UMR freshmen embrace healthy living

UMR students (from left) Mia Green, Mason Schlief, Simon Yebyo and Maura Lynch prepare a healthy meal.

One of Maura Lynch's first tasks as a University of Minnesota Rochester student may sound a little silly, but it's helped usher in a health-focused era on campus.

Lynch, a Filipino adoptee raised in Philadelphia, raced through grocery store aisles last fall to gather ingredients for a healthy meal that would be her welcome to 29 classmates in UMR's new Health CORE program . Those 30 dishes were then passed around as introductions — and friendships — were made.

The creative ice-breaker organized by Robert Reese, UMR's Health CORE coordinator, immediately broke down barriers as underrepresented students familiarized themselves with the new "living learning communities" in downtown Rochester.

Lynch, Reese and others then took it one step further.

Meiping Liu, of Rochester Clinic , put 10 UMR students — plus Reese — through her 12-week Complete Health Improvement Program, called CHIP. The program wrapped up last week, just in time to meet CHIP founder Hans Diehl at the Community of Wellness Health Fair , which runs through April 26 at various locations across Rochester.


Program 'expanded my horizons'

Lynch jumped at the unique health-focused opportunity and says she's been rewarded with a improved mood, better sleep and more energy.

"As a freshman, I didn't really want to gain the 'freshman 15' so I thought why not (volunteer)?" Lynch said. "I feel like I've always eaten healthy, but this program really expanded my horizons. It was interesting because we learned about different foods we could make on a low budget that would be healthier than going out to eat or eating snacks and junk food."

Diehl created the CHIP program in 1988 and more than 80,000 have taken part across the country. While about 75 percent of diseases are lifestyle-related, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, it tends to be most popular on the East and West coasts as the Midwest relies on its traditional meat-and-potatoes diet.

Growing program

The Rochester Clinic became one of the first Minnesota facilities to offer the CHIP program in January 2015. It's since helped dozens of local residents overhaul their lifestyles. Pilot programs are currently underway at Mayo Clinic's facility in Kasson, McNeilus Steel in Dodge Center and a few other local venues.

The CHIP concept is surprisingly simple: Eat a plant-based diet, reduce sugars, oils and salt, and become more active. Many participants report health benefits beyond those tracked on a scale. Liu says the program seeks to address the cause of health issues rather than treating symptoms, which is the traditional view of Western Medicine.

Kiersten Lee, an African-American from Wisconsin, said that the CHIP program has been critical during her transition away from home — especially since she's a neophyte in the kitchen. The 10 CHIP participants have routinely shared group meals while attending the three-month educational program, which was offered free thanks to a grant from George Family Foundation; it typically costs $900 per person.


"I couldn't cook to save my life and my parents were scared for me," said Lee, who reports being more active and less fatigued.

Reese said: "One of the objectives was helping them come out of their parent's home when they now have to fend for themselves. They had to cook meals together on the regular if they're going to (thrive). It's been the perfect sort of collaboration."

Future uncertain

The 49-year-old UMR employee was planning to simply oversee the program, but ended up diving in himself. He says the CHIP program led to overhauled shopping habits, losing 9 pounds and "drastically" reducing his need for insulin, among other health benefits.

While UMR will continue to offer its Health CORE initiative in hopes of attracting underrepresented students into the health field, the future of CHIP remains uncertain. There isn't funding for the 2017-18 school year, but Reese hopes CHIP alums will create a club to continue its teachings.

Liu says that would be a fitting extension.

"We always say we don't want to give people fish, we want to give them a fishing pole and teach them how to fish," Liu said. "That's the same concept here. It's important to plant that seed of education for our future health care providers."

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