students, it would not cost the University a huge amount of money and it would allow the students voices to be heard on healthy living.  

There will always be challenges arising when bringing in new ideas within a university. A major challenge will be getting student participation, especially around the mindfulness classes. It can be perceived as a useless tool, so talking to the students and making them realise how this can be beneficial to them would be important.  Also a big part of changing to a healthy lifestyle is to get out of bad habits, so it would require working with the students and helping them to achieve their goals. There could be free first sessions available for the students to test it out to realise the benefits themselves. Many ideas also require the cooperation from the Sports Centre, to post workouts around their gym and book the gym out for introductory sessions.  

Combining different methods should create buzz around the idea of healthy living amongst students, especially if they see their University going out of their way to help.

Written by:  Victoria Wainwright, 2nd Year Student reading Biomedical Sciences (BSc). University of Birmingham


[1] Tol A, Tavassoli E, Shariferad GR, Shojaeezadeh D. Health-promoting lifestyle and quality of life among undergraduate students at school of health, Isfahan university of medical sciences. Journal of Education and Health Promotion. 2013;2:11. doi:10.4103/2277-9531.108006.

[2] Paul de Vos, Christoph Hanck, Marjolein Neisingh, Dennis Prak, Henk Groen, Marijke M. Faas. Weight gain in freshman college students and perceived health. Preventive Medicine Reports. Volume 2, 2015, Pages 229-234.

[3] Vadeboncoeur C, Townsend N, Foster C. A meta-analysis of weight gain in first year university students: is freshman 15 a myth? BMC obesity. 2015;2:22. doi:10.1186/s40608-015-0051-7.

[4] Boutcher SH. High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss. Journal of Obesity. 2011;2011:868305. doi:10.1155/2011/868305.

[5] Ntoumanis N, Healy LC, Sedikides C, et al. When the Going Gets Tough: The “Why” of Goal Striving Matters. Journal of Personality. 2014;82(3):225-236

[6] Keng S-L, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clinical psychology review. 2011;31(6):1041-1056.

[7] Laneri D, Schuster V, Dietsche B, Jansen A, Ott U, Sommer J. Effects of Long-Term Mindfulness Meditation on Brain’s White Matter Microstructure and its Aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2015;7:254

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