Remaining Steeped in Native Culture Results in Inactive Lifestyle for Mexican Americans, UB Study Shows

Inactivity increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, other chronic diseases

By Lois Baker

Release Date: August 1, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mexican Americans in the U.S. who speak primarily Spanish and are less "Americanized" are significantly less active during leisure time than Mexican Americans whose main language is English, a study headed by researchers from the University at Buffalo has found.

Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases that affect Hispanics disproportionately. Mexican Americans are the largest subgroup of Hispanics in the U.S. and are less active during leisure time than non-Hispanic whites, studies have shown -- a difference that persists even after considering socioeconomic status.

Results of this study of the relationship between acculturation and leisure-time physical inactivity in this ethnic group appear in the August issue of American Journal of Public Health. It was conducted in conjunction with the federal Office of Minority Health and Johns Hopkins University.

Carlos Crespo, Dr.PH, UB associate professor of social and preventive medicine and lead author on the study, said the study confirms that aside from socio-economic factors, acculturation is an important indicator of a person's willingness to engage in a physical activity program.

"Our findings confirm the need to facilitate access to health promotion programs to all segments of society, especially those whose main language is not English," Crespo said. "Adaptation to a new environment by recent immigrants is associated with increased consumption of saturated fat, smoking and other detrimental behaviors. On the other hand, our study showed that Mexican Americans who were more acculturated engaged in about the same amount of physical activity during leisure time as non-Hispanic White Americans."

With little information available on the impact of acculturation -- the merging of cultures due to prolonged contact -- on physical activity, UB researchers set out to examine the relationship, using data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted between 1988 and 1994.

Bilingual interviewers collected information on eight specific leisure-time physical activities during the survey. Open-ended questions allowed participants to include any additional activities. Participants also provided information on their preferred language at home, place of birth and how long they had lived in the U.S.

Results showed that Mexican Americans over the age of 60, those with less than 12 years of schooling and those earning less than $20,000 a year were the least active. White-collar workers were more active during leisure time than blue-collar workers, retirees and homemakers.

"Although blue collars may be more physically active during their work," Crespo said, "physical activity continues to be engineered out of our jobs, making 'leisure-time physical activity' the primary source of energy expenditure in our lives. This change underscores the need to develop a habit of lifelong physical activity."

Mexican-American women were less active than men, results showed, and both men and women who spoke only Spanish or a mix of Spanish and English at home were less active than those who spoke mostly English. Those born in Mexico and living in the U.S. for fewer than five years were less active during leisure time than their more acculturated brethren.

The leisure-time activity of Mexican Americans who spoke mainly English was similar to that of the general population, results showed.

"We need to do a better job of making physical activity programs readily available to all segments of society, at work, in the community and in the schools," Crespo said. "Educational materials explaining the benefits of exercise also should be available in other languages, especially Spanish," he said, noting that the U.S, with more than 30 million Hispanics in its population, has one of the largest concentrations of Spanish speakers in the world.

Ellen Smit, Ph.D., of the UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine; Olivia Carter-Pokras Ph.D., of the Office of Minority Health, and Ross Anderson, Ph.D., of The Johns Hopkins University, also participated in the study.