February 26, 2010

Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is difficult for many Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of Americans ages 20 and over are overweight or obese.

A researcher in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture recently completed a project that may help lower these statistics by changing the way health information is presented. Assistant Professor Ingrid Adams found that by understanding the habits of a particular group, health education professionals can target a positive health message toward a group's needs and weaknesses to motivate them toward healthier living.

"In extension, we need to have a sound research base to guide our actions. This project puts that into practice," said Adams, who is a member of UK's Department of Nutrition and Food Science in the School of Human Environmental Sciences.

Adams' research studied the dietary and physical activity habits of African-American adults in Lexington. African-Americans have the highest rates of obesity when compared with whites and Hispanics, with more than 35 percent considered obese according to the CDC. In Kentucky, more than 38 percent of African-Americans are obese.

In the study, funded by UK's African American Studies and Research Program, Adams sought any environmental factors, barriers or behaviors that kept participants from eating healthy and being physically active.

She found that most participants reported having a good built environment and indoor facilities for physical activity. However, the barriers to physical activity included tiredness, lack of time, no motivation and no social support. Adams also found they had a low intake of fruits, vegetables and milk.

She found this particular group needed educational messages that showed the benefits of physical activity and nutrition that can motivate them to begin to make lifestyle changes. Building a social support group would also be important to their success. Since many of them have little time for physical activity, she recommended they do things throughout the day to be more physically active, such as parking further away from work or the store to get in more walking.

"Although this study was geared toward African-Americans, it could reflect any ethnic population or group," she said. "Health education professionals can work with other groups and go through the same process to determine their perceptions of nutrition and physical activity before providing recommendations."