Meet Debbie Balfanz

Debbie grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. A sledding accident at age 9 left her with a broken femur and a long recovery that included three months in bed and another three months learning to walk again with crutches. Since that experience, Debbie has been interested in people's beliefs and attitudes about health and their intentions to engage in health-promoting behaviors.  

While a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, Debbie remained interested in health promotion, but knew she didn't want to become a doctor. She volunteered at the University hospital as a "friendly visitor," visiting patients who wouldn't otherwise have had company. After receiving her BA, she worked for two years in the clinical psychology department at Temple University as coordinator of a large grant-funded research study that examined how women at risk for cervical cancer processed different messages around health. In this role, Debbie learned about research design and analysis, and also realized that she could have a career that combined her love of psychology with her desire to help people stay healthy.

After spending two years as research coordinator, Debbie went to Princeton University to pursue a PhD in social psychology, with a focus on health psychology. During her time there, Debbie was able to find an outlet for her passions — advising, mentoring, and teaching — through her roles as a peer health counselor, teaching assistant, statistical consultant, writing advisor, and adjunct faculty member at local community colleges. In addition, Debbie was able to pursue research questions that fascinated her, such as: “How can we frame messages to increase compliance among at-risk adolescent girls who need to come in for follow up?” and “What factors contribute to undergraduates' feelings of depression?” 

A regular exerciser since college, it was in graduate school that Debbie really began to appreciate all the benefits that came from regular physical activity, including mood and stress management. And a fabulous aerobics instructor turned Debbie into something she never thought she would be: someone who enjoyed working out in the morning! Relocating to California years later brought an unexpected benefit: for the first time in her life, Debbie saw the appeal of running outdoors and began to run consistently. 

Debbie has worked for Stanford’s Health Improvement Program (HIP) for 13 years. She spends her time coordinating behavior change groups for university and hospital employees, their family members, as well as members of the general community. She also conducts trainings for other organizations who want to offer this program. In addition, she evaluates the programs offered by HIP and BeWell, teaches healthy living classes, and works one-on-one with participants who want to make a behavior change.

As a working mom of two young boys with celiac disease, she understands firsthand the realities of trying to prioritize health while juggling all the other demands of life in Silicon Valley. While she knows she has room to improve when it comes to making time for healthy meals, she does prioritize physical activity, which helps her deal with life’s many curveballs. She makes time to get moving most days, and keeps sane by taking walking breaks during the day; running on the weekends; and attending HIP fitness classes when she can. It turns out that she really enjoys yoga, a type of exercise that she used to swear she would never do!

 In addition to caring for her two sons, Debbie has had to cope with the loss of a parent since beginning work at HIP. Drawing on those personal experiences, as well as the knowledge she's gained from working with hundreds of Stanford employees, Debbie has learned to identify and manage the barriers to a healthy lifestyle. She helps other busy people understand that by making small changes in their lifestyle, they can greatly improve their health and the health of those around them. 

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