Obesity starts in the gut and transcends social barriers

Leah Boynton

Throughout the fall, Associate Professor of Biology Sylvia Vetrone and Associate Professor of Sociology Julie Collins-Dogrul taught a paired course that challenged students to think critically about how medicalization, biology, and environmental social-infrastructure impacts an obese individual’s ability to be healthier. By producing evidence-based policy initiatives for Whittier communities to improve access among residents to exercise and healthy eating, students became advocates for reducing obesity.

Through Photovoice and obesity proposal projects, students explored the effectiveness on decreasing the health equity gap and lessening obesity among individuals of the neighborhood site studied. The projects suggested policy proposals, like expanding exercise equipment, safety, and land limiting policies. 

 Seniors Judy Feng and Carmela Nevarez proposed the installation of positive signage posts displaying steps per mile and motivational facts about health and effects on reducing the risk for co-morbidities. They would help improve exercise among residents of Penn Park.

Seniors Jessica Acosta and Lauren Gandi were advocates for Phelan Elementary school. They requested that the site hold a bi-weekly farmer’s market with with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables and free health checkupshosted by the Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital (PIH). 

“I learned more about the social and environmental factors that serve as barriers to losing weight, such as lack of access to healthy food, lack of health coverage and doctor support, and access to recreational areas. This information helped us design our projects,” Gandi said.

This semester, the professors decided to also incorporate an interactive element to the paired course, a FitBit, to challenge students to understand how learning about obesity can be important to their daily lives. The idea came from Vetrone, who has been using a FitBit for the past four years and thought it would be interesting to incorporate into the content of the course. 

“I am very familiar with the scientific literature that all seems to suggest that it is an increase in regular daily physical movement, not short bouts of strenuous exercise, that helps maintain weight or aid in losing weight,” said Vetrone. “It really is about keeping your body moving and having less time being sedentary.”

Students were required to purchase their FitBit instead of a textbook, which Vetrone thought would be more reasonable in cost and an effective way to put health and environment into perspective in the context of cellular biology. 

Throughout both courses, students discussed the implications of exercise and being health consciousness while also keeping track of their personal daily step counts alongside their classmates and professors on a public ranking on the FitBit application dashboard. 

According to Vetrone, this added another element of self-reflection and friendly competition with their peers. “It has been fun having friendly challenges and competitions with the students,” said Vetrone. “It has also allowed us to reflect on our daily physical activity and how that changes from week to week depending on the other responsibilities and challenges we are presented with.”

As a sociologist, Professor Collins-Dogrul is fascinated by data and thought it was useful to see the ranking each week. “It’s been interesting to have professors and students publicly share their step data with each other and for us all to be ranked,” Collins-Dogrul said. “My students can see how much, or more accurately, how little I move every day.  I had to get used to being towards the bottom of the ranking.”

The course encouraged the group to think about the value of daily exercise, even when it isn’t strenuous. “I learned that I get much more steps when I am teaching because I move around the campus, including taking the stairs to the fifth floor of the SLC, and pacing the classroom,” said Collins-Dogrul. “When I grade or do research all day, I spend most of my time sitting, so my steps are very low. I had to counteract this by going on walks.” 

Junior Haunu’u Ho’opai also found that she had to change her habits to keep up with the rankings of her classmates. “Dr. Vetrone really emphasized getting 15,000 steps a day so that you walk constantly,” Ho’opai said. “With schoolwork and everything going on as a college student and I don’t do sports, so getting 15,000 steps a day was hard. I struggled to get 10,000. I tried to go on runs every other day to help raise my step count.”

Collins-Dogrul also pointed out that the FitBit gave students a concrete way to measure their daily activities. “I have also been able to use the Fitbit to illustrate research methodology,” she said. “Measuring daily steps with a FitBit is a more reliable method than asking someone ‘How often do you go on a walk?’ or ‘How many minutes do you walk each day?’” 

The class also took a survey on attitudes towards obesity at the beginning and at the end of the link course and found significant changes. Feng, a biology major, reflected on reasons why her attitude toward obese individuals changed. “At first, I thought that obese individuals were also healthy and could do anything like average sized individuals, but now, I realize that they face socio-economic challenges which influences their mental health as well,” Feng said.

 SeniorSpanish and Sociology major Carmela Nevarez talked about how what they have learned from the readings and class discussions changed her attitudes for the better. “They also face biological and genetic problems, which serves as a very significant factor that actually overpowers the willpower someone has to lose weight,” Nevarez said. “Once we had the class, I was able to see that because they are highly medicated to try to treat those co-morbidities that obesity often causes that they often gain more weight.”

Both professors saw that the FitBit complemented course material and encouraged students to change their own behaviors. “I believe students experienced really quickly the change in their behavior when they had a constant reminder that they needed to keep moving,” said Vetrone. “Some even saw the benefits of increased normal daily physical activity and the impact on their waistlines.”