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Nefertiti Durant, MD, MPH
Many of us have a hard time self-motivating to exercise on a regular basis. Add to that the temptation to not stick with a healthy diet and you’ve got a recipe for potential health problems, including obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension, to name a few. Dr. Nefertiti Durant has dedicated much of her work at UAB to developing new ways to target specific audiences—namely adolescents and young adults, and African American women—to draw them into a diet and exercise program they can stick with, and which they actually enjoy.
My interest in this field came from the sheer numbers of African American women and adolescents who have difficulty embarking on weight loss. It came from my personal experience with patients and people I encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Durant, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, came to UAB in 2006 after completing fellowships in Minority Health Policy and Adolescent Medicine at Harvard School of Medicine, and one in Pediatric Health Services Research at Children’s Hospital Boston. During that time, she began research examining the environmental factors of walkability of neighborhoods, and how those impact a child’s ability to be physically active.
Once at UAB, Durant narrowed her research focus to adolescents, then females, then African Americans. She ran a study to determine what dose of physical activity was needed to lose weight, running participants through a six-week exercise program.
“In the focus groups, we identified in the participants a desire for a web-based technology component to the program,” Durant says. “So after my initial research, I developed an interest in technology and using it to promote fitness in high-risk groups. A lot of technology is devoid of images of women of color, and there is a not a great diversity of body types depicted. That made me apply for this grant.”
The grant to which she refers is the
Charles Barkley Health Disparities Research Award
, which provides funding for a minority investigator working on a translational research project for underrepresented minority populations. Funded in 2009, Durant’s award (co-sponsored by the CCTS and the
UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center
) funded work on WEBWALK, a study created to design a technology-based intervention to promote walking among African American women ages 18–30.
This grant was really pivotal. It allowed me to learn how to use the web and develop the technology we needed to add that missing component to the program. The award protected my time and provided a platform to discuss my work with other researchers.
Durant says that WEBWALK, which she piloted for six weeks, laid the groundwork for her current studies which focus on the development and testing of culturally adapted, technology based interventions to promote walking among overweight and obese African American undergraduate and graduate students. Durant’s research assistant Rodney Joseph has been helping Durant run the studies of women ages 19–30 for more than a year. Joseph has been helping schedule and monitor the women’s walking sessions, held at the UAB Campus Recreation Center.
“We’re trying to establish activity patterns as well as dietary habits,” he says. “I would say the most rewarding aspect is whenever you talk to them and they’re actually changing the way they’re doing things. They’re increasing step count by taking stairs, and parking further away and walking. They’re getting together with friends on Saturdays and walking. They talk to us, and the anecdotal changes are very rewarding.”
Joseph says the biggest challenge he sees moving forward is “just trying to keep them engaged for the entire six months. We have to be more creative.”
Durant agrees, which is why she continues to apply for—and thus far receive—funds to further hone and improve her research.
“The support of the CCTS staff and its services has been really helpful in positioning me for grants subsequent to this one,” Durant says, referring to the
Robert Wood Johnson Physician Faculty Scholars Program grant
she received in 2009 to develop and test WEBSTEP, which is now called Commit2fit.
Durant says she has received encouraging feedback from many WEBSTEP participants, including comments such as, “Weight loss is one of the top priorities, and I think the WEBSTEP study helped put those elements there to help motivate me. Since I ended the study, I lost 25 pounds, so now I know how to eat and I carry water with me everywhere.” And, from another program participant, “It [the program] gave me just the right amount of motivation to say, ‘Hey you know you need to do this for your health and so that you will feel better about yourself.’ And I can say I lost 30 pounds from when I first joined the study, which is awesome because it’s a boost to my confidence. It just makes me want to continue to eat right.” [Comments are anonymous to protect participants’ confidentiality.]
Melissa McBrayer, program director for the CCTS’ Research Commons, says she recognized early on in Durant an enthusiasm for her research that would make her a success.
“Since her start at UAB, Dr. Durant has displayed a level of professionalism and energy for her work that made her an ideal candidate for a pilot grant,” McBrayer says. “She has proven to be very successful in starting an exercise study, then further enhancing it by developing technological components, to make it easier for participants to stay committed. It is also why she been able to secure funding to expand and enhance her work.”
Durant says from these projects, she has learned that while technology is important, it has its limitations.
“The web can only be a portal—ultimately it’s relationships and people partnering up to offer support and accountability, that help ensure the success of diet and exercise programs.”
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