Here’s a question: Did you get two and a half hours of moderate aerobic physical activity — or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity — last week?

If not, you’re among the 53 percent of Americans who fail to meet the National Physical Activity Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Studies suggest you probably know that you need to get moving. It’s just that, for whatever reason, you don’t.

Get moving

UAB epidemiologist Olivia Affuso, Ph.D., spends a good bit of her time thinking about how to get people off of their couches and into motion. Affuso, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and associate scientist in the UAB Center for Exercise Medicine and UAB Obesity Health Disparities Research Center, is often on the move herself. Each year, she likes to set herself a grand challenge. In August, she’s heading to Colorado to compete in the TransRockies Run, a three-day mountain sufferfest that takes runners past 12,000 feet. (To prepare for the low-oxygen environment, Affuso has been running in the sweltering Birmingham afternoon humidity, which mimics some of the lung-busting effects of altitude.)

But Affuso’s biggest challenge is the one she has set herself professionally: find new ways to increase physical activity among sedentary Americans, particularly minority women. For the past several years, she has been working on an innovative approach to measure body composition, using simple digital cameras and advanced computer algorithms. Without accurate data on body composition, Affuso explains, it’s difficult to know if a physical activity intervention is working to reduce the negative health impacts of obesity. And BMI (body mass index), a proxy for obesity, is notably inaccurate for detecting changes in body composition.

Olivia Affuso, Ph.D.Photo: Olivia Affuso, Ph.D.

Secrets of their success

Now, with that work heading toward publication, Affuso is “very excited to be focusing more on physical activity once again, particularly amongst African-American women,” she says. Last year, she and her team launched a survey of several hundred women who have been physically active for at least the past six months. “We want to know what we can learn from already active women,” Affuso explains. “These are people who have figured out a way to engage in positive behaviors, even with the roadblocks they face. What is their ‘secret sauce’? What helps them have a viable and sustainable physical activity plan? If we can find that out, we can use that recipe to help others to be more active.”

Since 2011, when she helped start a chapter of the national group Black Girls Run in Birmingham, Affuso has seen the power of groups in helping women to initiate and maintain physical activity. “They currently have over 200,000 black women nationwide who are regularly walking and running,” Affuso says. “And there are a number of physical activity social networks now. What is it that makes these grassroots social networks succeed, while national programs and academic research study groups have had limited impact? What are the keys to success?

“With Black Girls Run Birmingham, we’re about to have our seven-year anniversary in August,” Affuso notes. “When we started, we met one day a week, and now there are meet ups almost every day around the city.”

“People are so fixated on the scale. What I tell them is, ‘You are more than a number. If you’re moving, you’re becoming healthier.’ That’s what’s important.”

Falling off and getting back on

Affuso sees the value of running in her own life. “I find I can get more science done,” she says. “I think of so many cool ideas while I’m running, and it definitely helps with stress.” In her research study, she’s asking dozens of questions to find out what motivates other long-term “physical activity maintainers” — and how they deal with the inevitable challenges to staying active.

“Life is not always perfect,” Affuso says. “Everyone falls off the wagon. The question is, how do you get back on? Those answers can help other African-American women, and they can help everyone else as well. Every community is different, but there are likely to be commonalities that make them successful. That’s what I’m after.”

Despite what you may see on magazine covers, tales of dramatic weight loss from running and other physical activities are rare without dietary changes, Affuso says. “People are so fixated on the scale. What I tell them is, ‘You are more than a number. If you’re moving, you’re becoming healthier.’ That’s what’s important.”

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