Thursday, February 18, 2010

New measurement may answer a health paradox

Which group do you think would come closest to meeting national physical activity health goals of at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week, or 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three days a week: Whites, blacks or Mexican-Americans?

New research measuring physical activity with electronic devices, instead of the standard survey-based approaches usually used, has found that 27 percent of Mexican-Americans reach those physical activity goals, compared with 20 percent of whites and 15 percent of blacks. This is somewhat different than self-reported surveys, which have found that 36 percent of whites, and 25 percent of blacks and Mexican-Americans reach those goals. Findings are based on data from 10,000 people who underwent extensive health interviews, and were fitted with accelerometers to measure their physical activity levels on a typical day.

While those overall figures may seem low, they may also provide an answer to a long pondered health paradox: Why Mexican-American populations are healthier than their socio-economic status would indicate. It has long been known that poor Mexican-American populations are healthier than equally poor populations of other races or ethnicities, and that in many cases poorer Mexican American populations are healthier as a group than wealthier populations from other groups. Based on these new findings, exercise may be responsible for this “Mexican-American health paradox.”

In a further twist off irony, much of the increase in physical activity among Mexican-Americans came from their work: Compared to whites and blacks they are more likely to be employed in positions of manual labor. Could it be that these low-status, generally undesirable jobs are helping keep them healthier than many of their social counterparts?

This study also underscores the importance of accurate measurement, using suitable technology where possible, when attempting to understand health behaviors and social realities. Previously I’ve mentioned the innovative use of the iPhone for gathering such data. What other promising technologies exist to help us better understand healthy behavior?

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