According to a new study, a community health program including exercise classes and practical nutrition education helped women living in rural areas lower blood pressure, lose weight and stay healthy.

Compared to women in urban areas, women in rural communities have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, are more likely to suffer from obesity, and tend to have less access to health care and healthy food, previous research has found. . Although community health programs have shown promise, little research has focused on these programs in rural settings.

The new study focused on sedentary women, aged 40 or older, who were diagnosed as overweight or obese. They lived in 11 rural communities in upstate New York. All participants eventually took part in the program led by health educators, but five communities were randomly assigned to go first.

The women participated in six months of one-hour group classes, twice a week, held in churches and other community venues. Classes included strength training, aerobic exercise, nutrition education and other health instruction.

The program also included social activities, such as community walks and civic engagement components in which study participants addressed an issue in their community related to physical activity or the food environment. This could have involved improving a local park or serving healthy snacks at school sporting events.

After classes ended, instead of returning to a less healthy lifestyle, the first 87 women to participate in the program maintained or even increased their improvements six months after the program ended. They had, on average, lost nearly 10 pounds, reduced their waist circumference by 1.3 inches, and reduced their triglycerides — a type of fat that circulates in the blood — by 15.3 mg/dL. They also lowered their systolic blood pressure (the “upper” number) by an average of 6 mmHg and their diastolic blood pressure (the “lower” number) by 2.2 mmHg.

“These results show that small changes can make a big difference and help create a true constellation of improvements,” said Rebecca Seguin-Fowler, lead author of the study published Tuesday in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. the American Heart Association.

Returning to old habits is usually a major problem, “so we were surprised and delighted to see women maintaining or even improving to stay active and eat healthy,” said Seguin-Fowler, associate director of the Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture. at Texas A&M AgriLife in College Station.

The women participating in the program also improved their body strength and aerobic fitness, she said. “As an exercise physiologist who helps women embrace strength training, the data shows that women lost fat but retained lean tissue, which is critical. You don’t want women to lose muscle as you age.

The second group of women to take the courses saw their health improve at the end of the program. But because of funding, the researchers couldn’t follow these women to see how they were doing six months after the program.

Seguin-Fowler said she would like to see the program, now called StrongPeople Strong Hearts, offered at YMCAs and other community gathering places. She also called for the study, in which almost all participants were white, to be replicated in more diverse populations.

“It’s a great opportunity to implement the program in other communities, evaluate the results and make sure it’s having an impact,” she said.

Carrie Henning-Smith, associate director of the Center for Rural Health Research at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said the study was limited by a lack of representation from Black, Indigenous and other races and ethnicities and that it did not address potential barriers to health in rural areas. areas, including transport, technology and financial barriers.

Henning-Smith, who was not involved in the research, said future rural health studies should consider these issues, as well as “wider community and policy level factors that impact on health”.

Nonetheless, she applauded the study for closing the gap between understudied rural residents, who she says are disproportionately affected by most chronic conditions, including heart disease.

“These results show that improving cardiovascular health requires much more than what happens in a clinical setting,” Henning-Smith said. “Doctors and healthcare professionals play an important role, but many other partners need to be involved.”

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