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An eye-opening and mouth-watering trip to Greece is becoming a staple

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The Mediterranean diet is everywhere these days, from the cover of splashy health and fitness magazines to the website of CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta. 

But a group of Rutgers students and faculty recently travelled to Greece to get beyond the headlines and fully explore the region’s overall culture of healthy living, studying its specific physiological, social, and psychological elements.

GreeceThe program was so successful that the Department of Kinesiology and Health is making it a staple, offering it several times in 2017.

“There are distinct differences between people who live in the Mediterranean region and people from other areas in terms of general health, disease prevention, and healthy aging,” says Labros Sidossis, chair of the department in the School of Arts and Sciences, who led the two-week Lifestyles of the Mediterranean program. “You have to look at the total lifestyle which encompasses diet, physical activity, conviviality, and even spirituality.”

The program drew 23 undergraduates and two graduate students, many of whom are considering careers in the health sciences. The students last May visited olive groves, wineries, museums, and historic sites. They attended lectures on the history and evolution of the Mediterranean lifestyle. And they met, cooked, and dined with locals, learning how to prepare balanced and nutritious meals.

“I will be talking about what I learned for years to come,” says Ashley Fath, a senior majoring in applied kinesiology. “The entire trip was an amazing experience.”

Greece 3 A second trip scheduled for January, 2017, is filled.  But the department is providing additional Mediterranean programs for the summer of 2017 that include explorations of stress management, diet, and overall lifestyle.

The Mediterranean diet typically refers to the eating patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain, and is known for its use of olive oil, unrefined grains, fruits and vegetables, and fish. Prominent health organizations such as the Mayo Clinic have said the nutritional benefits can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death. 

Fath, who is considering a career in nursing, says the program helped her gain a more sophisticated understanding of food and nutrition. “There’s more to healthy food than kale,” she says. “It was fascinating learning how the right combination of seasonings eliminates the need for more butter. Or how mixing olive oil with basil, you don’t need salt.”

The program, centered in Athens, provided a range of experiential learning and traditional lectures. Students visited the town of Marathon, where they studied the history of physical activity, dating back to the ancient Olympic marathon runners. They also went to the Peloponnese region and the island of Spetses to learn about olive oil and spirits production, and experience different aspects of the culture, from folk dancing to botanical hiking.

Greece 2Senior Amanda Stelma noted how the Mediterranean notion of exercise emphasizes small bouts of physical activity, such as walking to the store. As an aspiring physical therapist, she says that approach could be helpful in treating patients recovering from serious injuries.

“The goal is get patients back to a place of normalcy,” Stelma says. “Telling them to go work out in the gym might be too daunting, while having them walk to their friend’s house could be just as effective.”

Another distinctive quality of Mediterranean life is conviviality. Sidossis, who grew up in Athens, says that eating is understood as a communal activity, done at a leisurely pace, with family and friends present, and laced with introspective and reflective conversation. 

“It’s a difficult phenomenon to study, but it’s crucial,” he says. “Food is not just to shovel down your throat. You meet with people. You talk with people. You get feedback about life issues from people. This sharing goes a long way toward relieving stress.”

Students say that spirit was palpable throughout the trip.

“A lot of us came on the trip not knowing anybody,” Fath says. “And we walked out with friends we are going to have for the rest of our lives.” 

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