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magazine home > archives > winter 2005 > features

In the face of troubling figures on obesity and diabetes rates among the Memphis populace, University of Memphis professors are spearheading programs that prescribe numerous ways to improve the community's health.

Health Matters
by Jamie Peters

The band launches into a song, and the crowd moves to the beat as if this Friday morning has been hijacked by Friday night.


At the Healthy Memphis kickoff walk last October U of M professor Dr. Barbara McClanahan and several University students handed out an estimated 800 pedometers to attendees.

Call it a visual manifestation of cause and effect, a transaction of kinetic energy, or just simply a case of a song doing its job: The musicians play their instruments, and the audience dances. And it's only 8:30 a.m.

At the Peabody Place Entertainment and Retail Center in downtown Memphis, the band jumpstarts the H-ealthy Memphis initiative, and hundreds have put on their walking shoes for the Friday morning event in October. Nothing gets the blood flowing like an infectious song, and everyone here is ready to raise their heart rate by participating in a walk over several city blocks that will signal the start of Healthy Memphis, a 16-month effort by The Commercial Appeal and News Channel 3 to improve the health of the city's population.

Watching from the second floor, students from the fourth and fifth grade classes of Downtown Elementary School stand at the railing, leaning into the beats propelled by the drummer of a band from the first floor.

The song is a cover of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," and it would be tough to find a more fitting soundtrack for a field trip than one with the chorus, "Celebrate good times, come on!"

But fourth-grade teacher Tara Broadnax hopes this moment has a bearing on her students' lives that extends beyond three minutes of catchy choruses.

The 180 students from the school - a sea of red in their school shirts - are going to walk, too. After all, you've got to do something like this when video games - an industry whose revenues are surging ahead of Hollywood box-office receipts - hold many in their sway for hours at a time. "They really don't get a chance to exercise a lot with Xboxes," says Broadnax.

Taking students to the event might be a small step, but it certainly is a meaningful one, especially when statistics and media reports suggest a city in need of getting off the couch.

As a diverse number of area organizations are making a concerted effort to trim the city's collective waistline, University of Memphis professors are playing important roles in helping whip Memphis into better shape.

Battle of the bulge

Several U of M faculty members are participating in the Healthy Memphis Common Table ( ), a coalition consisting of members from various community organizations and businesses that has publicly stated its "big audacious goal" of reversing the growing trends of higher diabetes and obesity rates in Shelby County by 2008.

It's a tall order to fill. According to the most recent statistics presented in a Common Table report, the percentage of obese adults in Shelby County weighed in at 27.5 percent of the population in 2002, compared with about 24.5 percent for Tennessee and 22 percent for the United States. In Shelby County 9.1 percent of adults had diabetes, versus 8.5 percent in Tennessee.

And then there's the negative media image of Memphis as an incubator for a sedentary populace that gorges on barbecue and shuns anything green. In 2002 Self magazine named Memphis the unhealthiest city for women. Lest one think the media was favoring one sex over the other, Men's Health magazine named the River City the unhealthiest place for men in 2003.

Things aren't looking too good for the city's youth either. According to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey in Memphis, about 41 percent of respondents in grades nine through 12 said they did not engage in a significant amount of physical activity compared with the United States average of 33 percent. Nearly 15 percent said they ate an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, versus 22 percent of students nationally. The survey, which was funded by a grant from the United States Centers for Disease Control, was administered in 2003 and polled 1,729 students in Memphis City Schools.

Cut through the numbers and what does this all say?

Dr. Ken Ward, interim director of the Center for Community Health at the U of M, summed it up in eight words during a University colloquium in October: "We have substantial health problems in our community."

Walk this way

Motivating people to take a proactive role in improving their lifestyles requires results-driven programs that draw people, rather than scare them away. U of M professors are seizing that approach as they develop innovative programs to encourage Memphians to walk more and stop smoking. They also are helping area businesses invest in the health of their employees through cost-effective means and promoting the lifelong benefits of parents reading to their children at an early age.

"A university connection is very critical to the parameters that the Memphis Healthy Common Table has set out for itself," says Christie Travis, chair of the organization and chief executive of the Memphis Business Group on Health. It's important that all initiatives are evidence-based rather than anecdotal or gut-driven, Travis says. And professors possess the skills and discipline to ensure that each strategy is shaped by quantitative rigor.

In many cases, these efforts directed at achieving similar goals intertwine without cannibalizing one another. For instance, Healthy Memphis crosses paths with Walking in Memphis, the local branch of the America on the Move program established last year by Dr. Barbara McClanahan, assistant professor of Health and Sport Sciences at the U of M. "A lot of times people are overwhelmed when we give some large prescriptions for exercise and diet," she says.

Walking in Memphis is different, asserts McClanahan, who also helped hand out an estimated 700 to 800 pedometers to the walkers at the Healthy Memphis event. "What we're trying to do is promote something that all people can accomplish. Everybody can make small changes," she says. "Everybody can take small steps."

The program, which represents the local branch of Tennessee on the Move, plans to hire a coordinator who will report to McClanahan.

Under Walking in Memphis, individuals or groups join the fitness effort by signing up at and entering registration code RWA2688. Each person sets her own goals, gauging progress through minutes or steps walked.

Healthier employees = fatter bottom line?

Question: How are time-starved employees supposed to squeeze in an exercise routine when their long days are jammed with meetings, appointments and deadlines?

Answer: The business case work group of Healthy Memphis is honing in on the many solutions, but the trick is to identify the right ones.

The group is gathering information on employee health and fitness programs of businesses across the country to help identify the equations for success in Memphis. But the organization isn't just looking at corporations. It's also eyeing schools, churches and government offices. The key is finding specially tailored models for each type of organization.

"We're looking at specific tipping points that caused the organization to get involved in a health-promotion program, and then we'll try to put some of that data together and start to work with various organizations," says Dr. Camille Barsukiewicz, associate professor and interim director of the Division of Health Administration in the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. "We'll basically ask them, 'Here's the evidence of what we see in other parts of the country. Have you thought about it? If you have, what made you not do anything? If you haven't even thought about it, can we motivate you to do something about it?'"

Potential barriers, however, include the size of the organization and whether it can afford the required investment.

"Internal cultural barriers and socioeconomic status barriers" also pose a challenge, Barsukiewicz says. "It's very easy to encourage someone to walk everyday," she continues. "But if they live in a neighborhood that's not conducive to walking, you're not going to encourage someone to walk in a dangerous neighborhood."

Dr. Cyril Chang, professor of economics, has developed models to aid the business group in its research pursuits. Chang believes "that health promotion and disease prevention are low-hanging fruits that ought to be picked first because they are the most cost-effective way of improving the health of a population."

Prevention tactics are the backbone of the Common Table's strategies. The organization's screening group is developing specific screening tools to gauge Body Mass Index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on height and weight. The group is targeting three different channels - the public, physicians and health fairs. "We want to make people aware of what risks their weight gives them," says Dr. Linda Clemens, professor in the Department of Health and Sport Sciences (BS '84, MS '85, EdD '94).

Dr. Ken Ward is overseeing a clinical trial that aims to improve community-based approaches to helping people quit smoking.

Igniting a smokeout

The U of M also continues to undertake a number of efforts designed to extinguish smoking among the Memphis populace. One large-scale current program is a clinical trial to improve community-based approaches to aid people in stamping out their smoking habits. The Center for Community Health received a four-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2004 to initiate the project, which is headed by Ken Ward, associate professor in the Department of Health and Sport Sciences. "We need to develop better ways to help people quit," Ward says.

And he hopes this initiative, which is based on promising studies at other universities that report an effective link between quitting smoking and adopting mood-enhancing exercise routines, will be a step in the right direction.

The approach, which is called the "Lifestyle Enhancement Program (LEAP)," assigns people ages 18 to 65 to a health educator who devotes a year to helping them quit smoking and make lifestyle changes, according to Ward. The participants engage in behavioral smoking cessation counseling and receive free nicotine patches.

The participants also receive one of two types of intervention - physical activity or general wellness. The first one consists of a free one-year YMCA membership and personal training. The second entails one-on-one sessions with a health educator to modify factors that shape wellness such as diet and social support.

Before James Joyce, how about Dr. Seuss?

Somewhere between the 11 a.m. children's fashion parade and the 2 p.m. maternity fashion show, hundreds of expectant mothers and their husbands and boyfriends mill about the Mid-South Baby Expo at the Memphis Agricenter in search of child-rearing tidbits ranging from good pediatricians and consumer goods that include Tupperware and Protect-A-Child Pool Fences.

Just two aisles down from where a father bides his time by pushing a stroller and licking an ice cream cone (from a booth that serves only one other item: pickles), several students from the U of M Loewenberg School of Nursing hand out growth charts to the attendees during the September event. The chart unfolds to a length of nearly four feet to reveal ruler markings that run up its side as well as pastel-colored illustrations and recommended books for children of various ages. The effort, in its second year, is part of the U of M's program to encourage parents to read to their children more often. The nursing students also discuss the U of M's outreach program to provide new mothers at local hospitals with reading materials to promote literacy. Dr. Nancy Mele, assistant professor of nursing, oversees that effort.

  Nursing students and professor

At the Mid-South Baby Expo last September, the Loewenberg School of Nursing promoted its program that encourages parents to read to their children on a regular basis. Back row, left to right: nursing student Melissa Whalen, Dr. Nancy Mele, assistant professor of nursing, and nursing student Mary Boggan. Front row, left to right: nursing students Olive Atieno and Lisa Beasley.

"Nursing is not only concerned with assessment or let's start this IV or what you feed your baby," says Dr. Tommie Norris (BSN '85), assistant professor, who organized the Loewenberg booth at the event. "They're also concerned with developmental milestones and helping children reach those. Looking at children holistically, part of that is their ability to read, their ability to [reach] certain milestones they should be at for certain ages."

At the expo, nursing student Melissa Whalen hands a young girl, who appears to be about 5 years old, a growth chart. The cartoon drawings of a duck, a cow and goofy monster hold the girl's gaze.

The current college student's offering to a potential, future university student might seem like a small gesture. But encoded in the handoff of the chart is an important message: literacy leads to knowledge. And professors throughout numerous departments of the U of M are hoping that their efforts will help younger generations become more sharply attuned to what it takes to lead healthy lives.


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