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Vol. LXVII, No. 5
February 27, 2015

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Walking the Walk
NIH Cardiologist Promotes Fitness On, Off Campus

February features a confluence of American Heart Month, National Wear Red Day (see back page) and Black History Month. Intramural physician-scientist Dr. Tiffany Powell-Wiley of NHLBI kicked off this month with a deepened commitment for cardiovascular disease (CVD) prevention by modeling behaviors promoted to study participants.

Dr. Tiffany Powell-Wiley

Dr. Tiffany Powell-Wiley

Powell-Wiley and her team of research fellows are investigating obesity in Wards 5, 7 and 8, Washington, D.C.’s most resource-limited neighborhoods with markedly high prevalence of CVD. She is developing a community-based intervention for church-going African-American populations through participatory approaches and innovative mobile health technology use to assess and improve cardiovascular health.

Obesity incidence serves as a glaring example of why Washington, D.C., is considered a city of contrasts. Overall adult obesity rates in the District of Columbia dwell among America’s lowest, but a closer look reveals stark disparities. D.C.’s rate of adult obesity has risen from 14.4 percent in 1990, to 22.9 percent in 2013, with a current national ranking of 49 (51 being the lowest). Similarly, physical inactivity hovers at only 19.5 percent based on 2013 data. However, prevalent obesity skyrockets to 30-42 percent in resource-limited Wards 5, 7 and 8, contending with the top-ranked state of Mississippi. Powell-Wiley designed “a program that would improve cardiovascular health for those with limited access to clinical care or who may not have access to areas for physical activity/healthy nutrition.”

Partnerships with six predominantly African-American churches in these wards have been established to leverage existing social networks to promote behavior change. “As someone who grew up in Ward 7, I feel a special connection to the population that we’re working with,” said Valerie Morales-Mitchell, the study’s community outreach/research coordinator. “I know firsthand the need for thinking of new ways to help people become more heart-healthy in the community.”

As handheld devices and web-based technology become more cost-efficient and widely available, this study aims to understand their use in promoting physical activity. “There has been a rapid proliferation of commercial sensors and apps for monitoring physical activity, but many of them have insufficient research on whether the monitoring and feedback provided by these technologies increases or maintains physical activity,” said Dr. William Riley, acting director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and chief of NCI’s Science of Research and Technology Branch.

Powell-Wiley says, “We hope that by providing technological tools to community members, to better understand their physical activity levels, and improving the infrastructure for using these tools, community members can become engaged in more physical activity and motivate others within their social networks to engage in more physical activity.”

Individuals living in each targeted ward have limited access to nutrient-dense foods, which contributes to poor diet and high CVD rates. The team holds events that include lunch to encourage healthy eating—fresh fruit, whole grain muffins, veggie chips, turkey sandwiches and water to drink. Howard University nutrition faculty members, working in collaboration with the team, are also on hand to discuss eating habits as well as address inquiries about food consumption in preparation for use of the pilot study’s wristband physical activity monitors and digital food record technology.

In honor of February’s commemorative events, Powell-Wiley promoted healthy lifestyles within her own research team by encouraging physical activity during the workday. On Feb. 6, the all-female team celebrated National Wear Red Day and women’s heart disease awareness by convening its first walking meeting on the Clinical Center’s lower level.

The Bldg. 10 walking group includes (from l) Leah Yingling, Powell-Wiley, Valerie Morales-Mitchell, JaWanna Henry, Johnetta Saygbe and Avanti Iyer.

The Bldg. 10 walking group includes (from l) Leah Yingling, Powell-Wiley, Valerie Morales-Mitchell, JaWanna Henry, Johnetta Saygbe and Avanti Iyer.

Postbac IRTA fellow Johnetta Saygbe said, “I strongly believe that out of the heart flow the issues of life, and science provides evidence that these issues—such as stress and physical inactivity—disproportionately affect women’s overall health. I believe that we must be intentional in taking measures to address this disparity. This is why I appreciated celebrating the day by walking with extraordinary women who share a common goal of improving cardiovascular health in our communities. ‘Community’ begins with us.”

Team members engaged in a half-hour power walk of the B-2 level perimeter, adorned in red and equipped with pedometers. While awareness of CVD as the number one killer of women has increased in recent years, considerable work is needed to improve women’s cardiovascular health. Washington, D.C.’s obesity rate in 2012 was higher among women at 25.8 percent than for men at 18 percent. As the national obesity epidemic continues, U.S. coronary heart disease death is increasing among young women 35 to 54 years of age.

Recognizing that substantial cardiovascular outcomes disparities persist for women from racial and ethnic minorities, Powell-Wiley plans to dedicate one weekly meeting each month to CVD prevention within the team.

“We covered 1.5 miles,” said Leah Yingling, the team’s second postbac IRTA fellow. “Not only did it refresh my mind and outlook for the day, but also it made me realize that small changes to a daily routine can add up significantly. Walking with our group pushed me nearly halfway to the physical activity goal of 10,000 steps a day.”

“We know more and more about the adverse health consequences of sedentary behavior, so taking time to walk during one of our team meetings has some heart health benefits for all of us,” Powell-Wiley noted. “Working at NIH, it’s very easy to get so busy with work and meetings that you don’t realize how much time you might spend sedentary. Walking during meetings is just one way to take some time to get active but also remain productive. Most of all, I feel like we’re practicing what we preach.”

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