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Computer mapping helps find way to health

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Shannon Zenk

Shannon Zenk, left, with one of the handheld computers used in her research on factors that make it difficult to stay fit and healthy.

Photo: Mark Mershon / UIC College of Nursing

Shannon Zenk wants to make it easier for African American and Hispanic women to stay fit and healthy.

“My goal is to better understand how life circumstances influence diet and exercise behaviors that put Hispanic and African American women at higher risk of obesity,” said Zenk, assistant professor of health systems science in the College of Nursing.

As one of 12 selected Nurse Faculty Scholars by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she received a three-year, $350,000 grant for her research.

The award is presented to junior faculty members who show outstanding promise as future leaders in academic nursing, according to the foundation.

In Zenk’s study, participants will use handheld computers to enter personal information about diet, exercise and daily stressors over the course of a week.

Geographic mapping software will be used to record information about the participants’ neighborhoods, including grocery stores, restaurants, parks and crime.

Zenk wants to find out whether unsupportive neighborhoods increase the effects of stress on participants’ diet and exercise behaviors.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black and Hispanic women have the highest rates of obesity in the nation: 41.9 percent for black women and 30.7 percent for Hispanic.

Obesity, defined as a body mass index of 30 or above, contributes to many health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer.

A new CDC report says about 2.4 million more adults were obese in 2009 than in 2007. More than 15 percent of adults are obese in every state — and in nine states, more than 30 percent are obese.

The medical costs of obesity in the U.S. are “staggering,” the report said — nearly $147 billion in 2008.

“More efforts are needed, and new federal initiatives are helping to change our communities into places that strongly support healthy eating and active living,” the report said.

Zenk’s study is the first to examine interactions between stress and neighborhood environments of people prone to obesity.

She said she hopes the results “will inform environmental and policy changes that reduce sources of stress in the daily lives of Hispanic and African American women and improve neighborhood environments to make healthy behaviors easier.”


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