From Hip-Hop to Salsa: Battling Obesity Grassroots Style

When UCLA public health researchers went looking for ways to increase physical activity in some of the nation's inner-city, minority neighborhoods, they only had to look inside those neighborhoods to find answers: Younger African-American people liked to dance to hip-hop. In Latino neighborhoods, salsa was the music of choice. And in some Appalachian communities, fancy footwork referred to as "talking dance" got people up and moving.

That attention to detail—respecting a community's preferences, cultures and leaders—has earned the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health a $20 million federal grant to implement a nationwide anti-obesity campaign in urban areas across the country. With the grant, the school's largest ever, the program will apply two decades of research on ways to curb obesity in minority communities through physical activity and improved nutrition.

Reducing the nation's obesity rate is one of the nation's top public health goals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one-third of Americans are obese, but the rates are even higher in many ethnic, urban neighborhoods.

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The UCLA project, a partnership with several hundred community-based organizations, could reach several million Americans who live in inner-city urban areas. Community leaders will be in charge of applying the program—which comes with a tool kit of materials as well as money to hire staff—offering it in such grassroots settings as churches, schools, clubs, clinics and workplaces. The key elements of the tool kit are CDs and DVDs featuring short dance and sports-themed exercises called Instant Recess.

"What we have found is this works better if you make it culturally sensitive," Roshan Bastani, the coleader of the project, told TakePart. "If the program is offered in an African-American church, for example, the music would be different, the moves different, from a Korean community."

Community leaders have added their opinions about what types of music and movements would spark people to start moving.

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"The people featured on the CDs and DVDs are from the community," says Bastani, a professor of health policy and management at the Fielding School and a codirector of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity. "They make suggestions and we provide the parameters on things like what muscles to use and how to make sure the exercise is safe."

Implementing fun programs that people actually enjoy is only one of the lessons that researchers, including Bastani's co-project leader, Dr. Antronette Yancey, have learned during many years studying obesity in minority communities. Two other keys to the program are focusing on groups instead of individuals, and on targeting "captive" audiences.

For example, Bastani says, the program will bring nutrition education and physical activity to places where people naturally gather, such as senior centers or work settings.

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The idea, she says, "is to not expect an individual to engage in physical activity and eat healthy on their own. People are taxed. People are busy. The idea is 'healthy by default.' What that means is you would have to work hard to opt out of the healthy options."

For example, organizations and clubs that adopt the program would only serve healthy choices like water and fruit at meetings or receptions or soccer matches—not cookies and sodas. In meetings or gatherings that last longer than 90 minutes, there would be a 10-minute physical activity break. The Instant Recess segments are 10 minutes long.

Research performed by Yancey and her colleagues shows that people like these group exercise breaks. Employers who have taken on the program find value in the concept, too.

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"Organizations are allowing this to happen on work time because they find if people get together and move around and act silly it relieves stress," Bastani says. "It helps you concentrate when you go back to your desk. It helps people who are sedentary believe this is not so hard."

Instant Recess segments and materials focus on various age groups, from small children to seniors. But the UCLA team says workplaces may be the most natural fit for the program.

"We spend most of our waking hours at work," Bastani says. "That's where we sit around. That's an opportunity to encourage healthy nutrition and physical activity. "

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The five-year program will be funded by a grant from the CDC as part of the agency's Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health initiative. The grant proves that the federal government believes the program, backed by many years of research, is now ready for prime time, Bastani says.

"This is based on [Yancey's] idea from 20 years ago on the importance of nutrition and physical activity for health and disease prevention," she says. "Over the years we've put together modification and enhancements based on experiences from the field. What  good are these findings if they sit in journals?"

Would you participate in short physical-activity breaks at work, school or other events? Let us know in the comments.

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Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.