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Another Perspective — Making healthier choices

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By Parisa Mortaji and Sérgio Gonzáles

Spending the month of June in Las Vegas has been nothing short of a blessing for both of us. We are representatives of the UNM Combined BA/MD Program, which is designed to address the shortage of physicians in New Mexico by accepting students who are committed to practicing in the state after graduating. Collaborating with Luna Community College and San Miguel Family and Community Health Council, the UNM Combined BA/MD Program has sent us here to design and carry out an effective and influential community project that addresses a particular healthcare issue. In addition, we have been extremely grateful and privileged to have shadowed and been mentored by physicians Dr. Mrugendra Gandhi, general surgeon at Alta Vista Regional Hospital, and Dr. David Young with Pecos Valley Medical Center. Shadowing rural physicians has shown us the multiple differences in terms of a medical settings between rural and urban societies. A few things we noticed is the unbelievable kindness the staff showed not only to us, but even more importantly, to each other.

The interactions were always friendly, informal and humble, allowing comfort to all incoming visitors and patients.
Data was obtained by the 2011 San Miguel County New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey of Middle School students. Approximately 19.7 percent of the middle school students reported no days of physical activity per week, and overall, 43 percent of the students claimed they were trying to lose weight in the survey. Based on the aforementioned data, an early public health intervention project was designed to prevent obesity and its complications before children in San Miguel county reached middle school. The community priority addressed was childhood obesity in fourth and fifth graders. The goal of the project was to decrease childhood obesity in the community via two objectives. First, this was to occur via increasing awareness of healthy behaviors, and second, via increasing knowledge of community resources for achieving a healthy lifestyle.

To address our goal, we collaborated with the Abe Montoya Recreation Center. One day was spent teaching fourth and fifth graders about healthy eating and exercise. The healthy eating tutorial followed the MyPlate guideline. A poster was also created with pictures, healthy eating tips and five before-and-after questions to effectively measure obtained knowledge.

The second portion of the program focused on exercise. A poster was created that highlighted eight at-home exercises and proposed four before-and-after questions. Five of the eight at-home exercises were compiled onto a card and given to students at the health fair. The children were also given a small tutorial on the four basic boxing moves.

Second, a Community Health Fair was arranged. The organizations that set up booths include HELP New Mexico, Vida Buena, Public Health Office, TeamBuilders, WIC, El Centro Family Health, MSG Total Community Approach, Casa de Cultura, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Blue Cross Blue Shield and DWI Council. Children of all age groups at the summer youth program (second-seventh grade), parents and family members attended the health fair. A scavenger hunt was used as a method to have the children visit different booths and get involved. Of the 30 participants, zero were familiar with current USDA recommendations and MyPlate guidelines. Only 20 percent of the participants were able to identify all five food groups as described by MyPlate.

After the tutorial on healthy eating and the MyPlate guidelines, the presence of fruits increased by 58 percent, grains by 11 percent, dairy by 31 percent and vegetables by 173 percent. All participants had some form of protein, fruit and vegetables. No participants chose pizza, hamburger, coke or chips as they had previously.

Similarly, after the exercise tutorial, the number of participants able to name the four types of exercise was 97 percent; those who could articulate how exercise affects human weight increased by 185 percent; those who could  provide a reason as to why exercise was important increased by 86 percent, and there was a 240 percent increase in children who knew that exercise provided overall increased energy levels.

The findings indicate significant gaps in knowledge among San Miguel County fourth and fifth graders of current healthy behavior recommendations put forth by the USDA and similar government agencies. Furthermore, perceptions of the contents of healthy meals as well as reasons to exercise appeared to be clouded by daily unhealthy lifestyles.
Additionally, these findings and methodology represent techniques of education-based, individual level interventions which yield notable changes in knowledge of healthy behaviors.

Relatively short but interactive tutorials on diet and exercise can profoundly improve knowledge and ability to navigate healthier food options and guidelines put forth by government agencies.
Additionally, informal conversations with the participants indicated that they were critically applying the curriculum of the healthy eating tutorial to the lunch that they were about to eat which was provided by the Abe Montoya Recreation Center.
Based on this data, the implementation of more school-based hands-on tutorials with visual representation of MyPlate, healthy and unhealthy foods and healthy food group combinations would be an effective way of increasing fourth and fifth graders’ knowledge of a healthy diet and beginning interventions of obesity among adolescents. Moreover, similar tutorials can also be used to notably increase knowledge of exercise techniques and their importance.

We met with brilliant, talented, and hopeful individuals who helped us succeed and supported us fully and wholeheartedly for our project. We would like to give a big thank you to Yolanda Cruz, Elaine Luna, Pete Campos, Jesse Gallegos, Amalinda Arguello, coach Anna Bradley, Lucas Sanchez and Michael Gonzáles.

Parisa Mortaji and Sérgio Gonzáles are students in the University of New Mexico’s Combined BA/MD Program. Mortaji may be reached at pmortaji@unm.edu; Gonzáles may be reached at sergiog@unm.edu.