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Peer programs help students to quit smoking and live a healthy lifestyle

by Patrick Clarke

January is the time of year when resolutions are made. Some are as trivial as a plan to go out more often, while others are, for some people, no joking matter.

Marc Kilchling, a student in his final year, started smoking at the age of 14. Ever since he picked up the habit, Kilchling has been making resolutions to drop it.

“The biggest difficulty for me is the association with other smokers,” Kilchling says. “I have a lot of friends who smoke, so it's always tough [to quit] when I am around them.”

The fight might just get easier for him, with the help of other students. The Wellness Peer Programs, created in 2006 through the University of Toronto Scarborough Health & Wellness Centre, are aimed at promoting healthy lifestyle choices, while supporting students in achieving them.

One such peer program is Leave the Pack Behind, an initiative with smokers in mind. Funded by the Ministry of Health Promotion of Ontario, it is comprised of a team of undergraduate students who try to help other students in achieving a goal.

“Leave the Pack Behind is a comprehensive, tobacco control initiative for students,” says student Fauzia Hemani, the program coordinator. “We recognize that it’s hard to quit smoking and that to continue or discontinue is a personal decision. We assist smokers, once they have made their choice of course, by providing them with regular phone and email support, survival kits, tips and cessation strategies.”

Hemani, a health studies and economics student in her final year, says that the program is not a campaign against smoking. “We are not here to judge or to impose our choices on anyone,” she adds. “We are here to provide information on smoking and tobacco related issues.”

Although the names of participants are confidential, Hemani says that the Leave the Pack Behind program has had some success stories over the past year. Several students are now off cigarettes for good since they decided to quit with the help of their peer leaders, she says.

Laura Nourallah is another student who says she has failed to keep her new year’s resolutions in the past. Previously, the first-year international student has resolved to follow a healthy diet, but has not stayed with it. This year she is trying once again to put her unhealthy eating habits behind, and sees no turning back.

Nourallah’s journey to health may be less difficult because of another peer program that puts her in touch with other students aiming to put unhealthy eating habits behind.

“Living on campus is a huge reason why it’s really hard to stick to a diet,” comments the international student. “It is convenient to reach for fast foods,” she says.

The peer educators in the Nutritional Health Program also know that junk food can be fast and convenient. That’s why the program focuses on nutrition and exercise, based on Canada’s Food Guide and Canada’s Physical Activity Guide. Interactive workshops provide students with the information and skills needed to acquire and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“Nutritional health requires a huge lifestyle change, as does the decision to quit smoking,” says Elsa Kiosses, a nurse in the Health and Wellness Centre and founder of the peer programs. “You have to be ready and motivated to make that change, and your peers are there to encourage you. Because they are so energetic, the peer educators are very contagious in helping you change.”

“The peer leaders are thoroughly trained and chosen based on their commitment, knowledge and expertise,” says Kiosses. The fact that students run the program is a significant advantage in influencing other students, she adds. “The benefit is that they can relate to the student population, so they are going to provide events and initiatives that are important to them and the whole student body,” she says. “Also, they are very understanding of what is ‘in’ and can come up with campaigns and initiatives in ways that appeal to the student population.”

Anzhelika Zinger, the student coordinator for the Nutritional Health program, agrees. She says “the best thing about us peer educators is that we are all U of T Scarborough students, so we go through the same stresses and anxieties that other students do when it comes to food and nutrition.”

A Wellness Fair is scheduled for Thursday, January 24 from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., in The Meeting Place. There will be demonstrations, interactive games, contests, food samples and giveaways. Topics to be featured include Physical, Mental and Sexual Health, Fitness, Nutrition and Self-Esteem. The event is free and all students are welcome.

Patrick Clarke is a third-year student in the journalism program offered jointly by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College.

© University of Toronto Scarborough