The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Fighting Diabetes with Dance

Campus researchers aim dual weapons at childhood obesity and diabetes
  • UMass Professors Peggy Schwartz and Sofiya Alhassan dance with scarf.

“Dance transcends generations, participants enjoy it, and they don’t often realize they are being physically active.”
– Sofiya Alhassan

The work of Sofiya Alhassan, kinesiology, aims dual weapons at childhood obesity and diabetes: dance and family. And while her efforts may impact all families in the long term, it will have an immediate effect on families in Springfield, Massachusetts, as well as on the university’s efforts to increase its collaboration with the city.

Alhassan explores how community- and family-based physical activity programs may be sustainable ways to reduce obesity and type 2 diabetes in ethnic minority children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans are 77 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than whites, and type 2 diabetes is becoming a concern among ethnic minority children. Among children, contributing factors may include obesity and physical inactivity.

As a post-doc at Stanford, Alhassan participated in a study on whether Afro-centric dance classes improve the health of preadolescent African American girls. Although effective in the moment, the classes didn’t change the activity of the girls over the long term. “During the study, I heard from the girls’ mothers that they wanted to dance too, and I wondered if an intervention would more likely change a child’s behavior if it better incorporated the family.” Alhassan proposed that if mothers took dance classes with their daughters it would lead to higher levels of activity at home, improved health, and a stronger family relationship.

With $448,782 in National Institutes of Health funding, Alhassan will begin a study in Springfield to determine if dancing with their mothers increases African American girls’ physical activity and improves their weight and glucose levels. She chose Springfield because she had worked on physical activity programs with preschools in the area, and because it was the best local environment for her study. “These populations are the most disadvantaged in the area, with the highest rates of obesity,” she explains. Her research also dovetails nicely with the work of the UMass Amherst–Springfield

Partnership, launched to expand university teaching, research, and outreach to the city. Alhassan will develop the programs with Peggy Schwartz, dance. She is also collaborating with other kinesiology faculty, including Barry Braun and Patty Freedson, as well as with faculty in public health, psychology, and at the UMass Medical School. She is using dance as a physical activity because, she says, “it transcends generations, especially in minority populations, participants enjoy it, and they often don’t realize they are being physically active.”

The study will follow 75 girls over 12 weeks.  Twenty five will dance with their mothers, 25 will dance without their mothers, and 25 will not dance at all. Those who dance will undergo physical exams and complete surveys at intervals to determine if they are still active after the class ends, if there has been an impact on the mother-daughter bond, and if it has had an effect on their self–esteem and performance in school. If the dance intervention is indeed effective, Alhassan will then study how it affects activity and health over a two-year span. Ideally, the long-term effects of Alhassan’s study will be the development of public health physical activity programs that incorporate families. In the short term, she has structured her study to ensure that all of the families involved benefit equally, no matter which group they fall into. All of the girls will receive homework, tutoring, and mentoring in order to provide them with positive role models, and the girls in the active control group will take part in dance classes after the study is completed.

Above all, Alhassan’s priority is to have a positive impact on Springfield families: “If we help one child, we help the community.”

Megan Zinn