All in the family: Mothers and daughters join together for health and fun in physical activity study

For ten weeks last semester, Monday nights at the People’s Center Health Services in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood were filled with the spirit of learning, fun, empowerment, and love. Through a Mother-Daughter Physical Activity program led by four University and community professionals who partnered with the People’s Center, a group of thirty individuals–mothers, grandmothers, and daughters–came together to practice physical activity, learn about nutrition, and design and sew their very own culturally sensitive sportswear.

The study, “Impact of an East African Mother-Daughter Physical Activity Program and Co-Designed Activewear,” was made possible by a $75,000 block grant from the University of Minnesota Extension. The project was co-led by Chelsey Thul, Ph.D., School of Kinesiology lecturer and affiliated scholar at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport; Elizabeth Bye, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel in the College of Design; Jennifer Weber, behavior specialist and volunteer coordinator/athletic director, Cedar-Riverside Community School; and Mary Marczack, director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation, U of M Extension. School of Kinesiology graduate student, Muna Mohamed, and College of Design graduate student, Robin Carufel, were also part of the research team.

The springboard for this study was a project much of the research team participated in from 2013 – 2015, titled, “Impact of Culturally Sensitive Apparel Co-Design on the Physical Activity of East African Adolescent Girls,” which explored the effects of co-designed culturally sensitive active wear on engaging girls in physical activity.

“Listening and hearing community needs led to this project,” explained Thul. “The younger girls get involved in physical activity and the more enjoyable their experiences are, the more likely they are to sustain physical activity participation, and their moms serve as strong role models.”

Inspired by previous findings, Thul and colleagues’ current project is guided by three important aspects: Girls are more active than ever before; girls are still not as active as boys; and girls of color and immigrant girls are the least active of all youth.

Once a week, East African girls between 1st and 5th grade, along with their mothers and/or grandmothers, engaged in physical activity, learned about nutrition, and designed outfits they could wear during physical activity. They gave input on the sports and physical activity they wanted to learn, and the program provided guidance and instruction from University of Minnesota students and faculty (including Dr. Daheia Barr-Anderson who taught a yoga session), and community members.

Participants practiced yoga, basketball, soccer, dance and circuit training among other physical activities. After working up a sweat, they learned about food and nutrition from SNAP nutrition educators Hibaq Dualeh and Kelly Coughlin, RD, CDE, People’s Center, through culturally sensitive lessons on the benefits of water, reducing sugar, and eating vegetables. The families then got to satisfy the appetite they worked up by sharing a healthy snack together. Finally, they worked hand in hand with College of Design apparel students in designing a culturally appropriate active outfit for themselves. At their last meeting, participants even took their turn at the sewing machine, creating a bag to hold their new outfits. The sportswear outfits they have designed will be sewn by a Cedar-Riverside community partner.

After completing the program, the group still has the opportunity to meet together, be physically active, and wear their newly designed outfit while doing so. For the next six months, the women and girls will be meeting once a month for a physical activity outing. Then Thul and her partners will be conducting focus group interviews with the group to see how holistically the Mother-Daughter Physical Activity Program affected their lives and level of physical activity.

Thul uses the words “joy” and “empowerment” to describe the overall experience. “It is inspiring to see the joy of a space where moms and daughters are having fun engaging in healthy living activities together,” she says. “It is also empowering for women and girls to be the leaders in designing culturally sensitive activewear, deciding physical activities they want to learn and do, and eating healthy together. To be taking an active role in shaping their and their family’s health behaviors.”

Other team members included interpreters, Nabiha Mohamud and Hasna Abdurahman.

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