Background and Purpose: Regular physical activity and healthy eating habits are key components of preventing and managing chronic health problems, promoting self-esteem and decreasing stress. For students entering a graduate program, increased demands on time and energy may have a negative impact on physical activity and dietary habits. The purpose of this study was to determine if participation in a physical therapy graduate program, where health and well-being are emphasized in the curriculum, is associated with improved physical fitness, adequate nutrition, and decreased levels of stress.
Methods: Seven females between the ages of 21 and 35 served as subjects from students entering the Master of Education program at Pacific University in 2002. These data were compared to data collected for 20 female volunteers from students entering the Master of Physical Therapy program in 1998. Data was collected during the first two weeks of the graduate program, and again after three months. Aerobic fitness (V02max) was determined using a continuous progressive treadmill protocol. In addition, participants completed a physical activity questionnaire, a Derogatis Stress Profile, and a 3-day dietary record at both phases of testing.
Discussion and Conclusion: Measures of physical fitness, using the progressive treadmill protocol, indicated a steady level of physical fitness over the first semester for the physical therapy students and a decline in fitness for the education students. Aerobic fitness (V02max) decreased significantly for the education students (p=.0149) at three months. Both groups' total exercise time decreased over the first semester (physical therapy p=.0447, education p=.0277). A sedentary level of occupational physical activity was reported by both groups at three months. The physical therapy students reported a decrease in occupational physical activity (p=.0035) and a decrease in leisure time physical activity (p=.0248). At initial testing, the physical therapy students reported a higher level of occupational physical activity than did the education students (p=.0275). All measures of nutritional intake were compared to the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), and were expressed for the purposes of this study as a percent of the RDA consumed for each nutrient. The physical therapy students consumed adequate total calories, fat, and vitamins and minerals, while consuming too-high amounts of protein (159.61 % of RDA) and sodium (162.82% of RDA) on average. The education students reported a diet high in total calories, fat, and sodium that increased over the first semester. At three months, the education students consumed significantly more total fat (p=.0187), saturated fat (p=.0028), and polyunsaturated fat (p=.0236) than did the physical therapy students. Measures of psychological stress revealed few significant changes in stress levels over the first three months for students in either group. Emotional Response, which incorporates measures of anxiety, hostility, and depression, decreased for the education students over the first three months of graduate school (p=.0236). The physical therapy students reported lower levels of Total Stress and Environmental Stress overall.
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