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GirlTrek: Black Women Walking for Body, Mind and Soul

Jul 3, 2014, 10:21 AM, Posted by Keecha Harris

Keecha Harris GirlTrek

I first met my friend Leah in September 2013, when she started walking with GirlTrek in Birmingham, Ala. GirlTrek is a movement of thousands of Black women across the country mobilized in response to the problem of staggering rates of obesity and its co-morbidities. Leah read a local NPR article about Black women walking for wellness under the banner of GirlTrek, and she decided to check it out.

As a GirlTrek volunteer, it is always a pleasure to connect with women new to our local organizing efforts. Leah joined us on a Full Moon Trek. Under celestial brilliance, Leah and I walked into the woods of the Hillsboro Trail as strangers. By the end of the trek, I had a new and humorous sister who fearlessly faced the possibility of running into snakes and other wildlife.

And when there is the promise of a storm, if you want change in your life, walk into it.
If you get on the other side, you will be different.
And if you want change in your life and you’re avoiding the trouble, you can forget it.
—Bernice Johnson Reagon

Friends were exactly what Leah needed. She and her husband had moved to Birmingham in 2007 to escape Michigan winters, and to establish a vibrant community of people with common interests. The winters are warmer here, true—but friends aren’t always easy to come by when you’re a stranger in a new city.

And that was the beginning of Leah’s relationship with a warm, welcoming organization of women passionate about improving their health—and fostering change. In short: she found the new friends she had been seeking. But these friendships gave her much more than she anticipated. Her doctor had delivered the grim news the month before that she was pre-diabetic. So walking with others was very timely.

Leah found herself in good company. GirlTrek has a goal of engaging 1 million Black women and girls in its walking-related programming by 2015. The program is sparking a health revolution, and it does so by building upon the rich cultural legacy and assets of the African American community.

Take, for example, Harriet Tubman. She’s a patron saint to GirlTrek supporters. Tubman was known to walk as many as 15 miles per day in uncut forests, through mossy swamps and across the Appalachian Ridge. Within the course of a decade, Tubman walked north toward freedom with hundreds escaping slavery. If Harriet Tubman could walk her way into new realities, the thinking goes, then so can we.

Leah was intrigued by the Full Moon Trek—and why would she not want to be part of a group of Black women who trekked to the light of the moon?  We connected through Facebook, excited to learn more about each other during a night walk in nature.

Walking to bring about change was a familiar theme for Leah. In fact, she was born to trek.

“Thinking back, walking has always held importance in my life—even before I took my first steps or took my first breath of air. My mother was weeks past her due date. Upon her third trip to the hospital, she was put in a hospital gown and instructed to walk up and down the halls.”

Thereafter, Leah and her mother racked up quite a few miles on foot. On weekends and evenings, her mom walked to relish joy or to ease pains, with little Leah in tow: “She’d walk, and walk, and walk, and walk. My little legs would go as fast as they could to keep up. When we returned home, I’d nearly collapse. But of course the next time she put on her shoes, I’d be ready to go again!“

That began to change in October. Leah has stepped up to lead other walkers to wellness. For the past eight months, she has led daily treks at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. These “smokeless breaks” are about 30 minutes each, with two to six women walking together.  Sometimes they walk to Railroad Park. During inclement weather, they trek inside along the long corridors connecting area hospitals.  

All of that walking has paid off for Leah—in a way that the everyone should applaud her for. In 2003, Leah did her first half-marathon. Over the last eight months, she has lost 30 pounds ... and shaved 17 minutes off her half-marathon time. She is no longer taking Metformin to treat her pre-diabetes. She feels more confident and peaceful. Moreover, Leah has found the warm, vibrant community of friends that she desired when she moved here.

For Leah, there is now no challenge too great. In May, Leah and other GirlTrekkers committed to walk at least 52.4 miles to honor their mothers. She walked at work and on weekends with her 5-year-old daughter, Neah Imani, in tow. Neah’s name means "moving faith."

Movement has been transformational for these three generations of trekkers. Leah’s mom continues to inspire her walking journey. In fact, Leah’s mom lost over 40 pounds in 2013, by walking the hallways at the University during her breaks.  

These days, though, mom can’t keep up with Leah any longer. She says Leah walks too fast. But even though they can’t walk together, they’re still walking in common cause: to heal their bodies, soothe their souls and form community with other black women.

About the Author
Keecha Harris, DrPH, RD is a walking enthusiast who has trekked every day since October 2012.  Her consulting company has provided support to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Childhood Obesity Team and the Research, Evaluation and Learning unit.   

Be Heart Smart: Addressing the High Burden of Cardiovascular Disease Among African-American Women

Feb 5, 2014, 8:28 AM, Posted by Nadia Winston

Nadia Winston, MSPH, is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Nursing, pursuing dual nurse practitioner studies in family practice and occupational health. She has a master of science in public health degree from Meharry Medical College and is a former scholar with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College. This post is part of the “Health Care in 2014” series.

file Nadia Winston

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of African American women. It has become imperative for the nation to take back the reins of its health status and educate the public about this threat. The statistics are alarming. Black women are twice as likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease as women of other ethnicities. And according to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease kills nearly 50,000 African-American women annually. The reason for this disparity can be attributed to a lack of health knowledge, being overweight or obese, and lack of physical activity. Early intervention and action has been identified as the key to reducing this population’s risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease and related diagnoses.

file Vanessa Jones Briscoe

Addressing and raising awareness of the health risks associated with cardiovascular diseases for African American women has been quite challenging. Recognizing this issue, Vanessa Jones Briscoe, PhD, MSN, then a Health Policy Associate at the Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, developed and implemented a culturally appropriate health education program to educate minority populations about unhealthy lifestyles. It is called the “Be Heart Smart” program.

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Focus on Health to End Poverty

Jan 23, 2014, 12:00 PM

Janice Johnson Dias, PhD, is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Connections alumnus (2008) and president of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, a health advocacy that develops and scales community health initiatives for women and girls. She is a graduate of Brandeis and Temple universities and a newly tenured faculty member in the sociology department at City University of New York/John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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Policy action and discussion this month have focused on poverty, sparked by the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and Dr. King’s birthday. Though LBJ and King disagreed about the Vietnam War, they shared a commitment to ending poverty. Half a century ago, President Johnson introduced initiatives to improve the education, health, skills, jobs, and access to economic resources for the poor. Meanwhile, Dr. King tackled poverty through the “economic bill of rights” and the Poor People's Campaign. Both their efforts focused largely on employment.

Where is health in these and other anti-poverty efforts?

The answer seems simple: nowhere and everywhere. Health continues to play only a supportive role in the anti-poverty show. That's a mistake in our efforts to end poverty. It was an error in 1964 and 1968, and it remains an error today.

Let us consider the role of health in education and employment, the two clear stars of anti-poverty demonstrations. Research shows that having health challenges prevents the poor from gaining full access to education and employment. Sick children perform more poorly in schools. Parents with ill children work fewer hours, and therefore earn less. Health care costs can sink families deeper into debt.

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Health Care Providers Shouldn’t Hit the Snooze Button When It Comes to Asking Their Patients About Sleep

Jul 12, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by Aric Prather

Aric A. Prather, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program.

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Heart disease accounts for one in every four deaths in the United States—600,000 deaths per year.  Prevention and treatment regimens for heart disease include important changes in lifestyle, centering primarily on alterations to diet and physical activity.  Interestingly, sleep is rarely part of this discussion.

This is alarming given the growing evidence from large-scale population studies and laboratory-based experiments that demonstrate that sleep plays a larger role in heart health than originally appreciated by the medical community.  For example, in a 2003 study, women with established coronary heart disease who reported poor sleep quality were more than 2.5 times more likely to go on to experience a cardiac event than good quality sleepers. Nevertheless, when it comes to asking patients about their sleep, health care providers routinely hit the snooze button.

In an effort to raise the profile of sleep as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), my work has focused on investigating the links between sleep and the biological pathways implicated in CVD development and progression.  Said another way, much of my research focuses on how sleep disturbance gets under the skin. 

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March of Dimes: Treating Mental Health Concerns During and After Pregnancy

Jun 5, 2013, 2:14 PM

file Siobhan Dolan, March of Dimes and Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Each year, the March of Dimes National Communications Advisory Council, which includes journalists from many websites and magazines that cover pregnancy and early childhood, holds a reporters’ luncheon to share information that can lead to healthier births, babies and mothers. This year’s luncheon, being held tomorrow, focuses on treating mental health conditions in mothers during and after pregnancy. The issue is important for many reasons, in particular because many women have been taking prescription medications for depression, anxiety, panic attacks, ADHD, and other mental health issues since adolescence and may need to change or stop the medicines in order to have a healthy baby, yet run the risk of a relapse or worsening of their health condition.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with, Siobhan Dolan, MD, a consultant to the March of Dimes and an obstetrician gynecologist and clinical geneticist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine about communicating information about treating mental health during pregnancy to both mothers and health care professionals.

NPH: For the upcoming luncheon, the March of Dimes has singled out mental health medications. Why that area of health?

Dr. Dolan: There is a huge overlap between women of reproductive age who are dealing with becoming pregnant and having families and caring for families and women who have mental health issues and may be entering their reproductive years already on medication.

And we know that bonding and creating a family and getting your family life off to a good start in the early postpartum period is much, much better when a woman is in a balanced mental health state. So if there’s either a preexisting depression or a postpartum depression, we need to pay attention to that.

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U.S. Women: Many Missing From the Picture of Health

Jun 4, 2013, 4:21 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer Susan Dentzer

The missing women. The concept was first put forward by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in the 1980s. He pointed to demographic evidence that hundreds of millions of women were simply missing from the planet—most likely never having been born, or died, due to discrimination or neglect.

Biologically, females are stronger than males; as a result, in much of the world women outnumber men in population sex ratios. But Sen found the ratio was flipped in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Subsequent investigations show a similar pattern in other parts of the world where women are at substantial economic and social disadvantage to men—including other countries in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and central and Eastern Europe.

Now, research sponsored in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation raises the question: Is there a growing corps of “missing women” in the United States as well?

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Nominations Open for Girl Up Teen Advisors

May 29, 2013, 11:00 AM

file Girl Up Teen Advisors

Sesuagno Mola of Ethiopia, married at five, never went to school and had her first child at 14. More children would have followed in quick succession, but Sesuagno got involved with a program in her town run by Girl Up developed by the UN Foundation that empowers young girls to create a life for themselves and their families well beyond poverty and illiteracy.

In Sesuagno’s case, she joined a program developed to help teach literacy, and provide information about family planning, gardening and life skills to help reduce food contamination.

Through the program, Sesuagno learned to build shelves to keep her family’s food off the floor, built a stove that sends the smoke out of the house instead of into her lungs—a cause of pneumonia and death for thousands of girls and women in the developing world—and jointly decided with her husband, because of her time in the program, that they would wait to have their next child.

“What we support are comprehensive services for adolescent services for girls to help improve access to health services, education and safe spaces,” says Andrea Austin, a spokesperson for the UN Foundation.

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