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Arnold School of Public Health

Exercise science assistant professor Bridget Armstrong looks for unique behavioral patterns to help address childhood obesity

October 7, 2019 | Erin Bluvas,

As an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland (Baltimore County) in her home state, Bridget Armstrong studied psychology. She spent the early part of her career looking for ways to help children and families change patterns of behavior that were either unhealthy or disruptive.

“Even when both parents and children were highly motivated to make changes, and families had lots of resources at their disposal, making sustainable behavior changes was often difficult and complicated,” Armstrong says of her work in Baltimore City. “Between navigating complicated insurance paperwork, long waitlists, difficulties getting time off from work, and finding transportation to appointments, many of the families who were seeking treatment faced an incredible number of barriers to even get in the door.”

Those who overcame these hurdles faced a new set of challenges related to making lifestyle changes amidst environments outside of their control (e.g., neighborhoods without safe spaces to play, cooking healthy meals with fresh food while working multiple jobs and paying the high cost of childcare). Other families, Armstrong points out, were unable to make it through the first set of challenges. These were the families who arguably needed help the most.

“This was a driving factor that shifted my focus from trying to intervene on the level of individual children and families to a broader picture that took into account the complicated web of factors that influence the decisions – both conscious and unconscious – families make with regard to health and wellbeing,” Armstrong says of her transition to a population-level/public health focus.

She moved South to pursue a master’s (clinical psychology) degree and then a Ph.D. (clinical health psychology) from the University of Florida, the latter of which included a doctoral clinical internship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Following her 2016 graduation, Armstrong completed a three-year postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore where it all began. During this period of graduate education/training, her interests evolved to focus on childhood obesity prevention and intervention by looking for unique patterns of behavior that make children more likely to become overweight.

We know that it’s not enough to simply learn what things we should do to be healthy, but that making healthy decisions is impacted by a huge number of factors, some of which we are aware of, and others that we might not even perceive.

-Bridget Armstrong, assistant professor of exercise science

“Ultimately, by identifying interconnected patterns, we can develop targeted and efficient interventions that help support the development of healthier behavior patterns for children and families alike,” she says. “I still believe strongly in the importance of individual intervention, but I hope to find ways to leverage the broader factors so that families and children have the best chance to thrive.”

Armstrong joined the Arnold School’s Department of Exercise Science as an assistant professor this fall, where she will continue her research into how heath behaviors unfold over time in increments that range from minute-to-minute/hour-to-hour to days, weeks or even years. “We know that it’s not enough to simply learn what things we should do to be healthy, but that making healthy decisions is impacted by a huge number of factors, some of which we are aware of, and others that we might not even perceive,” Armstrong says.

Her work aims to discover how these patterns develop within the context of individual (e.g., social/interpersonal interactions, metabolic status) and broad societal (e.g., childcare policies, socioeconomic status, physical environment) factors as well as every level in between. Armstrong is looking forward to furthering this line of research through her interactions with students and researchers at Carolina.

“We’re excited to have someone of Bridget’s caliber join our faculty,” says exercise science chair Shawn Arent. “Not only does her background and skill set add tremendous value to our department, but I’m impressed by her energy and enthusiasm. She seems to have a real appreciation for the opportunities that exist here, and I believe can play an important role in helping us realize that potential.”

“The collaborative environment and incredible caliber of students was a deciding factor in my coming to UofSC,” Armstrong adds. “I’m thrilled about the opportunity to join a productive and inspiring team of researchers at the Arnold School. There is an incredible amount of potential for research to inform health-driven policies in South Carolina that can have a meaningful impact on families.”

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