What is healthy? Learning through blogging

One of my favourite things as a teacher is to watch a student’s understanding and skills evolve. In a 4th year course on obesity which I co-teach with my PhD supervisor, Dr. Diane Finegood, we use a class blog to promote learning and critical thinking through writing. Each week, for five weeks, students post images and commentary that address the question of “What is Healthy?” with respect to obesity. The project provides an excellent medium for students to receive weekly feedback and expand their knowledge.

It is easy to discuss what is “not healthy”, pointing the blame for obesity at lack of exercise or poor food choices. Often we forget to emphasize what IS healthy. We asked students to identify ways to challenge conventional norms or misconceptions about obesity or the system that gives rise to obesity.  Through their writing they provided suggestions for nudges that support healthy behaviour or future actions to improve or change health. We frame the course as a whole using the Foresight Obesity System Map and encouraged students to use this to help them think beyond the usual recommendations to eat less and move more.

The first week of the assignment, many posts focussed on the benefits of physical activity and exercise. Some examined supports for physical activity, such as a walking school bus and neighbourhood playgrounds. Others discussed healthy eating, including the benefits of eating together as a family, and supports for eating locally. Overall, personal behaviour change was a common theme from the first weeks’ posts.

Curious to see how student’s posts would change over the subsequent weeks, I decided to do a little fun (and non-scientific) analysis: I summarized the main messages of each post and entered these words into Wordle to create a word cloud for the first week. Clearly physical activity and exercise were dominant. Other popular themes that emerged were nutrition and healthy eating, environmental supports, and social networks such as community, friends and family. Would this change over the duration of the assignment?

Over the next few weeks, students blogged about a variety of topics, and yes, there was a trend away from physical activity and energy intake. Posts from the last week included a discussion of the ability for food to stimulate reward pathways in the brain, telemedicine to connect doctors to patients in rural communities, and how field trips benefit learning. Overall, there appeared to be a greater diversity in the posts, and less emphasis on exercise and healthy diets. I repeated the word cloud analysis for blogs in the fifth week. Nutrition and healthy diets emerged as the dominants themes, but there was a greater variety of topics explored, from religion to sleep, allergies to taxes, marketing to agriculture.

It is exciting to see this evolution in how students perceive “what is healthy?” as they begin to think more critically and challenge their own beliefs. Through this project, students learned to view obesity from a new perspective, and shift their own paradign of health.

Here are a few interesting posts from other weeks:

Wordles available here:

Wordle: what is healthy 1Week 1 Wordle: what is healthy 2Week 2
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2 Responses to What is healthy? Learning through blogging

  1. Can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see the shift from PHYSICAL ACTIVITY to NUTRITION!

  2. pennydeck says:

    What struck me most was the shift from blaming the individual to a better understanding of the external factors that are often out of an individual’s control. (I don’t think the word clouds captured this very well, likely due to my poor coding skills in summarizing the main point of the posts.)

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