Fighting the past for a more active future

Runners sweating on the treadmills, weight lifters pumping iron, a general aura of sweat and activity: these are a usual part of the workout scene at Foster Recreation Center. But as assistant professor of kinesiology Dr. Amanda Perkins scanned the room during her workout, she noticed something else – she was the only African American woman in the room.

To Perkins, this wasn’t a surprise. She has spent much of her career analyzing underrepresented populations, such as African Americans and the elderly, in the areas of exercise and sports psychology.

“African American women are one of the least active segments of the population,” Perkins said. “In Springfield and on campus, we have a small African American population, so I want to know if they exercise, if they use the recreational facilities on campus and their perceptions about exercise and campus climate.”

Her experience at the Rec Center inspired her to begin researching exercise trends among female African American students at Missouri State with the ultimate goal of developing a new physical activity program designed to revolutionize exercise trends at Missouri State.

Dr. Perkins talks with two students on the basketball court inside Foster Recreation Center

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Researching the underrepresented

Perkins’ research into minority groups indicates that a population’s overall trend of activity exists due to a complex variety of external factors – such as community, education and environment – as well as internal factors. Her research into these factors helps her to understand the best methods for improving exercise trends for different groups of people.

“In kinesiology, we prescribe exercise just like a doctor proscribes medicine.”

“In kinesiology, we prescribe exercise just like a doctor proscribes medicine. Not everyone should be doing the exact same workout. The same strategies don’t work for everyone,” she said.

In the past, Perkins has investigated several possibilities that may explain why African American women are less active.

For instance, her research has shown that African Americans in general may have less opportunity for participating in sports and other physical activities that are primarily offered in white communities. This lack of opportunity for activity early on in life can lead to lifelong habits that require extra help and effort to change.

“Everyone deserves help,” Perkins said. “Groups of people that are not represented in research are unlikely to be getting that help.”

Dr. Perkins talks with a student working out on a resistance machine inside Foster Recreation Center

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Encouraging exercise to prevent disease

As a researcher, Perkins’ goal is to understand these psychological and social factors about physical activity, but she doesn’t stop there – her goal is also to change the statistics by breaking through the barriers with targeted interventions to help these women get out and get active.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2011, African American women were 80% more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white women.

According to Perkins, the importance of exercise can’t be overstated. She said a lack of physical activity can negatively affect a person’s health and lifespan in many ways, and it is troubling that an entire demographic group is at risk for insufficient physical activity.

“Exercise can prevent chronic disease, which is a fact a lot of people just aren’t aware of,” Perkins said. “I want to figure out what psychological factors influence sedentary behavior and what social or cultural factors lead to African Americans being less physically active and having a higher incidence of obesity and chronic diseases.”

Empowering a diverse campus to meet the needs of every individual

After collecting preliminary data about physical activities among female African American students, Perkins received a small cultural diversity grant from the Association of Applied Sport Psychology to further develop the study. She conducted focus groups to learn more about the perceived barriers to a workout regime, and most prominently she heard “lack of time” and “lack of motivation.” In her initial analysis of the responses, though, she also uncovered some findings more unique to the demographic, like difficulties with dealing with hair post workout and feeling socially isolated.

She hopes that by providing opportunities for some of the students most likely to have experienced obstacles to physical activity, she can contribute to a campus environment that is not just healthier, but also more inclusive of its diverse population so every individual can be empowered to meet his or her needs.

“I ask them: In a perfect world, what would an exercise program look like for you? Ultimately my goal is to help get students moving. I want to get them now in college so they’ll continue to be active as adults after they graduate,” she said. “If I can figure out what barriers prevent them from exercise, I can help them find a program they can stick with so that they can live healthier lives. It’s about finding what best fits the needs of the people you work with.”