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Q&A: Dr. Meizi He, Department of Kinesiology, Health, and Nutrition

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Dr. Meizi He, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Health, and Nutrition at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), specializes in community-based health research and is forging important partnerships to promote health and wellness programs in the community.

Drawing on her health-related career, which spans more than 25 years, He directs service-learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students interested in nutrition and health promotion.

We asked her to share her current health research and how her collaborative projects are making an impact on minority populations in San Antonio.

Tell us about your current research.

One of my research areas focuses on faith-based community health promotion using non-traditional venues and approaches for disease prevention among high-risk Hispanic families. Faith-based communities are important settings to promote healthy lifestyles for minority populations.

In partnership with the San Antonio Food Bank and San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and with financial support from the Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio and a number other funding agencies, my research team developed a faith-based health program called "Building a Healthy Temple (BHT)." The program integrates spiritual and physical health promotion in a faith-based community setting.

The core program components include formation of a health ministry committee, health sermons, health Bible studies, nutrition education and cooking demonstrations and physical activity promotion.

Since we first created BHT for obesity prevention, it has branched into a series of subprograms expanding beyond the core components including, but not limited to, BHT Primary Cancer Prevention, Healthy Vacation Bible School, BHT Diabetes Self-Management Support and Farm-to-Church.

Overall, the Building a Healthy Temple program builds churches' capacity in promoting healthy lifestyles and facilitating lasting healthy habits of church congregants and surrounding community members. The BHT has trained more 220 community leaders to implement health intervention and served more than 4,500 faith community members. Currently, 26 churches in low-income San Antonio communities have taken part in BHT programs. We are very proud of that.

This important research endeavor is not possible without the work of a great research team and collaborations with many researchers.

To name a few, Summer Wilmoth, Elena Martinez and Leah Carrillo are key players of the BHT Team. Dr. Erica Sosa, associate professor at UTSA and Dr. Deborah Parra-Medina, professor and inaugural director of the Latino Research Initiative at UT Austin, Dr. Luz Myriam Neira of the San Antonio Food Bank, Kathleen Shields and Ellen Spitsen, who work for the City of San Antonio, and staff at the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

What impact do you hope your research will have?

The faith-based health promotion research approach has the immense potential to meet community needs, inform science, impact practice and policy and ultimately lead to improving community members' well-being. 

Our research has shown the Building a Healthy Temple program has improved church nutrition and physical activity environment. For instance, churches have been providing healthier food options, starting nutrition billboards, building community gardens, creating a physical activity rooms, building new basketball and volleyball courts, installing walking trails, gaining access to soccer fields and improving church gym lighting.

The BHT program has also facilitated participants' health behavioral changes. Participants significantly increased their physical activity level from low and moderate to high activity. They also decreased their added sugar and sweetened beverage consumption and increased their dairy intake.

What's the most important thing going on in your field that no one is talking about right now?

I believe additional work needs to be done to change people's perceptions, awareness and habits in leading a healthy lifestyle. Some people would benefit from education and empowerment on how to live a healthy lifestyle. They need encouragement and on-going support to accomplish that.

How has your personal journey influenced your work?

I was trained as a medical doctor in China three decades ago. During my residency, seeing cancer patients dying without a cure made me switch my career path from medicine to preventive medicine.

Preventive medicine and health promotion take an upstream approach to prevent people from getting ill. As an educator and researcher, my passion for applied health research lies in the fulfillment of making a difference in the community, contributing to knowledge in this critical area, translating basic science knowledge to applied settings and testing the effectiveness of translational research to improve the wellbeing of the community. As obesity and other diseases have become epidemics in North America and other countries, the focus of my research program is addressing the challenges of obesity and related chronic diseases.

What advice would you give to students interested in conducting their own research?

I would tell UTSA students interested in conducting research to follow their passion. As an individual researcher, we cannot change the world, but we can collaborate with other researchers to make an impact and improve the lives of others.

View the original on UTSA Today:

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