Pamela G. Bowen, PhD

Advisor, Karen Meneses, PhD, RN, FAAN

A phenomenological study of obesity and its impact on functional status, life-space mobility, and physical activity in southern African American older women

The majority of work on health disparities has focused on public policy and identifying disparate conditions.  Obesity is a significant public health problem that has reached epidemic proportions, considered the second leading cause of preventable death, encourages a sedentary lifestyle, and can lead to a higher prevalence of functional impairments.  Moreover, obesity increases the risk that persons may develop one or more serious medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoarthritis, especially among African Americans.

 In the United States, African American women are more likely to be classified as overweight or obese.  In fact, approximately 61% of African American women 65 years and older are classified as being obese in comparison to 32% of their European American counterparts of the same age group.  Moreover, the decline in functional status and physical activity levels among this population further contributes to the escalating obesity crisis. 

Despite published research that illustrates how physical inactivity contributes to obesity and functional decline, overweight and obese southern African American older women are still less likely to participate in regular physical activity.  The purposes of this study were to examine: 1) the lived experience of overweight and obese southern African American older women and how these conditions impact functional status and life-space mobility and 2) what factors prompt or prevent the participation of regular physical activity. 

The qualitative research approach used for this study was phenomenology, which described the investigated phenomenon through the eyes of the participant.  Semi-structured, audiotaped interviews were used to elicit descriptions from 10 participants.  Interview data was transcribed verbatim and then coded and analyzed using Colaizzi’s seven-step method. 

Data analysis revealed the emergence of six meta-themes and the overarching theme among all the participants was good quality of life, which encompassed maintaining independence and mobility.  Significant findings from this study were that overweight and obese southern African American older women have negative connotations for the terms “obesity” and “exercise”, being independent and self-sufficient were important, and culturally appropriate neighborhood interventions that address quality of life issues were essential to encourage engagement in regular physical activity.