How a Texas High School Student Created The First Lifestyle Medicine Microcredential For Teens
One high school student’s health journey sparked inspiration for an online program to equip young minds with evidence-based tools to make informed lifestyle choices and pave the way to a healthier future.
The microcredential course is geared primarily toward K-12 students.
Aravind Venkatachalam did not set out to create the first microcredential in lifestyle medicine for teenagers. The then-high school sophomore in Frisco, a suburb of Dallas, simply chose educating teenagers about healthy lifestyles as his entry topic for a state health competition.
It was Fall 2020, in the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, and Venkatachalam felt his own health suffering from less physical activity, unhealthy eating and increased stress. The online program he created with a few classmates was ultimately completed by about 75 students.
But the experience convinced Venkatachalam that young people needed a more formal, evidence-based tool to learn how lifestyle behavior impacts their health. He discovered the growing medical specialty of lifestyle medicine and reached out to American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) member Teresa Wagner, DrPH, MS, CPH, RD/LD, CPPS, CHWI, DipACLM, CHWC, assistant professor in lifestyle health sciences at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) and clinical executive for health literacy at SaferCare Texas. She suggested that he place the content into the format of a microcredential so that it would be easily accessible online for students across demographics and across the country.
Microcredentials are competency-based certifications that demonstrate someone has developed specific skills in certain fields and activities.
Health Literacy For Young People
As Venkatachalam researched content for the course modules, he happened upon the “Teen Lifestyle Medicine Handbook: The Power of Healthy Living,” authored by ACLM President Beth Frates, MD, FACLM, DipABLM. Dr. Wagner connected with her to seek permission to use the content of the book in the microcredential coursework, and Dr. Frates enthusiastically joined the cause.
The collaboration culminated in July 2023 when HSC launched the Lifestyle Medicine for Teens microcredential course, geared primarily toward K-12 students. Venkatachalam views the course as a valuable health literacy learning tool for young people, especially those, like himself, who are preparing to leave home for college or the workforce and take sole responsibility for their lifestyle decisions. Only 12% of individuals aged 16 to 65 have a high level of health literacy. Low levels of health literacy make individuals more likely to have advanced illness and poorer outcomes.
The prevalence of childhood obesity from 2017-2020 was almost 20%, afflicting almost 15 million children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“If more young people learn things like how what we eat, how we sleep and how we handle our stress directly impacts our health, we are much more likely to develop healthy habits now that last into adulthood and help achieve whole health,” Venkatachalam, now 18, said. “I didn’t realize until I started this project how much science and research there is proving that our lifestyle choices have a profound effect on our health. With lifestyle medicine education, we can all make more informed decisions.”
A Growing Specialty
Lifestyle medicine is a growing medical specialty that uses therapeutic lifestyle interventions as a primary modality to treat chronic conditions including, but not limited to, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Lifestyle medicine certified clinicians are trained to apply evidence-based, whole-person, prescriptive lifestyle change to treat and, when used intensively, often reverse such conditions. Applying the six pillars of lifestyle medicine—a whole-food, plant-predominant eating pattern, physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances and positive social connections—also provides effective prevention for these conditions.
Venkatachalam, who will be a freshman at Emory University this fall and plans to pursue a career in medicine, said he had started looking for help with his project by searching an ACLM directory of lifestyle medicine-certified clinicians and sent a few emails explaining his idea and asking for assistance. Dr. Wagner, in nearby Fort Worth, responded.
“I was impressed by the work and research he was putting into this idea, not to mention that he took the initiative and emailed me out of the blue,” Dr. Wagner said.
A Huge Breakthrough
Dr. Frates’ book, “Teen Lifestyle Medicine Handbook: The Power of Healthy Living,” was published in 2020 and was written for teens to educate them in lifestyle medicine principles and learn the practical tools and skills needed to implement these principles. Dr. Frates also made available to Venkatachalam the Lifestyle Medicine Teen Curriculum developed in collaboration with pediatricians and lifestyle medicine experts within ACLM’s Pediatric and Adolescent Member Interest Group, teachers, and teens.
The curriculum, which some middle and high schools have used to create elective courses or incorporated into health and wellness programs and some clinicians have used to educate patients, is available via complimentary download through ACLM.
Two high school friends, Harsha Mangalagiri and Natalia Pastor-Navarro, helped Venkatachalam complete creation of the course.
“Dr. Frates agreeing to help and sharing her handbook was a huge breakthrough,” Venkatachalam said. “That’s what I used, from top to bottom, to build the microcredential course because the information was so well researched and presented that I had very few problems repurposing it into an online format. Dr. Frates also shared power points and review questions that helped make the course very strong.”
Dr. Frates said “The current generation of young people is on a trajectory to be less healthy and live shorter lives than their parents “But that future is not inevitable. By learning and developing healthy lifestyle behaviors, young people can not only improve their health now but develop lifestyle habits that will continue into adulthood and allow them to live their healthiest lives. I was delighted to work with Aravind on this innovative and important project.”
Addressing Health Equity
The microcredential course includes seven modules – one for each of the six pillars of lifestyle medicine and a general overview on the foundation of lifestyle medicine – along with experiential learning and knowledge assessment features.
The course is free to ensure that young people from all communities have equal access to the information to abate health disparities. Obesity prevalence is 26% among Hispanic children, 24% among non-Hispanic Black children and 16% among non-Hispanic white children, the CDC states.
“Addressing health equity is a big part of this,” Dr. Wagner said. “Lifestyle medicine education cannot just be available to more privileged students. It must also be available to students from under-resourced communities where health disparities are common.”
Venkatachalam said he hopes young people take advantage of the opportunity to learn about healthy lifestyle behaviors. While his original project entry did not win the state competition, the final product could accomplish something much more powerful.
“This is health information we all need to know,” he said. “And learning it while we are young will have huge benefits for us now and for the rest of our lives.”