Research Seeks Factors that Keep Mexican-American Adolescents Active

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By Katrina Burton, MD Anderson Staff Writer

At an early age, children are naturally physically active, full of energy and often find joy in running and jumping in an unstructured environment. However, as children transition to adolescence, physical activity levels tend to decline, particularly among girls. This is also a time when excess weight gain often occurs.

Physical inactivity and obesity are important risk factors for a variety of cancers, and behaviors developed during adolescence can persist into adulthood. Identifying factors that contribute to physical activity during this critical stage of development may help future efforts to promote continued activity among adolescents. Mexican-American adolescents exhibit an increased prevalence of obesity compared to other adolescent populations.

So what are the factors that influence physical activity and sedentary behaviors in Mexican-American adolescents? Researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center's Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences are studying social, cultural and environmental factors that are believed to be important in answering this question.

Larkin Strong, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Health Disparities Research at MD Anderson, and the Mentored Junior Faculty Fellow for the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment, leads this research.

Strong analyzes data collected from Mexican-American adolescents and their parents recruited from MD Anderson's MATCh (Mexican-American Tobacco Use in Children) study. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, MATCh was one of the first studies performed in conjunction with MD Anderson's Mano-a- Mano Cohort Study - the largest population-based health study of individuals of Mexican origin living in Harris County, Texas.

Cultural differences may play a role in the adaptation and importance of physical activity.  In the sample studied, 75% of adolescents were born in the U.S., yet 85% of the parents were born in Mexico. The data collected from the sample population gives Strong an opportunity to examine how neighborhood, interpersonal and individual characteristics may influence physical activity in Mexican-American adolescents.

"Very few studies have looked at multi-level factors simultaneously, particularly in minority or underserved populations," said Strong. "Our approach is unique because we are studying the relative influence of factors at different levels as well as how these factors may interact. We hope that our results will provide insight into the pathways through which a multitude of factors influence behaviors."

Some of the factors examined include objective measures of the adolescents' neighborhoods, such as proximity to parks and recreation centers; adolescents' perceptions of their neighborhoods; and the extent of support from family or friends to be active.

"Some neighborhoods may not offer resources for physical activity," said Strong. "Also parents may not have the means or opportunity to provide the support that may be needed to ensure that their children are physically active."

Although there is growing evidence that the environments people live in contribute to their level of physical activity, there is not much research showing how factors across levels may be related.

The more we understand how social and physical environments may influence important behaviors related to physical activity, the better we are able to design effective programs to address these factors and increase physical activity, ultimately making a real impact on communities.

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