Arab American College Students' Physical Activity and Body Composition: Reconciling Middle East-West Differences Using the Socioecological Model

Article excerpt

In this study, I conducted focus group interviews with 21 Arab American college students (9 men, 12 women; 9 Muslims, 12 non-Muslims), who were selected for extreme manifestation of religiosity or acculturation, to explore their beliefs and attitudes toward socioecological (SE) factors that facilitated and hindered their individual physical activity (PA) and body composition (I also considered body image and food and eating behavior). To analyze responses, I used a combination of deductive coding, which used levels of the SE model and demographic variable groupings, and inductive coding, to search for common themes among participants within and between research questions. Results revealed that (a) the context of physical activity participation differed by gender; (b) ideal body image was conflicted and varied by gender; and (c) consumption of cultural foods diminished along with Arab social customs related to eating. Interpersonal and cultural/community levels of the SE model were identified as primary influences, with parents regulating and instilling values backed by cultural norms to preserve Arab identity, especially in women. Finally, I identified an indeterminate adjustment period, during which immigrants transitioned between physical activity purpose/form in the Middle East and the United States.

Key words: acculturation, ethnic minority, health behavior, qualitative research


The effects of physical inactivity and obesity have long been studied. Research that focuses on these two conditions and their correlates among racial and ethnic minorities in the United States is growing. California's population of Arab Americans, the group of focus in this study, is ranked first in number in the United States, with 12% of the state's population living in San Diego County, the location of the present study (Arab American Institute, 2003).

There is a moderate yet growing database on morbidity status within the Arab American community. Of note is the prevalence of coronary heart disease risk factors (Hatahet, Khosla, & Fungwe, 2002) and diabetes (Jaber et al., 2003). More specifically, Arab Californian first-generation immigrants experienced significantly higher proportional mortality ratios (range = 1.28-2.04) for coronary heart disease and diabetes than non-Hispanic U.S.-born Caucasians (Nasseri, 2008). Despite accumulating evidence of morbidity among Arab Americans, there is little research on their physical activity behavior. Considering physical activity's link to coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008)--diseases to which Arab Americans are vulnerable--this gap in research needs to be addressed. Results of international studies suggest that Arabs engage in less leisure-time physical activity compared to other ethnic/religious groups in countries such as Canada (Tremblay, Bryan, Perez, Ardern, & Kartzmarzyk, 2006) and Sweden (Lindstrom & Sundquist, 2001).

To address this gap, Kahan (2007, 2009) conducted studies of Middle Eastern college students in California to ascertain overweight prevalence, physical activity status, and their respective correlates. Table 1 depicts results of these studies. Taken together, descriptive findings suggested that men were more prone to overweight, while women were less active; however, the complex combination of correlates associated with these outcomes only describe and do not explain observed trends.

Explanatory data gleaned from ecological analyses of barriers to physical activity may yield "...effective, targeted interventions...designed to alleviate barriers within specific categories, which are systematically interconnected" (Gyurcsik, Spink, Bray, Chad, & Kwan, 2006, p. 705). The interacting tiers of the social ecological model (Sallis & Owen, 2002)---intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional/ organizational, community, and public policy--may be particularly salient to Arabs (Shuval et al. …