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Better health through Bollywood dance

Better health through Bollywood dance

A cultural tradition may be the key to combating obesity in Asian Indian teen girls

By Zoë Fisher (’17)

Technology can sometimes distract teenagers from getting physical activity, but it can also be used to enhance it. Products and apps like Fit-Bit, Nike Running App and MyPlate aid in tracking health, and tech products are becoming increasingly involved in weight management. For Niehoff School of Nursing assistant professor Annie Thomas, PhD, RN, technology has also proven effective in monitoring obesity in Asian Indian female adolescents.

Thomas chose this specific population for several reasons. As a member of the Asian Indian community, she observed obesity among adolescents first-hand. Data also shows that one in five U.S. children is the child of an immigrant, and many of these children are at high risk of becoming overweight or obese. This is often due to cultural factors, Thomas says, such as parents emphasizing studying over exercise or diet.

In 2013, Thomas collected data from 20 female participants ages 14 to 18. She recruited them from her local church, St. Thomas Mar Thoma in Lombard, Illinois, and tracked their health behaviors for seven days.

Thomas’ research used an accelerometer and the web-based app SuperTracker to monitor the participants’ calorie intake and daily exercise. She found SuperTracker to be the most helpful diet monitoring website because of its incorporation of culturally-specific food. The website also provides physical activity suggestions and detailed nutritional information.

Thomas also addresses the concerns of Asian Indian parents about their children focusing on academics. Physical activity helps the mind, spirit, and body, she says, because exercise can lead to physical and academic benefits. A 2009 University of North Texas study found that students who had a healthier cardiovascular system did better in subjects like math and reading.

The next step for Thomas is intervention. “Physical activity is a medicine,” she says—and it should be culturally specific. After receiving $2,500 in grant funds from both the American Nursing Association and the Palmer Grant Program, Thomas is creating a program that uses Bollywood dancing to increase physical activity among female adolescents.

While activities like Zumba or just working out at a gym can be expensive or unappealing to teens, Thomas says Bollywood dancing is inexpensive, culturally appropriate, and can be done with a group—making it appealing to young Indian girls. And getting teenagers to pick an activity they enjoy is often the most important component in getting them to stick with a healthy lifestyle.

“Anything they do, they need motivation. If they’re not motivated it’s not going to happen,” Thomas says.