Science & Research

Study explores culture, physical activity

Ethnic identification with physical activity may lead to increased engagement, lower obesity in children

By
Science & Research Editor
Thursday, January 22, 2015

While people cite numerous reasons for their lack of exercise, cultural beliefs may need to be added to the list. Whether a certain physical activity is associated more with a certain race could affect how often various ethnic groups engage in the activity, according to new work done by University researchers.

Black adolescents were asked to rate 42 physical activities as “mostly a black thing,” “mostly a white thing,” or “equally a black and white thing” in the experiment, which was conducted by behavioral and social scientists at the Alpert Medical School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The researchers examined if any of the activities — including basketball, ballet and yoga — elicited a racial identification from the adolescents, according to the paper, which will appear in the March edition of the American Journal of Health Behavior and is currently available online.

Most of the activities were rated as “equally a black and white thing,” while 10 of them, including Frisbee and ice skating, were rated as “mostly a white thing,” according to the study. None of the activities were considered “mostly a black thing” by a majority of the participants.

The researchers then analyzed the data for links between racial perception of physical activities and the participants’ health. They found that participants who responded most often with “mostly a black thing” engaged in the most physical activity and were less likely to be overweight or obese.

“The idea is that if they identify with the activity, they would be more likely to engage with it,” said Herpreet Thind, a postdoctoral fellow at the Miriam Hospital and the lead author of the paper.

Studying links between culture and exercise is “important and timely” given rates of obesity and other diseases among blacks, said Louis Graham, assistant professor of community health education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who was not involved with the study. These health-related issues are especially understudied in adolescents, he added.

Culture is an inherently difficult phenomenon to study due to its complexity and “multidimensionality,” Graham said. “I think that’s where the major challenge is with this study,” he said, adding that the authors gave an appropriate rationale for their measure despite the difficulty of scientifically studying culture.

The adolescents’ exercise behavior was tracked using both a self-reported survey and accelerometers, which the participants wore continuously for seven days. The accelerometers were strapped around the participants’ torsos and could record times of moderate to rigorous physical activity.

Though the data exhibits trends of correlations between racial association with activities and rates of physical exercise, none of the results were statistically significant, Thind said. This substantial limitation could have arisen for a variety of reasons, including an incomplete list of activities, she added.

Extending this type of study to a variety of ethnic groups and geographic regions could provide a more thorough understanding of the interplay between race and exercise, Thind said. The data for this project were collected from black adolescents in Alabama, which is a small subsection of the U.S. population.

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