In addition to setting goals to fall in love, get out of a relationship, buy a home or find a new job, for many of us New Year’s Resolutions will include a goal to lose weight. For African-American women, losing weight is not just an annual goal, but a matter of life and death as weight plays a role in many chronic diseases that affect this community at alarming rates.
As an African-American nurse researcher and mother of three boys and one daughter, I’ve spent the last 15 years working with families in Chicago to develop a program for African-American mothers and daughters to help each other to manage their weight. I have seen firsthand what problems exist and I have also helped to foster solutions.
I was raised by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago as a child, and then spent my teen years on the West Side.
Both neighborhoods have been written off by many in Chicago, around the country and repeatedly by President Donald Trump as low-income communities plagued with violence.
As an adult I started working as a nurse on the West Side and met both community residents who felt the need to leave the area in order to find a healthcare provider as well as healthcare professionals who would never consider working in the community. As a result, I decided to leave the hospital and work at a community-based organization, Westside Health Authority. That experience changed how I viewed healthcare and taught me to encourage and offer ways that the residents could improve their own health.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that 82 percent of African-American women are overweight or obese as compared to 64 percent of non-Hispanic white women. Weight contributes to other health concerns; more than half, or 53 percent of African-American women have uncontrolled high blood pressure.
The leading causes of death of African-American women ages 55 to 64 years old are cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Heart disease and diabetes claim 27 percent of these women’s lives. Nineteen percent of non-Hispanic white women of the same age group have these diseases.
While weight is a life or death issue for African-American women, it is also a significant health problem for African-American girls.
During childhood, African -American girls have similar rates of overweight and obesity to those of other races. But beginning in adolescence, there is a disparate increase in rates of obesity for African-American adolescent girls. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 37 percent of African American girls age 6 to 11 years old are are overweight or obese.
The problem increases as many get older. Nearly half, or 43 percent of African American girls ages 12 to 19 years old are overweight or obese. This compares to 31 percent of non-Hispanic white girls.
For years, research has shown that overweight and obese children and adolescents are at greater risk for obesity-related diseases associated with a high rate of mortality in adulthood. The problem needs to be addressed in a way that inspires kids to choose a different way of behaving.
My own research shows having African American mothers and daughters work together to prevent obesity is a sustainable way to address this problem.
So I decided to make this my professional priority.
Black Girls Move initially funded by BMO Harris and Rush University, a free, six-session, in-person prevention program for African-American mothers and their adolescent daughters. The goal was to help each other find culturally relevant, affordable and realistic ways to eat more fruits and vegetables and to take more daily steps. And it worked.
Seven African-American mothers and their eight daughters engaged in a prototype of the program and were given a Fitbit Charge HR to monitor steps. Ninety-six percent of mothers and 86 percent of daughters said that the sessions exceeded their expectations and they enjoyed being a part of the program.
Black Girls Move represents a commitment to programs that bridge the gap between the knowledge of healthcare professionals and realities of living in low-income communities.
It allows young girls– like my daughter –access to programs in their communities designed uniquely for them and their mothers to decrease their risk of poor health outcomes.
In our latest study 48 mother and daughter participants said a program based in a community setting for mothers and daughters together was the best way to keep each other motivated. According to one mother that helped develop the program, “If I could see that if I started implementing exercise and my child came on board, that would motivate me to continue.”
One daughter reported, “It’s like when you’re cooking with your mom, you develop a bond. It’s like you’re both trying to come up with something that you both want to eat so it’s like you agree.”
Free resources were used during the sessions so they could be accessed after the program. Resources included the USDA MyPlate program to help identify healthy foods and portion sizes and the American Heart Association walking program to increase steps in daily activity. The prevention program also suggests decreasing sugary beverage and soda consumption and offers benefits and strategies to overcome barriers to physical activity.
Black Girls Move also provides activity trackers to help track number of steps, heart rates and calories burned per day. Participants have access to easy, affordable, on-the-go breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack ideas. Many of the course materials are available BlackGirlsMove.org
The feedback results show that Black Girls Move builds on the relationship, love and trust of a mother and daughter to teach them how to identify and overcome barriers and build on each other’s strengths. These skills transcend weight loss and aim to help them problem solving, communicate and improve overall family dynamics.
The goal is with additional funding to expand Black Girls Move into low-income African American communities in Chicago and beyond.
Recent movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter highlight the gender and racial inequities at play every day in the lives of millions of women and millions of African-Americans. Yet, despite these inequities, African American mothers and daughters thrive. Calling on a rich history and strength that has helped them through a legacy of challenges, Black Girls Move is an acknowledgement of the power of Black mothers and daughters to create a movement for themselves to live healthier lives.
I still seem to live in two realities: one where many of my friends and family find it difficult to find time to eat healthy or exercise, and the other where my colleagues are committed to make eating healthy and exercising a part of their daily lifestyle. I try to make healthy living a part of my eight-year-old daughter’s experience by modeling healthy eating for her. Yet we still go home each night to a community where I feel its unsafe to exercise on the neighborhood track.
I am one of millions who will make a list of New Year’s resolutions we may or may not follow.
Yet programs like #BlackGirlsMove can make resolutions a reality by calling upon the power of relationships and support and access to information to change the narrative of health and wellness for millions of black women and girls in the New Year and for the rest of their lives.
Monique Reed, PhD, RN, is an Assistant Professor in Community, Systems and Mental Health Nursing at Rush University Medical Center, BMO Health Disparities Fellow and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. @fruitnveggie