Study Shows Steps Lesbian, Bi Women Can Take to Be Healthier

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday September 4, 2016

Although Janet Seldon is overweight, the San Francisco resident considers herself to be healthy.

"There is a difference," said Seldon, 62, a lesbian and an attorney who works for a local nonprofit, noting that people can be "healthy at any size."

Concerned about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Seldon six years ago joined the San Francisco Walking Dykes. The women would meet every Saturday in Golden Gate Park and walk together.

"It grew out of this other group that was a brunch group. We decided we wanted to do something healthier," said Seldon. "It was more fun to meet and talk to people while walking."

She also took part in a UCSF study called Mindful Eating that had her and the other participants engage in a variety of activities, from writing and talking about their emotions to stretching exercises and meditating.

"It worked because it was not just focused on how many calories should you eat to lose weight," said Seldon, who declined to reveal her current weight but did say she has lost 15 pounds in recent years. "It is not about losing weight but being more active in life."

Seldon was also involved in a study based at San Francisco State University called DIFO, short for Doing It For Ourselves. It was part of a groundbreaking federally funded study focused on lesbian and bisexual women over 40 who are at risk for weight-related illnesses.

"The whole point is if you are focused on losing weight, you should not be focused on just dieting and exercising. It might not be the best diet and might not be the best exercise," she said. "There is more to it than that, like your emotional needs and spiritual needs."

Numerous studies over the years have found that adult lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to be obese than their heterosexual counterparts. Yet national weight-and-fitness interventions tailored to their needs are lacking, contend health experts.

To address this disparity, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health launched the initiative Healthy Weight in Lesbian and Bisexual Women: Striving for a Healthy Community, which involved culturally tailored interventions of 12-16 weeks in 10 cities across the United States.

The study results, published in July in a supplement to the journal Women's Health Issues, found that the intervention was effective at helping lesbian and bisexual women improve their health behaviors.

"The main goal of this study was to create safe and supportive environments across the country where lesbian and bisexual women could solely focus on their health," stated Jane McElroy, Ph.D., a lesbian and associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

The lead author of the article reporting the study results, McElroy was also the principal investigator of Living Out, Living Actively, one of the five programs created in the study.

"We are hopeful that these results will motivate other communities to develop tailored interventions to support lesbian and bisexual women achieving the active healthy lives they desire," she said.

Of the 266 women who took part in the various research groups associated with the study, nearly 60 percent of the participants increased their weekly physical activity minutes by 20 percent while 29 percent decreased their waist-to-height ratios by 5 percent.

Steps the women took were as simple as parking farther away from store entrances, going for a walk after dinner, or choosing to take the stairs rather than the elevator, said McElroy. What they should not do, she added, is stress over how much they weigh.

"Women should be concerned about being a healthy weight. It is not about your weight, it is about feeling good physically and mentally about the weight you are at," she explained.

Ninety-five percent of the study participants achieved one of the health objectives, which included nutrition goals as well as targets for physical activity and weight loss, while 58 percent achieved three or more.

"I don't think the women were focused on their weight at all. They were more focused on feeling healthy and being active," said Suzanne Haynes, Ph.D., a lesbian and senior science adviser at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.

The key finding from the study, said Haynes, is having programs designed specifically for lesbian and bisexual women.

"If you go to a regular weight loss system it is not there. They are not tailored for lesbian and bisexual women," said Haynes. "The women didn't want to get on a scale. They were of the mindset that is irrelevant."

Many lesbian women, noted Haynes, aren't as concerned about their weight as many heterosexual women are, and tend to be more attracted to women who are overweight.

"They need support and need safety and someone speaking with them who is not going to judge them for being obese," said Haynes. "We think that someone should be lesbian or bisexual. They need to have a safe place to discuss these issues and what their concerns are."

The HWLB intervention involved five different programs developed through partnerships between research organizations and LGBT community organizations. Each program enrolled lesbian and bisexual women ages 40 and older who were overweight, and involved weekly group meetings, nutrition education, and physical activity, as well as pre- and post-intervention surveys.

In the Bay Area, residents of Berkeley and San Francisco took part in the Women's Health and Mindfulness study. And the DIFO study based at SF State enrolled 160 women from Berkeley, El Cerrito, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol.

That study taught the women mindfulness, or how to pay attention to the present moment, and how one's sense of energy and comfort is affected by different kinds of food. The women also learned what kinds of physical activities were more enjoyable and feel good on the body.

"A simple group program can have major impact on a woman's sense of well-being," said SF State professor of health education Michele Eliason, 63, a lesbian who lives in San Francisco and oversaw the DIFO study. "We can take control of our own health and help each other as a community."

San Francisco resident Dana Vinicoff, 63, a lesbian who is now retired, took part in the study at SF State. She declined to reveal her exact weight, saying that she falls under the medical definition for being obese.

"I have never been happy with my weight," said Vinicoff, adding that she nonetheless has "given up on trying to lose weight. It is ineffective and a drag. Every time I have tried it, I regained every pound I lost and gained more."

Instead of worrying about calorie counts or shedding pounds, Vinicoff instead tries to remain active. She has taken dance classes, done yoga, and practiced tai chi in order to get off the couch and out of the house.

But she acknowledged that, with being single, she struggles to remain committed to a routine exercise regimen.

"I try to get out and walk more," said Vinicoff, "but I prefer to do things with other women."

She has continued to take part in DIFO programs that Eliason has organized for women interested in remaining involved now that the federal study has concluded.

"Just getting out of the house and talking to others is a very good thing," said Vinicoff. "Having the support for the changes I am trying to make in my life is also very helpful."


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