Learn about college's health educators

If you enjoy smoke-free bars and restaurants or you know that the human papillomavirus (HPV) is associated with an increased risk for cervical cancer, you probably should thank a health educator.

In The University of Texas at Austin's Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, an exceptional team of health educators has built a reputation for conducting cutting-edge research on topics that define an individual's or community's quality of life and vigorously promoting to the public the best practices for achieving optimal health.

"Some people aren't really sure what 'health education' means or entails," said Dr. Alexandra Loukas, developmental psychologist and coordinator of the health education area, "and they're surprised when they discover that it's more than just one on one education or what they were exposed to in school.

"In fact, the field is multidisciplinary and focuses on the interactions among individual, family, group and community factors. We examine risk and protective factors and their role in health and wellbeing across the lifespan. I cannot think of any individual whose life isn't touched by the information uncovered in our research or the messages we deliver."

Research conducted by the faculty touches upon some of the most pressing economic and health-related issues of the day, including childhood obesity, substance abuse prevention, stress management and ways to help aging individuals maintain optimal health.

Dr. Elizabeth Edmundson, who studies child and adolescent obesity, notes, "in addition to improving lives, health education research saves money." A report released this past summer by Trust for America's Health, a national non-partisan non-profit, presented evidence that an investment of as little as $10 per person per year in proven community based programs and community education pays off. Increasing physical activity, improving nutrition and preventing tobacco use could save the country more than $16 billion annually within five years.

Health educators work with public schools, universities, corporations, communities, government agencies and in health care settings. They plan, develop, coordinate, implement, manage and evaluate an eclectic array of health education programs, as well as build coalitions, identify resources, market messages, mobilize communities, serve as health advocates, conduct research and produce written scholarship.

According to Dr. Nell Gottlieb, "In an academic setting our work lends itself to an inter-disciplinary approach and we often collaborate with nursing, psychology, and public health. All of this is to encourage healthy behavior and prolong healthy lives. Right now my team is working with the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program at the Texas Department of State Health Services to develop and evaluate WIC client-centered nutrition education services and to conduct WIC Wellness Works, their worksite health promotion program."

A sample of other studies and projects recently completed or being conducted by health educators in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education include:

  • a study by Dr. Keryn Pasch on alcohol advertising targeted at Hispanic youth and research on the interplay between risk factors and body mass index in middle school students
  • a study by Dr. Loukas on tobacco use in vocational students, with a focus on how stress and depression affect smoking habits
  • research by Dr. Mary Steinhardt into how building resilience can help African Americans suffering from type 2 diabetes better self-manage the disease
  • a project by Dr. John Bartholomew to examine the effectiveness of school-based physical activity interventions
  • the first ever 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, developed by a panel of experts including Dr. Bill Kohl, an epidemiologist and joint faculty member at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Austin Regional Campus

Over the past eight years, health educators in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education have received over $8 million in research funding for their wide-ranging, innovative studies. "This is a very exciting field in which to be working right now," said Dr. Fred Peterson, who is a school health expert with an interest in the theoretical and conceptual foundations of adolescent risk-taking behavior. "Over the past decade there's been a strong push toward prevention rather than simply trying to meet the considerable treatment needs of those who are ill." Health education empowers individuals to change their lives. But, it also recognizes that individuals live within environments that may need to be modified so that optimal health can be achieved and maintained.