The National Institutes of Health awarded Cal Poly kinesiology professor Suzanne Phelan a $3 million grant this past summer to conduct research on low-income mothers. The research, which will be done over the course of five years, will study the effects of weight-retention after pregnancy, specifically on those women who are 15 pounds or more over their pre-pregnancy weight.
Phelan said factors such as managing households, taking care of children and the added stress from being in a low-income situation make it difficult for these women to focus on losing weight after pregnancies.
“I think the low-income women have a high-risk of postpartum weight-retention,” she said.
Phelan is working in cooperation with Cal Poly Science through Transitional Research in Diet and Exercise (STRIDE) to implement the study.
STRIDE project coordinator Anna Brannen said the significance of this research could change the lives of women who are struggling with obesity.
“We know that someone who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy is more likely to have Type 2 diabetes later in life,” Brannen said. “Long-term goals are seeing a significant impact for women in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.”
The program will include approximately 400 low-income women in the two counties who retained 15 or more pounds after pregnancy. Phelan will place them into two groups — one group will be given access to an online weight loss program, including bi-weekly newsletters, encouraging text messages and a website devoted to helping them lose weight. The other will be a control group.
Phelan and Brannen conducted a pilot study during summer to see if the program idea would work. Over three months, they worked at the California Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinic, performing similar treatments to what the real study will include.
“The study was not big enough to find statistically significant results,” Phelan said. “It was more to say, ‘Look, we can do this.’”
During the first year of the program, women will be selected and screened to ensure they are eligible. Then, over the next four years, Phelan and her team will implement the treatment by giving women access to the materials online.
Students from Cal Poly will follow up with the women and visit them at their homes in order to record weight loss and other variables that will be used to analyze the data later.
Phelan said getting students involved is exemplary of Cal Poly’s “Learn By Doing” philosophy.
“They’re learning first-hand how to act with people who are low-income and potentially have different cultural backgrounds,” Phelan said. “And they’re learning how to do assessments with women with lots of kids running around. It’s like real world experience. They’re going to have a snapshot into the lives of these women and have hands-on experience both from a clinical assessment perspective to a researcher’s perspective to see how real research is done.”
Anna Stewart, who graduated from Cal Poly in spring 2011 with a master’s degree in kinesiology, is working with Phelan on the research and measurements. Because she is taking measurements from the women, she said she is “blinded” to some details of the project and is not privy to everything going on.
“We’ll be administering questionnaires, weight measurements (and) looking at calories, proteins (and) how much they’re eating,” Stewart said.
The grant money will be spent on sending researchers such as Stewart to the women’s homes, as well as paying the women to participate in the study.
Phelan said she hopes the methods used in her study will be successful, so they can be implemented on a larger scale and help low-income women outside of the two counties where the research is being done. She is working closely with WIC to make sure everything done in the study can be repeated by it on a larger scale.
The study is designed to ensure that women from all different cultural backgrounds can participate, Brannen said. The pilot study has been fully translated to Spanish, and Brannen is working to make sure images on the website the feature people of different races.
“We’re making it so any race, ethnicity or cultural background can participate,” Phelan said.
STRIDE uses resources from throughout the university to work on several projects each year, Phelan said. In this particular study, members of the statistics, computer science and modern languages departments will be assisting the kinesiology department with the research and data analysis.
“It’s taking the program out of a paper, out of a grant, and making it into an actual program,” Brannen said. “I’m taking someone else’s brainchild, which right now are just words on a grant, and making it into a reality.”