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In a sedentary country

Fellowship Story Showcase

In a sedentary country

Picture of Pedro Frisneda

For many Mexican immigrants living in New York, working multiple jobs leaves little time for regular exercise. In addition, a heavy reliance on public transportation and a lack of rural areas means that physical activity is virtually nonexistent. Health experts cite this sedentary lifestyle as an emerging gateway to diabetes, especially among immigrants.

This story was originally published in Spanish. Below is the English translation.

Poverty, an excess of work and a lack of time prevent immigrants from exercising.
El Diario NY
Monday, December 27, 2010

New York — Gerardo Cuapio welcomes us to his house as he watches a soccer match between Brazil and Argentina.  Like many Mexicans, this is his favorite sport. The 39-year-old used to play soccer on the weekends when he lived in Mexico City. Today, it is a different story. 

Since he arrived in the United States 16 years ago, this Mexican immigrant has done nothing but work. His long shifts as a cook at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan do not leave him time for leisure, much less for exercising.

“In Mexico, I used to run three kilometers every morning, and on the weekends I would climb a hill and play soccer. But when you get here, it is different; everything changes,” said Cuapio, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes five years ago.

“There [in Mexico] I had a normal schedule from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I used to eat at regular times, I could rest and had time for sports. But here, sometimes I start working at 9 a.m. and do not get out until 11 p.m.,” said Cuapio, who lives in New York. 

His case is very common. Studies have shown that most immigrant workers who come to New York and other cities in the U.S. have a hard time exercising or staying active.  

“These people work a lot and do not have as many leisure hours as they used to have, to get together with their friends at the park. Many work up to 12 or 13 hours a day,” explains Lorena Drago, a diabetes educator at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.

Drago, who volunteers with the American Diabetes Association (ADA), says that the lack of time comes on top of low incomes.

Experts point out that because of cultural barriers and the poverty in which many of them live, Latinos do not have adequate access to places where they can practice sports and recreational locales like gyms. There is also a lack of parks and safe green areas in the neighborhoods where minorities live. For this reason, Latinos can be at higher risk of becoming sedentary.

In a survey conducted by the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH), when asked if they had exercised during the last month, 41% of Hispanics answered “no.” They are the most sedentary group when compared to African-Americans (31%), whites (34%) and Asians (22%).

On the other hand, the report “Diabetes in New York City: Public Health Burden and Disparities” (2007) indicates that adult immigrants do not exercise as much as recommended: 30 minutes a day, five or more days a week. Also, a large percentage reports that they do not walk or ride a bike at least 10 blocks while going from home to work or vice versa, or to run errands.

Other analyses, including some conducted by the Consulate of Mexico in New York, have concluded that many Mexican immigrants, especially those coming from rural areas, used to do more physical activity during the day, because they would walk more, did not depend on public transportation or worked in the fields. Which means that they used to be more active during their daily routines—but that changes when they get to the U.S. and assimilate into its lifestyle. 

“If they are immigrants from rural areas, the impact of acculturation will be much more than if they come from urban areas,” said Dr. Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, a professor of nutrition sciences, epidemiology and public health at Yale University. 

Pérez-Escamilla conducted the study “The Role of Acculturation in Nutrition, Lifestyle, and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes among Latinos,” in which he concludes that “physical inactivity is one of the major risk factors for health, which include obesity and the development of Type 2 diabetes.”

Women are at high risk

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicate that Mexican-American women have higher levels of physical inactivity than men when it comes to leisure time. The survey found that women were less likely to have exercised recently. 

“When studies separate leisure physical activity from physical activity related to a job, what they find is that Hispanic women spend much more energy and do more activity because of their type of job, but they have less time and energy for leisure physical activity,” said Pérez-Escamilla, who is also director of the Center for Eliminating Health Disparities among Latinos at the University of Connecticut.

“Meaning, they do not go to the gym or running with their girlfriends; they do not put on tennis shoes and go out for a walk, to jog with their children or ride a bike; and they do not go swimming,” added Pérez-Escamilla, who said this is because for the most part he is referring to working women earning low incomes.
That is the case of Silvia Luna, a 41-year-old Mexican who is a native of Guerrero and lives in Brooklyn County. “I do not have any time to exercise. I get home from work very tired daily to prepare food, because I try to cook every day for the family,” said Luna, a mother of two who works as a housekeeper. Although she tries to eat well, Luna recognizes that she has gained weight because of her low level of physical activity. 

That also happens to Sandra Bravo, another Mexican who, although younger, does not exercise either. “I do not have time to do absolutely any physical activity. Only when the summer comes, I walk from work to home or vice versa, but I do not do any other type of exercise,” said Bravo, a 28-year-old immigrant who makes a living cleaning houses.  

According to the Office of Minority Health (OMH), in 2007 73% of Mexican-American women in the U.S. were overweight or obese compared to 61.6% of non-Latino women. That makes them more likely to suffer from Type 2 diabetes.

“I do not have diabetes, but I do have very high cholesterol. My doctor told me that I must take many precautions in order to avoid this disease,” said Silvia Luna who, like Sandra Bravo and many other Mexicans, has a family history of Type 2 diabetes. “My mother had diabetes and she could not lead a normal life because she suffered many complications from the disease. She died because they gave her an insulin overdose that caused a heart attack.”