And We Wonder Why Some Girls Aren’t Physically Active?

29 01 2010

This morning a colleague sent me this article from ESPN.com about another ban on head scarves for Muslim female athletes. When I see this and other  stories, it makes me recommit to the work I do at The Tucker Center.

It its well documented that females are less physically active than their male peers at all ages, and that girls of color are less physically active than their White counterparts. There are two great reports that summarize the plethora of research on girls, physical activity and health and developmental outcomes–The Tucker Center Research Report: Developing Physically Active Girls (2007), and The Women’s Sport Foundation’s Her Life Depends On It (2009).

Some of the work I do with my graduate student Chelsey Thul, examines the barriers to physical activity of East African girls here in the Twin Cities. We have the largest East African diaspora in the US, and the East African girls in our community find in very challenging to be as physically active as they’d like to be.  They talk about wanting to be physically active but also desire to remain true to religious and cultural norms. If you want to see a great film that documents the challenges Iranian Muslim women face who desire to compete in an international soccer match with a German team, be sure to watch Football Under Cover.

The ESPN.com story illustrates exactly how challenging it can be for Muslim girls and women to be physically active. When are leagues and sport organizations going to enact inclusive policies that encourage and facilitate physical activity and sport participation for EVERYONE?

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Physical Activity, Organized Youth Sport & Youth Obesity

2 10 2009

soda machineSome and colleagues and I are working on research pertaining to what is known (and mostly not known) about the role of youth sports in obesity prevention. Last week Toben Nelson, University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, presented some of our work at the monthly Tucker Table. You can view his PowerPoint and see a small video clip. This work has made me think critically about how youth sports may not be the healthiest places for some children–including the ubiquitous presence of unhealthy snacks which I wrote about in an earlier blog. While physical activity and active living may help prevent childhood obesity, healthy eating is the other half of the equation. To highlight the relationship between physical activity and the presence of unhealthy food, this Village Voice post and picture showing how NYC playgrounds house soda machines says it all (via AN).





Helping Lead the U.S. to Better Health?

29 08 2009

health appleFor those who may not know, here in the U.S. we have a President’s Council for Physical Fitness and Sport. This group according to the government website “is an advisory committee of volunteer citizens who advise the President through the Secretary of Health and Human Services about physical activity, fitness, and sports in America.” Many of my Kinesiology colleagues have served on the PCPFS council and its Science Board. It is an honor to be asked to serve this prestigious group. The PCPFS puts out many informative publications, research digests and other pieces that can be downloaded free on the PCPFS website.

Historically, the Executive Director is someone who is well respected and academically trained in sport science yet understands how to apply and implement research-based best practices to improve the health, nutrition and well being. President Obama has recently named the new Executive Director: Sergio Rojas (for his bio click here and here). No disrespect to Mr. Rojas, but is he qualified? With a BA in Psychology from Loyola, I couldn’t help but think this rings of Chicago-based nepotism.

With the health of US citizens in the forefront of the national debate on health care reform, the alarming incidence of childhood obesity in US children, low rates of physical activity, and the fact that pressure to meet No Child Left Behind standards has basically ensured that physical education is stripped from school curricula despite rising evidence that physical activity increases cognitive functioning and classroom achievement, some of many health issues that face our nation, the PCPFS needs a strong and informed leader. I doubt that Rojas is the guy to help move these issues in the right direction, I hope I’m wrong.

picture from Institute of Health Economics





Clarifying “The Myth About Exercise”

10 08 2009

TIME Cover_myth about exercise Every Saturday I look forward to the TIME magazine in my mail. I know I can read it all online, but there is something satisfying about print media. As someone trained in sport science (aka, Kinesiology) this week’s cover story by John Cloud “The Myth About Exercise” intrigued me. After reading it, I was more than surprised, a bit irritated, and wondered if this wasn’t just more sensationalistic journalism. The premise of the article was based on “some recent studies” that found exercise does not help one lose weight or isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe.

What?! Have we been lied to all these years? A friend who regularly works out read the article and promptly said, “THAT was depressing and made me never want to work out again.” I wondered how many others were thinking similar thoughts.

The TIME article, based in part on the findings of ONE clinical trial, found that in a group of 464 overweight women assigned to four conditions—women who exercised did not lose significantly more weight than those who did not exercise…and some women in each of the four conditions gained weight.

Dr. Timothy Church, Chair of Health Wisdom at LSU and lead author of the clinical trial, outlines the process of exactly how exercise might psychologically work against us:
1. exercise stimulates hunger
2. when we exercise we often “reward” ourselves with food [see my blog post about this issue in youth sport]
…or both. My astute friend mentioned previously, pointed out this premise assumes that those who don’t exercise don’t reward themselves with food.

Cloud offers an additional explanation based on another study with UK children he’d written about earlier this year
3. One might be more sedentary during non-exercise times than if one didn’t exercise at all

At first read, these findings and the TIME article may be perceived as a green light to bolster couch potato status, and only pay attention to what you eat–and this is dangerous. Exercise matters…but more importantly researchers have demonstrated movement matters!

Weight management is a simple energy equation: energy in (food) < energy out (exercise + energy expended daily to move about, live, & breathe) = maintain or lose weight.

If you take in more than you expend, you gain weight. Given that our metabolism slows 10% every decade (i.e., meaning you burn 10% less calories/energy), even if you ate exactly the same as you did as a teenager…you’d gain weight. True, exercise is only HALF of the equation, but a still needed half.

With billions of dollars tied up in the health and diet industry and new products and advice generated daily, I’ve joked for years that I’m going to write a one-page best seller—Move More, Eat in Moderation (© 2009 nmlavoi). Alas, I fear this would not be a best-seller nor make me enough money to become a full time blogger….Americans want the easy route, the quick fix, and watching what you eat and factoring movement into one’s daily plan takes a bit of effort.

TAKE HOME: The research cited in the TIME article is mostly one-sided, although it does raise some interesting questions. Many other researchers have found that exercise/movement IS important, can lead to a host of positive outcomes, and can provide a buffer to chronic diseases associated with obesity. This is a perfect example of why a critical perspective can be valuable….so…off the couch!

To promote healthy eating, and active living in a society in which obesity rates continue to grow, attention to both is critical. This well-placed article in a well known weekly magazine may do more fan the flame of weight loss mythology, than help.

p.s. The tired gendered cliché of “woman running for something sweet” on the cover did not escape notice

UPDATE 8/10/2009: To prove my point about sensationalist health journalism, today a University of Minnesota colleague Gary Schwitzer, a longtime health journalist “sounded the alarm this week after analyzing hundreds of medical news reports from the past three years” in an article in The New York Post.





The Social Construction of Fatness and Femininity

21 07 2009

Two things happened in last 24hrs which inspired this blog. First, last night I was watching a PBS show (yes..nerdery abounds!) called Make ‘Em Laugh which featured Joan Rivers claiming (this isn’t verbatim but close), “We should all stop pretending that beauty doesn’t matter. It does. So let’s just tell young girls ‘beauty matters’ so try to make yourselves look good.” (You can see part of her interview about “fat” Elizabeth Taylor here.) Second, I read a blog “Fat Pedagogy: On Gluttonous Enterprise and the Exercise-Industrial-Complex” which inspired this blog. I’ve read some about the critical perspective of obesity, overweight, and fatness which I find fascinating (See for example the special issue of Sociology of Sport Journal Special Issue: The Social Construction of Fat—“The Personal is the Political” edited by Margaret Duncan). I’ve thought about this issue and its intersection with gender…here is an excerpt I wrote with graduate student Chelsey Thul for a paper on underserved girls and physical activity:

Some scholars argue that a public focus on inactivity, the obesity “epidemic,” and assertion that the nation’s future is tied to its citizens’ body shape, athleticism, cardiovascular fitness, and vitality (Gard, 2004), contribute to the development of eating disorders, unhealthy body scrutiny, and anxieties in young women. Messages about health and physical activity, constructed by experts and reinforced by the media, tell girls what a “normal” and “desirable” body should look like, which is unobtainable for a vast majority of girls. Achievement of this kind of body within “a cult of slenderness” (Rich et al., 2004) signals worth, discipline, virtue, status, and emotional stability but leaves little room for acceptance of bodies outside the norm or for different perspectives about the role of physical activity in girls’ health and well-being.

This narrow standard of “acceptable bodies” was a theme in my blog about Jason Whitlock’s sexist column about Serena Williams’ backside and his assessment that she wasn’t disciplined enough to be “really good”. Neuman writes about this point, “More importantly, that ‘fixed standard’ is a socially-constructed sensibility grafted to the cultural politics of the ‘Right body,’ one less rooted in scientific nuance than in cultural norms shared by mostly white, upper-middle class, (mostly) masculine, (almost exclusively) Western scientists (Atkinson, 2006).” Neuman goes onto to assert that, “Herein lies the exercise-industrial complex paradox: the more money invested into ‘fixing’ the ‘problem’ of obesity, the more convinced we as a consuming public become of the stakes and consequences—and yet, those investments and moral imperatives have only resulted in higher rates of ‘obesity.’ ”

This got me thinking as well about the female athlete-sexy babe paradox (for more on this click here, and here): the more the media focuses on femininity and sexiness of female athletes, the more convinced the public becomes that femininity is “important” and the only way to market and consume women’s athletics—, and yet, selling sexy female athletes has not resulted in higher rates of popularity and attendance…nor does help challenge narrowly constructed ideas of healthy female bodies—particularly for girls and women.





A Good Built Environment Increases Children’s Physical Activity

2 07 2009

baseball in a small townThe American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a policy statement about the role of the built environment on children’s health. The built environment is overall structure of the physical environment of a child’s community (e.g., safe sidewalks, accessible parks, existence of bike paths) including spaces such as buildings and streets that are deliberately constructed as well as outdoor spaces that are altered in some way by human activity.

Emerging research indicates that the built environment limits or promotes opportunities for physical activity, in turn affecting child health—including obesity. A July 2009 report “F is for Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America” released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health indicated that in 30 states the percentage of obese and overweight children is at or above 30 percent. Obesity is a gendered and racialized issue as it is more prevalent in girls than boys, and girls of color have higher rates of overweight and obesity than do their White peers. (Note that the sign indicates “baseball diamond”… a game that girls have historically been excluded from. The sign does not say “ball fields” which could perhaps include softball assuming a softball field exists. To read more about girls and baseball read Jennifer Ring’s 2009 book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball)

In many communities across the US, the built environment unfortunately does not reflect the image depicted here…the existence of a safe community baseball field that youth can easily find, have access to, and may perhaps walk or bike to and from. The American Academy of Pediatrics report published in Pediatrics outlines a number of policies that can help create and increase the existence of health-promoting built environments.