Meeting Up Helps Keep Women Walking

Monday, June 27, 2016

Study finds group meetings help black women get more exercise

By Deb Song

Like many working women, Nina Lewis found it difficult to find time to exercise, especially since she also is a caregiver for her elderly mother. In addition, Lewis lives in a low-income Chicago neighborhood where changes for the worse had caused her to be increasingly housebound.

Despite these obstacles, Lewis walked at least 10,000 steps daily for 80 percent of the time she was enrolled in a Rush University Medical Center study that compared the effects of two different interventions to encourage black women to be physically active.

“This was the perfect incentive to get my health statistics, and it became a goal to get my steps in,” Lewis says. “Having a group to motivate me really helped. I was able to be more mindful and see what I was not doing.”

Lewis was among the 288 middle-aged women in six predominantly African-American, Chicago communities who completed the study, which found that regular group meetings were effective in increasing and maintaining their levels of physical activity. The results of the study were published in the current issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Walking can be beneficial — and challenging

Research has shown that physical activity, including brisk walking, has significant health benefits. The value, relative ease and overall availability of walking as an exercise option led the U.S. surgeon general to issue a call last September to promote walking and walkable communities.

However, for underserved, minority populations, simply getting out into their neighborhoods can be challenging. To address the issue, a team of nursing researchers at Rush conducted a long-term study that measured whether a combination of group meetings held in the community and follow-up calls would increase the participants’ physical activity levels.

“This is a population that often goes ignored,” says JoEllen Wilbur, PhD, RN, FAAN, lead investigator of the study and professor in the Rush University College of Nursing. “We wanted to develop a culturally sensitive, community-based program offering a physical activity intervention that took into consideration the influence of the personal and environmental factors our participants were facing.”

Overcoming challenges to increase activity

The Women’s Lifestyle Physical Activity Program was a 12-month program for black women ages 40-65 living in the south and west sides of Chicago, including areas such as Roseland, Englewood, Austin and South Shore. The program was offered once a year at six locations, for each of three years, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The use of group meetings grew out of previous studies led by Wilbur, who has a long research career in women’s health and physical activity. Asked for suggestions to improve physical activity, women in the earlier studies recommended workshops.

“In our most recent study, the workshops became group meetings, and midlife African-American women increased their physical activity throughout the day — at home, work and during leisure time,” Wilbur says.

Participants received a health assessment, which included their height, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The women were provided with a personalized physical activity plan and a pedometer to track their steps. Participants met every five weeks as a group during the first six months of the study, and then one more time after that. They discussed health education and problem-solving to keep them motivated. 

The health education sessions included videos in which role models shared their experiences, covering topics such as how to overcome environmental and safety barriers to physical activity. “Our participants have unique challenges that face many women in urban settings,” Wilbur says. “Street violence is a major issue for some of our participants.

“Our participants also worked and managed households,” Wilbur adds. “Fitting in exercise or physical activity was another major challenge.”

Taking additional steps towards health

Each woman in the study reported their own individual daily steps through an automated telephone system, which then generated a report to help develop an updated, personal plan for increasing steps. Each woman then reviewed her own plan with her group leader at the next group meeting.

The study found that group meetings alone were an effective intervention for increasing physical activity and preventing weight gain among the participants. It also found that telephone support in between group meetings helps promote physical activity for some women.

“Group meeting formats for increasing physical activity adherence and preventing weight gain in African-American women may be ready for translation and implementation testing in clinical practice,” Wilbur says.