It’s 9 a.m. on a Friday and 65-year-old Lydia Ortiz has traveled from El Segundo to North Long Beach to get her Zumba on with her friends at the Houghton Park Community Recreation Center.
“I’m so happy and blessed to see all these people trying to help us,” Ortiz says. “When I see the people screaming, jumping and dancing, it motivates me, and that’s what we need.”
The people Ortiz is referring to is a team of California State University, Long Beach professors and students who are providing a free fitness and nutrition program for underserved adults in the community called the Beach Community Wellness Program (BCWP). This includes an hour of fitness, like circuit training, yoga or kickboxing, followed by an hour of nutrition instruction.
BCWP began in the spring of 2014 as a collaboration with the City of Long Beach’s Department of Health and Human Services. Funded by two grants from the Miller Foundation totaling $140,000, the aim of the program is to provide health and fitness classes for adults in the community. Kinesiology Associate Professor Christine Galvan, who is the founder and co-director of the program, says they chose Houghton Park as the site of the program because the area is home to a large population of underserved Latino and African Americans who, historically, have the highest rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
“In many cases, members of these populations lack education about what it takes to be physically fit or they might not have a safe place to participate in physical activity which deters them from going outside,” Galvan explains. Lack of financial resources also limits access to gyms or healthy foods.
To gauge community interest in health classes, Galvan launched a five-week pilot program shortly after meeting with the City. When 20 people showed up on the first day of classes and 20 to 30 continued to show up for the rest of the program, she knew they were on the right track.
After completing the pilot, Galvan enlisted Ayla Donlin, who heads up CSULB’s LifeFit Center, to co-direct the program, and they surveyed community members to find out what other health services they wanted. When participants asked for more information on how to eat healthier, Galvan and Donlin reached out to the Nutrition department and found Professor Virginia Gray. Early this year, armed with a slew of undergraduate and graduate students in Kinesiology and Nutrition, the directors launched a 10-week program that combined exercise with fieldtrips to grocery stores and classes on how to prepare vegetables for meals.
“The more we were available to the community members and asking them what they need from us, they began to open up,” Galvan said. “It’s to the point now where we’re almost like social workers, and they ask us where to get dental appointments.”
Galvan has her sights set on additional campus collaborators to meet more community needs – from Child and Family Services students who can put on a program for toddlers who accompany their mothers to classes to Social Work students who can help give access to other services. This semester, nursing students will provide free services and a health fair.
In its first year, the program saw 79 participants, but the largest class at any one time was about 35 people, says Donlin. They hope to get 100 people by the end of this academic year, with regular attendance of about 50. Student involvement, she says, is key.
“One of the biggest pieces of the program is the reciprocity between the students and the community members,” says Donlin. “Students are getting to put into practice what they’re learning in the classroom and the community members are benefiting from free fitness and nutrition services.”
Third year Exercise Science major Jordan Valuyot has been helping with the program for the past two semesters. He says he’s learned to examine the heart behind every action.“When I ask people why they come to the program, they’ll say it’s because they want to lose weight. But when I keep asking why, they’ll finally say that it’s because they want to attend their daughter’s graduation or other significant event,” Valuyot explains. “They realize there’s a deeper meaning to all of this. It’s not just about losing weight. It’s for the family and friends around them. That’s also what I found out for myself and what drives me to want to be here.”
Kinesiology student Alberto Fernandez and graduate student Mariza Velasquez have also been participating in the program for several semesters. They are helping to teach classes and train other students. Mariza is creating a fitness and nutrition manual for the program. Both students say helping the community and giving back to the city is their plan for the future. So at the end of the last session of the year in Spring 2015, when participants begged them not to go on break, they volunteered to continue doing a short session in the summer months.
With each session, faculty members are collecting data to assess the success of the program in order to optimize learning for both community members and students. So far, data findings highlight some of the positive program effects. Results from the Spring 2015 session showed a 75 percent improvement in upper and lower body strength, and an average improvement of 17 percent in body weight.
Ortiz says she’s eager to learn how to eat better, and that she specifically told her husband not to deter her from going to class. “Now that we are old, this is something different to do instead of staying home, watching TV and sleeping,” she says. “I feel grateful they are motivating us to do exercise.”
Obesity is one of the most common public health issues in the United States. More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese leading to serious health risks and medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But beyond obesity-related conditions like heart disease and diabetes, what other day-to-day health risks are involved with obesity? That is the question Banafsheh Behzad, assistant professor of Information Systems, asked as a PhD student in Industrial Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne.
“I like to use mathematical approaches to do practical things,” said Behzad, who set out to find if there was a relationship between obesity and seatbelt use.
Behzad hypothesized that because of comfort issues, obese people might not wear their seatbelts as often. She gathered data from 2006-2011 regarding obesity levels, seatbelt usage and seatbelt laws in each state of the U.S.
While compiling data, Behzad learned that there are two types of seatbelt laws in the United States. Primary seatbelt laws allow law enforcement to pull people over if they are not wearing a seatbelt. Secondary seatbelt laws require a traffic violation to have occurred in order for law enforcement to issue a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt.
Through her research, Behzad found that there is a positive relationship between obesity and seatbelt usage – the more obese people are, the less likely they are to use a seatbelt. However, the relationship is dependent on the law of the state. If the state has a primary seatbelt law, then the relationship becomes weaker, meaning that in states where seatbelt use is required by law, obese people will wear their seatbelts more often to avoid citation. In states where only secondary seatbelt laws are in place, obese people take more chances.
Currently, sixteen states still don’t have primary seatbelt laws. Behzad, who published these results in the Journal of Public Health, says she hopes her paper can be a recommendation to law enforcement to help save lives.
“If people are taking advantage of not having that law, it could be enacted so that more people wear seatbelts,” she said.