Expanding the reach and impact of a program designed to boost adolescent health

The after-school program, called “DiscoverU,” was created by SPH in partnership with a local school district to increase rates of physical and emotional health among students — and lower their risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Virgil McDill | January 2, 2024

Many people know that diet and exercise are critical for cardiovascular disease (CVD) prevention, but mental health is also a significant factor. Depression, for example, is one of the most prevalent risk conditions for CVD. And, the coupling of a risk condition like depression with traditional physical health risk factors like obesity or a sedentary lifestyle can move a person from a moderate to a high-risk category. While CVD is a significant health problem for older Americans, research has shown that the risk of heart disease among younger people is on the rise.

In 2021, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) sought to reduce the number of youth at high risk for developing CVD by collaborating with the Columbia Heights School District to develop an after-school program called DiscoverU that simultaneously addresses the physical and mental health of participating students.

The DiscoverU after-school program features a cross-age mentoring approach in which college students are trained to mentor adolescents in a range of activities that emphasize social-emotional growth through physical activity.

Katherine Arlinghaus

“The initial work we did in partnership with the Columbia Heights school district showed that the DiscoverU program was appealing to adolescents, which is a big hurdle to overcome for any health program for teens!” says SPH Assistant Professor Katherine Arlinghaus and DiscoverU lead “Adolescent participants in the program have reported a high sense of belonging in the program and really valued their relationships with mentors.”

The current DiscoverU program is designed as a stand-alone afterschool class. Now, with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), SPH researchers are testing ways to improve and expand this innovative after-school program to reach all students who participate in any after-school programming at a given school. The current project has two main goals:

  • Identify expansions and revisions to improve the reach and impact of DiscoverU. SPH researchers will work with staff, students, previous mentors, and other stakeholders to revise current DiscoverU curriculum and programming to reach more adolescents at the afterschool school site and improve outcomes.
  • Conduct pilot testing on the revised program in new schools. Researchers will conduct a two-year pilot test on the site-wide version of DiscoverU at two new middle schools in the St. Paul School District to understand the feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary impact on adolescent physical activity and mental health.

“By testing DiscoverU and looking for ways to reach more young people and their families, this funding provides the opportunity to determine how we might be able to expand this program so it can better serve young people at disproportionate risk for cardiovascular disease development,” says Arlinghaus.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Columbia Heights Public Schools.

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