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Research and Innovation

Health Coaching Program Shows Promise for Managing Student Stress

Woman working out
Woman working out. Credit: Jonathan Borba on Unsplash,

For Immediate Release

Jason Bocarro
Laura Oleniacz, NC State News Services

North Carolina State University researchers found in a recent study that before disruptions from the COVID-19 outbreak, a group of college students had higher average physical activity in a pilot wellness program that combined health coaching with exercise and sleep tracking. And while students’ average physical activity declined in the program after pandemic restrictions began, student feedback showed the program provided important wellness insights.

“We heard this in the focus groups – that the program introduced students to a wider array of resources for health and fitness that they didn’t know existed,” said the study’s lead author Jason Bocarro, Owens-Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership with a Global Perspective in the NC State Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management.  

In the study, researchers tracked the results of a six-week pilot program called “Wolfpack Success” at NC State. NC State Wellness and Recreation launched the program in January 2020, but shifted the program to an online format because of the COVID-19 outbreak. In the program, 34 STEM-focused students met in groups with certified student health coaches to talk about stress and time management, as well as sleep routines. After four weeks, they met with a coach to develop individualized wellness plans. Students were also challenged to complete at least 2.5 hours of physical activity each week, either through an exercise program or on their own, and to track their physical activity and sleep using Fitbits.

Researchers saw an increase in average physical activity, measured by steps tracked by the Fitbits, for students in the program before COVID-19 disruptions. However, their average physical activity declined after pandemic-related disruptions, and they got less sleep on average. Researchers saw no significant difference in participants’ reported stress levels before and after the program ended – an indicator they took as a positive sign.

“We were excited about this program because there was a component of it focused on stress, but then partway through the program, COVID-19 hit,” Bocarro said. “There were very unique external forces impacting student stress, and an interesting question would have been: Did the program act as a buffer? It’s possible that no statistically significant changes in stress in the tests before and after the program might indicate that the health coaching program helped to mitigate heightened stress during the pandemic, but we don’t know for sure, as this pilot study did not have a control group.”

Interviews with a subset of students revealed that the program helped students learn, in particular, about the importance of sleep. The feedback also showed that the program helped expose students to a wider array of wellness services and gave them confidence to use them.

“Students gained a much deeper understanding of the importance of sleep to their long-term health, and how they could be more deliberate in creating good sleep patterns,” Bocarro said.

Alexis Steptoe, study co-author and assistant director of wellness in NC State’s Wellness and Recreation unit, said interviews revealed it was important for students to be able to talk with each other about the challenges they were facing, and to have accountability as they worked toward their goals.

“We heard it was helpful for students to sit down and think through these things with other students, as opposed to trying to figure it out on their own,” Steptoe said. “It was extremely beneficial to have student-coaches who are skilled and trained in motivational interviewing to guide the groups and clarify questions along the way so students could get more out of the experience.”

This spring, NC State Wellness and Recreation re-launched the health coaching program to provide students with coaching in time management, sleep optimization, stress management and other skills. The program will be open to additional students in future semesters. Steptoe said the program is designed to have both in-person and virtual offerings.

“We recognize there are different challenges students are facing post-COVID as it relates to time and stress management, so we have updated our content to include those things,” Steptoe said. “We met on Zoom for years, and while in-person social interaction is really important, we wanted to give students some choice. So we made it a hybrid format. We’re also teasing out mindfulness and coping skills. It’s important to have tools in our toolbox to lower our stress, and manage the stress we do have more effectively.”

The study, “An Exploratory Study of a Health and Wellness Intervention on STEM College Students During COVID-19,” was published online in Recreational Sports Journal. Co-authors included Jonathan M. Casper, Kimberly A. Bush, Shannon DuPree, Virginia Blake and Michael A. Kanters. The study was funded by the North Carolina State STEM Education Initiative.


Note to editors: The abstract follows.

“An Exploratory Study of a Health and Wellness Intervention on STEM College Students During COVID-19”

Authors: Jason N. Bocarro, Jonathan M. Casper, Kimberly A. Bush, Alexis Steptoe, Shannon DuPree, Virginia Blake and Michael A. Kanters.

Published: Feb. 3, 2023, Recreational Sports Journal

DOI: 10.1177/15588661231154490

Abstract: To address the growing health challenges faced by college students, campus recreation departments have evolved from a primary university intramural sport setting to organizations that have an increased emphasis on student recruitment, retention, and overall wellness. Among the strategies used to attract and engage students in campus recreation programs and services, health coaching shows some promise as a potentially effective intervention strategy. This study examined the efficacy of a university campus recreation health coaching program. Students from Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines (n = 34) were provided with individual, group, and virtual support to assist in developing effective strategies for academic success. Fitbit data measuring participants’ sleep and physical activity were collected along with self-reported measures of stress and perceived happiness and focus group qualitative data focused on participants’ perceptions of the program. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the program to adapt, findings suggest that health coaching may be an effective intervention strategy to help university students cope with the heightened anxiety and stress levels associated with campus life.