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Standing places in lecture halls and bowls of fruit in all buildings

Standing places in lecture halls and bowls of fruit in all buildings

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Professor Stef Kremers would set up a large-scale experiment at the UM in an attempt to promote the health of students and employees.

How do you stimulate people to eat healthier, to exercise more and take better care of themselves mentally? “Over the past few years, we have done a lot of research at crèches and primary and secondary schools,” says Stef Kremers, professor of Health Promotion. “We looked at how you could arrange schoolyards differently, so that children exercise more. We installed tap points at crèches, which allow children to become acquainted with the taste of water instead of diluted lemonade. We also made a deal with a fruit and vegetable supplier to make toddlers taste things that their parents have never tried.”

The weird thing is, says Kremers, that such research has never been carried out at the UM. While it is also a school, isn't it? Kremers has a study in mind that consists of three parts. “Firstly, I would like to experiment with standing places in lecture halls. We now know that sitting a lot is unhealthy, but you don't have a choice in a lecture hall. You cannot write there while standing.”

Kremers also wants bowls of fruit everywhere. “We do so at our department of Health Promotion. Every week it gets eaten before the fruit has a chance to rot. And nobody fills his or her bags with it at the end of the day to take home. Anyway, I can already hear you thinking: who pays for that? Well, the department. If the fruit prevents even a single member of staff from falling ill, we have earned the money back.”

Then there is mental health. That is where a lot of work needs to be done, says Kremers, burnouts, workload. How can these problems be avoided? “Not by presenting concrete solutions, but by passing the responsibility on to the students and employees themselves. Along the lines of: anyone with good ideas can expect co-operation in realising those ideas. How can you increase independence? How can you ensure that people feel part of a community? And lastly: how can you increase competency? The last option often comes down to improving skills. Do you have a problem taking minutes in English? Then we can make sure you can take a language course.”

The important thing is that these three substudies - exercise, nutrition and mental health - take place simultaneously. “We actually know that the one strengthens the other. If you are more active, you will also eat more healthily. This has all been tested at schools. In the 'The healthy primary school of the future' (De gezonde basisschool van de toekomst) project in the Dutch eastern mining area, it appeared, for example, that nutrition works best as the driving wheel.”

The essence is not just in health but in particular in performance, Kremers emphasises. “Those who lead healthier lives, perform better. This is proven by research after research. It is also something that you can easily measure in a university context, in students by looking at test grades and labour market data, in researchers through publications and recruiting capacity, and in employees through absence through illness. The UM could present itself as a ‘healthy university’, which is already the case with some universities in Australia and England. These healthy universities show that they feel very strongly about the health of their students and employees.”

The ‘healthy university’ appears to be more than just a dream. A few years ago, Kremers (together with a researcher and UM Sport's employee) presented this idea to the Maastricht Executive Board. The board reacted enthusiastically but it never came to taking concrete steps. “Maybe the time is ripe now. Improving the health of employees is after all one of the sustainable development goals, which have come to play a prominent role in the UM's policies and vision.”

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