Mexican parents may derail teens’ exercise

U. ILLINOIS (US) — Deep-rooted cultural beliefs and expectations often cause parents in Mexico to discourage their college-bound children from exercising.

The problem of obesity is more complicated than it seems, according to Angela Wiley, associate professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois, who says parents may think the time their teens spend exercising could be better spent studying.

“In Mexico, where there are very high rates of obesity and diabetes, we’d expect parents to encourage their teens to be active, but this study tells us the opposite is often true, at least for college-bound students,” she says. “Or, parents may believe their teen’s physical activity, which often takes place in a social context, takes away from family time.”


While more research is needed to uncover Mexican parents’ values and beliefs about the issue, Wiley says any research that “helps us understand Latino attitudes about physical activity is valuable not only in Mexico but in the United States, where obesity rates are climbing among Mexican immigrants.”

Wiley had the opportunity to survey college applicants about their health and fitness when she visited the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosί in Mexico.

She later formed the Up Amigos collaboration. Up Amigos is an acronym for the University of San Luis Potosί and Illinois: A Multidisciplinary Investigation on Genetics, Obesity, and the Social Environment.

Wiley and colleagues were given access to data from applicants’ physical exams and were asked to formulate questions for the surveys that aspiring students complete. They hope to establish a data set that can be used to learn more about obesity, diabetes, and healthy family functioning in Mexican students and their families.

She also wants to understand more about how Latino culture and attitudes affect young people’s health and fitness. Each year since 2008, Up Amigos has received new data. Initial findings are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

In the study, 3,908 16- to 25-year-old applicants to the University of San Luis Potosί answered questions about their own physical activity, their parents’ perceived physical activity, and their family’s influence on exercise and fitness.

Because students in Mexico usually live at home while attending college, family influence may be a bigger factor that it would be in other countries. Of the students in this pilot study, 61 percent reported that they were physically active, although only about 40 percent reported having physically active parents.

“If the teens believed their parents were active, they too were likely to enjoy and participate in various forms of exercise. The surprise was that we expected to find parents supporting their sons’ and daughters’ physical activity. Instead physically active applicants reported more conflict about exercise at home,” Wiley says.

A significant number of teens reapply to the university in successive years, giving the researchers the basis for a longitudinal study.

“In these cases, we’ll be able to monitor the progress of the same person over time. We’ll be able to see if teens who report being physically active at the time of their first application have better health outcomes as time goes by.”

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi, Mexico contributed to the study that was funded the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi, Mexico; University of Illinois Research Board; University of Illinois Center on Health, Aging, and Disability; and the USDA.

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