Understanding Physical Activity among Older African American Women

Emerson Sebastiao

The health disparity among minority groups is well documented in the United States. Despite improvements on health care and preventive services, African Americans still face the burden of higher rates of chronic diseases, disabilities and mortalities. Physical activity is an important health component and despite its increased awareness, rates of participation are low. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance estimates that about 51% of the older adult population does not meet the physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity. Despite the growing number of studies and public health efforts to promote physical activity among different populations, African American women constitute one of the least active group. A partial explanation could be related to public health messages and interventions that are not cultural tailored. Emerson Sebastiao along with his mentors Dr. Chodzko-Zajko and Dr. Schwingel worked to disentangle and to understand the complexity of the sociocultural environmental and other factors that may affect the decision of older African American women to choose a healthy lifestyle with physical activity or to be sedentary.

This research project explored the role of socio-cultural environment in shaping health behavior, through a focus on physical activity of older African American women, beyond this exploring their conception of physical activity including barriers and facilitators. Thus, the main purpose of this research study is to deepen our understanding of factors that contribute to physical activity decisions among older African American women. By using a mixed-methods design, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and values about physical activity were addressed. A new technique in the field of health behavior, known as photo-elicitation was employed. Photo-elicitation has a long time history in anthropology and sociology studies. This technique invites participants to take part in the research study; and therefore, more meaningful information about the investigated phenomenon is expected to be observed.

Preliminary findings show that measured by objective devices (accelerometer) older African American women report in average about 61 minutes per week of moderate-vigorous physical activity. In addition, it was observed that the way older African American women conceptualize physical activity, tends to be mixed with the definition used for exercise. We do believe that this research project has helped to understand more about African American women regarding physical activity behavior and move towards the development of better strategies and interventions that will have a higher impact on this population.