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July 7, 2016

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New Initiative Improves Health Behaviors of Lesbian, Bisexual Women

Lesbian and bisexual women have higher rates of obesity, smoking and stress when compared to their heterosexual counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.

Portrait of Jane McElroy, PhD

Jane McElroy, PhD

To address this issue, a University of Missouri researcher has led the first-ever national study to develop healthy weight programs for lesbian and bisexual communities. Ninety-five percent of the study participants achieved the health objectives that are critical for obesity prevention as identified by the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“Previous research has found that lesbian and bisexual communities have different attitudes, experiences and sensitivities related to weight compared to heterosexual women,” said lead author Jane McElroy, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

McElroy also serves as principal investigator of “Living Out, Living Actively,” one of the five programs created in the study.

“Unlike other weight-loss programs, this study did not focus on weight loss as the primary goal of the intervention,” McElroy said. “Instead, we aimed to motivate participants to achieve specific changes in lifestyle habits that would improve their overall health.”

Changes included increasing minutes of physical activity, increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, decreasing consumption of sugar-sweetened and alcoholic beverages, and improving the overall quality of life of lesbian and bisexual women.

For the study, 266 participants enrolled in pilot programs that took place in Missouri, California, New York and Washington, DC. Each program enrolled lesbian and bisexual women ages 40 and older who were overweight. Participants were involved in weekly group meetings, nutrition education and physical activity.

The five pilot programs were developed based on feedback from community focus groups of lesbian and bisexual women. Each program used either a pedometer, gym membership or mindfulness-approach to help participants achieve healthier habits. Participants completed pre- and post-intervention surveys to measure their progress on completing the objectives.

Key findings from the study:

  • More than 95 percent of participants nationwide achieved at least one of the health objectives identified by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, with 58 percent achieving three or more.
  • Nearly 60 percent of participants increased their weekly physical activity minutes by 20 percent.
  • Forty percent of participants cut their consumption of alcohol and sugar-sweetened beverages in half.
  • Twenty-nine percent of participants decreased their waist-to-height ratios by 5 percent.
  • Participants who were enrolled in the pedometer or mindfulness programs were more likely to increase their total minutes of physical activity by 20 percent, and those in the gym group were more likely to experience a 5 percent decrease in waist-to-height ratio.

McElroy said the results from this study can motivate other communities to develop tailored interventions to support lesbian and bisexual women in achieving the active healthy lives they desire.

The study, “Healthy Weight in Lesbian and Bisexual Women: Striving for a Healthy Community,” was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.

Eight articles on the study, “Healthy Weight in Lesbian and Bisexual Women: Striving for a Healthy Community,” will appear in the July/August Women’s Health Issues supplement. Women’s Health Issues is the official journal of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, which is based at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. The researchers have no conflicts of interest to declare related to this study.

The study is the result of a partnership between the University of Missouri and NORC at the University of Chicago. NORC at the University of Chicago is an independent research institution that delivers reliable data and rigorous analysis to guide critical programmatic, business and policy decisions.

McElroy cited the self-reporting nature of the pre- and post-intervention surveys as a potential study limitation.

Healthy weight programs and locations:

  • Doing it for Ourselves (DIFO) – California: Berkeley, El Cerrito, San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol
  • Living Out, Living Actively (LOLA) – Missouri: Columbia and St. Louis
  • Making Our Vitality Evident (MOVE) – Maryland and District of Columbia: Silver Spring and Washington, DC
  • Strong, Healthy, Energized (SHE) – New York City
  • Women’s Health and Mindfulness (WHAM) – California: Berkeley and San Francisco

Download a high-resolution photo of Jane McElroy, M.D. ​​


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