Kinesiology students address resources, health problem areas in Pennsylvania

It’s good in theory: eat right and exercise for a healthy life. But living in a way conducive to this lifestyle can be a challenge for many, due to limited resources where they live. While there is no single prescription to find a balance, kinesiology students at Penn State have placed action plans into the hands of community leaders throughout Pennsylvania to start bridging the gap.

Why resources matter

Residents’ access to healthy resources — such as farmers markets and public parks — vary across the state. In turn, so do their health issues and concerns.

“It’s important for students to understand that not everyone has the same resources to be active and healthy,” said Melissa Bopp, associate professor of kinesiology.

Bopp introduced students to the American Fitness Index (AFI), which is managed by the American College of Sports Medicine. The AFI measures the 50 most populous metropolitan areas in the United States and provides scores and rankings reflecting a composite of preventive health behaviors, levels of chronic disease conditions, health care access, and community resources and policies that support physical activity. The report also includes benchmarks for each data indicator to highlight areas that need improvement.

Rather than just study the AFI, Bopp challenged students to reach out to cities in Pennsylvania to explore how planning and goal setting can be used to improve the health of residents in their communities.

Bringing national projects to the classroom

In Bopp’s class, "Physical Activity and Public Health" (KINES 426), students applied the AFI to Allentown, Scranton, Erie, York, Lancaster, State College and Reading.

First, students brainstormed what they wanted to know about the communities, such as social norms and current health issues.

They came up with a question guide and interviewed a “key informant,” a real community leader, in each of the cities.

Input from community advocacy leaders added some interesting information to the project, Bopp said.

“We had done the AFI project before, but never with the informants,” Bopp said. “I feel like the students had such a greater connection to the community because they talked with these key people.”

In order to evaluate communities, students scored multiple variables in the community. They looked at health behaviors, such as smoking or being physically active. They also reviewed chronic health problems, such as residents with diabetes.

In addition to the population, students evaluated the community, looking at access to facilities, such as playgrounds or swimming pools and people’s proximity to parks. They also examined a community’s access to primary care.

Once the evaluation was completed, students scored each city, comparing them to the national targets. Then they wrote a letter to the community informant. The letters contained goals and areas of strength and weakness in the city, and a community action guide to be used as a planning tool to improve underachieving areas.

A look at York

In York, for example, students suggested more walking and bike paths to promote physical activity and a public media campaign to promote the benefits of fruits and vegetables.

York performed worse than both the state and the nation in the following categories: percentage of people meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s physical activity recommendations, percentage of people eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables, percentage of people without health insurance, and percentage of people classified as obese.

York ranked in between the state and country in percentage of people currently smoking, poor physical and poor mental health in the past 30 days, and percentage of people with diabetes, according to the project.

Finally, York proved to be more successful than both the state and nation in percentage of people participating in no leisure time physical activity, median intake of vegetables, and percentage of people in good or excellent health.

Students found it was unusual that York was lower in percentage of people meeting physical activity requirements but also ranked higher in percentage of people with no leisure time physical activity. They also found that even though the percentage of people eating five or more fruits and vegetables was low, the median intake of vegetables was higher than both the state and the nation.

“The students learned how the environment and surroundings can drive physical activity and behavior,” Bopp said.

A surprising result for Reading

Katie Dutt, a senior kinesiology major, worked on the project for Reading. What she found surprised her: One of the city’s main goals wasn’t health and fitness; it was getting kids off the street.

“I did a lot of collecting the data needed for the AFI, like demographics and number of fitness centers,” Dutt said. “Once our class collected the health markers for each of our cities, we did data comparisons and compared each health marker to two peer cities and determined if our city was better, worse or the same as our peer cities.”

With this, Dutt and her team took the numbers they had for Reading and compared them to the national and Pennsylvania averages.

“I also interviewed our key informant, who was a local bike advocate,” Dutt said. “I got to ask him some more personal questions about how he felt the culture of Reading affected their health and wellness.”

Dutt said the interview was where she learned the most about the lack of health care and education available for citizens.

“I loved interviewing the key informant,” she said. “I was so surprised at what he told me about his goals in the community, which was to get kids off the street and out of trouble. This told me that health and fitness wasn't the number one priority there; it was reducing crime and poverty.”

“This project is important because it gives students real case studies to analyze,” Dutt continued. “I feel like what I learned in Melissa's class about improving infrastructure, health programs and chronic disease, can be applied in other settings.”

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Last Updated February 22, 2016