Thursday, September 20, 2018

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Program participants stretching before beginning the daily activity. Program participants stretching before beginning the daily activity.

Comunidades Más Saludables

Elva Arrendondo is working with a team to increase health awareness and decrease chronic diseases in the Latina community.
By Hallie Jacobs

Elva Arredondo is on a mission to improve the health of the San Diego Latina community.

For the past 10 years, Arredondo — associate professor  in the Graduate School of Public Health — has dedicated her research to promoting physical activity and healthy eating, as well as cancer prevention in Latina communities. Her newest study focuses on women and increasing physical activity, cancer awareness and decreasing chronic diseases.

Arredondo and her team devised two different health plans and implemented them in predominantly Latina-attended churches throughout San Diego to study current health trends and discover new health practices that benefit the community.

Elva Arredondo headshot
Elva Arredondo

The research began as a pilot study funded by the National Institute of Health that observed the preliminary physical activity levels of church-going Latinas.  “We selected churches because that’s where communities gather,” Arredondo said. “Also, churches and religion play an important role in the Latina community.”

A grant from the Doris Howell Foundation — a foundation that funds research that educates women to be catalysts for better family health — enabled Arredondo and her team to expand their efforts and implement the plan on a larger scale.

The health plan

Arredondo and her team visited 16 churches throughout San Diego and identified individuals to lead the implementation of the physical activity or cancer prevention plan. Theses promatoras, or “health promoters,” were trained for two months on how to successfully lead program participants to embrace a healthier lifestyle.

Each church nominated two promatoras who will oversee the program during a two-year duration. Classes are held five to six times a week. The curriculum consists of a 15-minute physical activity session and a brief health education seminar.

The other side of the plan focuses on cancer prevention.

“We felt that we needed to devise a plan that is relevant to the community’s needs,” Arredondo said. “Cancer screening is an important health topic and we see disparities in this community, so providing this aspect was important.”

Sandra Soto, a doctoral student working with Arredondo, is in charge of interviewing with program participants, as well as developing programming for pregnant women in the community.

“A lot of the issues we’re finding tend to be cultural — family have a lot of influence, so knowledge is passed down from generation to generation,” Soto said. “There are a lot of myths about pregnancy and how you need to be inactive for the baby’s health, and we’re trying to combat those myths.”

Prevention vs. reaction

Arredondo focuses on preventive care rather than reactive care.

“I’ve always been passionate about Latina health,” Arredondo said. “Chronic diseases are a big problem in the community, so developing prevention programs is a very effective way to curb these diseases.”

Not only does Arredondo channel her passions into her research, she enjoys working directly with communities.  In college, she noticed significant disparities in the Latina community’s access to preventive care programs.

“There’s definitely a social justice component to my work,” Arredondo said. “We need to increase access to not only the information, but the resources and opportunities.”

Moving forward

The study still has one more year of data gathering, but Arredondo has already noticed results.

“The response has been fantastic,” Arredondo said. “The women are in better shape and more energized and are taking their health very seriously.”

Arredondo also noted that educating the community about available low-cost health options has proved to be effective.

“Some women were able to catch cancer in early stages and get treatment,” she said. “We’ve heard a lot of success stories.”

Soto enjoys experiencing the research realm first hand.

“It’s exciting to see the challenges that come up and coming up with ways to confront them,” she said.

The researchers’ favorite parts of the study were unanimous — working directly with the community and seeing their hard work translate into success. “You feel like you’re actually making a difference,” Soto said.